How School Choice Reestablishes Segregation in Our Schools, and How the Federal Government is Complicit
The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education for the Trump Administration last February, in an interesting way, marked a deviance from the past. It was the first time a Vice President had to submit a tie-breaking vote in a confirmation vote for a cabinet position. Opponents to confirmation of DeVos voiced concerns about her family’s donations to Republican organizations as her way into the Cabinet, her past statements degrading public education, and her financial support for poor-performing charter schools in Detroit. But in one important regard, the DeVos confirmation is a continuation of a decades-long tradition. Since the Reagan administration, including the George W. Bush, Barack Obama administrations, charter schools have been promoted by the federal government. This promotion of school choice, among other things, is a significant reason for a increase of racial isolation and segregation in schools.
Background on School Segregation
Chief Justice Earl Warren, on May 14, 1954, delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court on Brown v. Board of Education stating “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The reaction among segregationists was to resist the desegregation orders that followed Brown.
The Little Rock Nine is one well-known example of Black students attempting to integrate Central High School, a previously all-White school, but facing fierce resistance. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used his power to prevent the integration efforts. President Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to force the integration and protect the Black students.
One year after the Brown ruling, in 1955, Milton Friedman, then an economist at the University of Chicago, proposed a new idea to solve the new “problem” in education in which the parents could not decide which schools their children went to. He developed the voucher system to provide choice to the parents. The voucher idea is simple: rather than all money earmarked for education going directly to (now integrated) public schools, the government should give each family a voucher worth as much as the per-pupil spending in that area. If parents wanted to send their kid to public school, the public school got their voucher money. But if a parent wanted to enroll their child in a private school, then the private school would receive that money instead.
While initially meant for Catholic families hoping to send their kids to Catholic schools, resistors of the Brown desegregation order quickly realized the utility of the voucher system in their fight against racial integration of schools. White Citizens Councils, an organizational arm of the massive White resistance to desegregation, opened private “segregation academies” or “Council schools” to provide alternatives for White students to the racially integrated public schools. In Prince Edward County in Virginia, the White power structure decided to close the public school rather than desegregate them.
Prince Edward County provided vouchers to every family, Black or White (in order to appear race-neutral), which they could use to attend any available school. The only schools available, however, were private all-White schools. Black families were simply out of luck. Under the premise of “providing choice” for students, White Resistors found a way to undercut the Supreme Court’s desegregation orders.
In 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court and a federal district court ruled that closing all public schools was unconstitutional, and ordered the schools to reopen. It took another five years for Prince Edward County to comply. Black students were without opportunities for formal education for years.
Throughout the 20th century, some of the only opportunities for quality education for Black students (and other students of color) were Freedom Schools. In Mississippi, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) began the Freedom Schools during Freedom Summer of 1964. The schools not only provided the education denied to Black students, but much needed empowerment as well. Through lessons in Black history, art, and culture, students were taught that their lives had value and they had real possibilities to succeed.
The only force pushing for desegregation in public schools seemed to be the progressive rulings of the Supreme Court. But in 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren retired and newly-elected Republican Richard Nixon got the opportunity to replace him. Nixon chose conservative Warren Burger to take the position as Chief Justice. The Supreme Court became stacked with conservative justices and progress toward Black educational equity quickly subsided.
Benefits of Racial Diversity and Integration
I believe that working to achieve racial diversity in schools for its own end is a virtuous endeavor. Schools do not exist outside of society, free from political and social issues that the “adults” work out while the kids attend their academic bubbles and just learn “the facts” of life. What we teach, how we teach it, and how we assess student learning are all inherently political choices that policymakers and education professional make. Schools are thus products of political and social decisions and debates around particular issues. Children learn how to present themselves, how to value themselves, how to work together, what to care about, etc. in school. Children are not blank slates who become instantly knowledgeable of the world around them upon graduation. If our schools are not racially diverse, if they never address race or racism in American society, if they never teach children to embrace differences and cooperate with people different than them, then we are doing them and everyone else a disservice.
Racial diversity in schools, beyond the moral arguments, has lasting implications for equality in our society. A 2014 study by Rucker Johnson published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Black students who attended integrated schools were more likely to graduate, go to college, and earn a degree than Black students in a racially isolated school. Those students from integrated schools made more 15% more money five years after graduation than students in racially isolated schools. White students did just as well. Attending racially diverse schools increased the likelihood of White students to later live in integrated neighborhoods and send their own children to racially integrated schools.
Resegregation of Public Schools
Unfortunately, schools today are resegregating, not desegregating. Most White students attend overwhelmingly White schools and Black and Latino students attend overwhelmingly Black and Latino schools. The degree of racial isolation is far worse for Black students in charter schools. 70% of Black students in charter schools attend such schools that are 90-100% non-White. This is twice as many Black students who attend such racially isolated traditional public schools. The traditional public schools are much better though. Over 50% of Black and Latino students attend schools at least 66% Black or Latino, respectively. In 2001, the typical White student attended a schools that was 80% White, even though only 60% of students nationwide were White.
Racial isolation hasn’t been this severe since White Resistance in the 1960s and 70s. Only today, alternatives to public schools aren’t called “segregation academies.” They are called “charter schools.” And rather than pulling White students out of public schools, they push Black students out of public schools (there are many factors pushing Black students out of school, but that is a blog post for another day).
Charter Schools: A Brief Introduction
Charter schools are education institutions that float between the public and private spheres. Like public schools, they receive public taxpayer money to operate, typically money that would have otherwise gone to the local traditional public school. Like private schools, charter schools are not held to the same oversight or accountability of public schools, and are commonly run not by elected school boards, but privately appointed boards.
Originally, charter schools had potential to revolutionize the field of education. By receiving public funds, they would be able to receive reliable funding. By being run by citizens (originally supposed to be teachers or other education professionals), they could have more freedom to experiment with new teaching and learning styles and techniques for students who were not succeeding in the traditional public schools.
Today, the vast majority of charter schools are not run by former or current teachers or concerned community members. They are owned and operated by for-profit companies. These companies see charter schools as just another capitalist enterprise. They open the charter schools, enroll students, and gain the public funds that travel with those students. Cashing the government checks per pupil, they spend as little money as possible hiring teachers and buying materials (they have to minimize cost to make a profit, right?) then pocket the rest. Again, these companies are in the business of making money, not educating students.
That’s why a public system of education exists in the first place, because educating children is not a market priority. In fact, it’s a market failure: no one wants to single-handedly pay for everything associated with education. So the government steps in, requires everyone to chip a little in (because everyone benefits from an educated citizenry and workforce) through taxes, then operates the school system. Because the market will not. Any yet “reformers” like Milton Friedman (and currently, Michelle Rhee (former education chancellor of Washington, DC), Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix), Bill Gates, Rahm Emanuel (Mayor of Chicago), and Arne Duncan (former Secretary of Education for the Obama Administration) ) wonder why the field of education has to “suffer” under a government regime.
This “reform” in education has been supported by the last three presidential administrations: Bush, Obama, and Trump. Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education under the Trump administration, is a staunch supporter of student choice and voucher systems (which have largely failed in Michigan, where she’s had done a lot of her work). Arne Duncan and John King, Obama’s Secretaries of Education, and Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first Chief of Staff, supported school closures and teacher turnover and corporate school boards and charter schools, etc. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which pushed schools to show constant improvement toward an impossible goal of 100% reading and math literacy. And schools who could not show improvement faced punishment such as fewer funds, school closure, and state takeover of the school board. Obama’s Race to the Top program largely continued the neoliberal corporate reform efforts of NCLB by forcing states to allow charter schools and school choice programs to exist in their jurisdictions to get much-needed extra funding from the federal government.
Racial Segregation in Charter Schools
There are many ways schools can be racially segregated without explicit rules that dictate racial separation. Many supporters of charter schools believe that school segregation is not actually possible if there are no laws requiring racial separation. The same argument was used by White Citizens Councils in the 1950s and 60s. Today, traditional public schools are highly segregated because of White Flight, discriminatory federal housing policies, racist property-selling practices, and intentional school district boundaries between neighborhoods. Between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of K-12 public schools comprised mostly (that is, 75% or more) of Black or Latino students more than doubled. This segregation is exacerbated by school choice programs. Charter schools, mostly operating in urban areas, are known to be more racially isolated.
RESOURCE SEGREGATION. While school policies may be “race-neutral” on their face, there are multiple factors at play which can increase segregation. If school choice policies do not offer any transportation programs to get students to their school of choice, then the choice is very limited for low-income families. Even if they have a “choice” they still must choose their local traditional public school out of necessity (not another school further away), which may become more segregated as higher-income families and White families pull the few White and higher-income students from the local traditional public school and transport them to other (more White and higher-income) schools. In this way, the local traditional schools become the “schools of last resort,” with little funding to teach students with just as few resources.
Beyond material resources available to families, school resources perpetuate segregation and racial achievement gaps. School curricula have scant coverage of segregation (education, residential, etc.), especially as it occurred in the North. Even if textbooks (which many teachers rely on as the source of their curriculum) vaguely mention that Black citizens “found themselves forced in segregated neighborhoods,” as one textbook read, they rarely mention why that segregation existed and how it has proliferated throughout the decades. Avoidance of accurate and comprehensive racial history in curricular resources in schools means generations of citizens, policymakers, leaders, etc. will be ignorant of the ways racial segregation is reinforced by society and the institutions which form it. It is not surprising, then, that conversations around charter schools and school choice do not center the history of racial segregation in schools. Even Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos exemplified a lack of historical understanding regarding Black education equity when she praised historical Black colleges and universities for providing “choices” to Black students. She obviously failed to recognize that those HBCUs largely exist because of the lack of choice Black students faced in regards to institutions of higher education.
TESTING DISCRIMINATION. Most schools are judged by standardized tests. From these judgments (which many argue are invalid in the first place), schools are ranked as effective or ineffective. These judgments are not just made by inquiring parents, but federal and state programs that decide vital funding opportunities (a là No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, both federal programs that support charter schools). Unfortunately, bilingual and bidialetical children who speak African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) are disadvantaged by standardized tests written in Standardized English and assessed in Standardized English. Part of the testing gap between Black and White students may be caused by this linguistic gap.
In 2009, a New York Times article reported that “Between 2004 and , [standardized test] scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide.” “Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did [four] decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s,” the article went on to say.
On top of that, most standardized tests are graded by temporary workers who are completely in control of grading, led only by (vague) guidelines set by the testing company such as Pearson, the College Board (for AP exams), or Education Testing Services (for the GRE). If institutional discrimination is the accumulation of many instances of personal discrimination, then there is a clear analogous situation: racial discrimination in testing can be partly attributed to the accumulation of many instances of personal racial discrimination (typically subconscious bias) in temporary graders with no to little formal training in education. Thus the schools that are claimed to be “ineffective” because of poor test scores may be incorrectly labeled as such due to environmental factors beyond the control of the schools (ex. The language/dialect the students speak). And because school choice advocates can claim the “ineffectiveness” of the local traditional public schools, they can persuade powerful funding agencies to invest in their charter schools instead of the traditional public school, despite there being no evidence that the charter schools are any better. This is further evidence that school choice is not getting Black and Latino kids into better schools. School choice, still today, is meant to get the White kids out of the “failing” local schools.
RESIDENTIAL SEGREGATION. Most charter schools operate in urban areas, which may be one reason that they are so segregated. (It is well documented that because of residential segregation, White Flight, and discriminatory federal housing policies, urban areas tend to have a higher proportion of Black residents.)
Many urban areas are now so geographically isolated from White suburbs that voluntary choice programs, establishing magnet schools, or fiddling with school attendance zones can no longer enable many low-income black children to attend predominantly middle class schools. Suburban communities and school districts have resisted the establishment of charters in their areas. This is called the “suburban veto” of charter schooling, coined by legal scholar James Ryan. The suburbanites fear that their valued public school systems would be drained of resources if charters came in and voucher programs were created. This is ironic, of course, because their fears are based on observations of that exact outcome occurring in urban areas. Of course, it is suburban areas that typically vote for candidates and political parties that support school choice programs, as long as those programs only affect poor, urban areas filled with citizens of color.
The US Government Accountability Office found in 2016 that between the 2000-01 and 2013-14 school years, the percentage of K-12 public schools comprised mostly (that is, 75% or more) of Black or Latino students more than doubled, in addition to K-12 public schools of mostly (75% or more) high-poverty schools. Together, they accounted for 15,089 schools in 2013-14 (up from 7,009 schools in 2000-01). In percentages, that’s an increase of racial or socio-economic isolation from 9% to 16% of all K-12 public schools. The GAO report also finds that public charter schools are less diverse (that is, more segregated) than traditional public schools.
CLASSROOM SEGREGATION. Schools around the country suffer from racial discrimination in their academic programs, typically in the form of “tracking.”
Tracking is a practice in schools in which students are sorted by ability and taught in different environments tailored to their perceived abilities. Basically, smarter kids get more challenging curriculum, while less smart kids get a less challenging curriculum. Unfortunately, not only does evidence not support this practice as benefiting lower-performing students, but it more often than not suffers from problem of racial disproportionality. White students typically get sorted into more advanced classrooms at multiple times higher rates than Black or Latino students. According to former Assistant Secretary of Education Catherine Lhamon, who wrote in a letter to school districts across the country: “Schools serving more students of color are less likely to offer advanced courses and gifted and talented programs than schools serving mostly white populations, and students of color are less likely than their white peers to be enrolled in those courses and programs within schools that have those offerings.” In 2011-12, Black and Latino students represented 16% and 21% of all high school students, respectively. But they were only 8% and 12%, respectively, of students taking advanced-level calculus classes.
Legal Dismantling of Desegregation Programs
Unfortunately, school choice is not just championed by the executive branch. One significant reason for the proliferation of school choice systems is the retreat of the Supreme Court’s commitment to the desegregation effort that began in 1954.
FREEMAN V. PITTS (1992). In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in an unanimous decision that “where resegregation is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications.” In the decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court found that incremental changes targeted at ending de jure segregation was enough to comply with desegregation decrees from district courts. The issue with his ruling is that it differentiates between de jure (by law) and de facto (by fact) segregation, when it fact these two segregations are a false differentiation. De facto segregation exists because of many reasons, including residential discrimination and White Flight and purposeful drawing of school district boundaries to exclude communities of color. Since the Brown decision, White parents with means have voiced their opposition to desegregation “with their feet,” which is to say they moved. They moved to more-White districts or sent their children to private schools.
De facto segregation is a misnomer. There is no segregation that is accidentially, circumstantially, or randomly caused. There is no collection of “private decisions” devoid of “state action” because historic states action has, for centuries, shaped factors that have implications for private decisions.
The differentiation between de jure and de facto washes the hands of the federal government and local and state actors of the responsibility to work against discrimination. The implication of de facto segregation is that nothing can be done. “It’s just how it is. It’s just a fact of life.” In fact, the history segregation manifests itself in many ways, including who lives where. Freeman v. Pitts set up a dangerous precedent of allowing schools to accept segregation, just as long as its a result of “private choices.
PARENTS INVOLVED IN COMMUNITY SCHOOLS V. SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1 (2007). In 2007, in a case commonly called Parents Involved, the Supreme Court ruled that voluntary desegregation efforts were unconstitutional because they focused too much on the racial demographics of the schools. The Seattle School District allowed students to apply for enrollment in any high school in its district. In the case of tiebreakers to decide who went to which schools (in the event that more students applied to a school than seats were available), the school significantly considered the race of the student.
The intention was to maintain racial diversity in the schools. A group called Parents Involved in Community Schools sued the Seattle School District, claiming this tiebreaker was unconstitutional. In order to be deemed constitutional, the Court must find that the tiebreaker did not violate any student’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the tiebreaker did violate the constitution. Additionally, Seattle School District’s goal of maintaining racial diversity was not a constitutionally valid reason to consider the race of its students when deciding admittance.
Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the opinion, noted that race can be used to “remedy the effects of past intentional discrimination” (i.e. de jure segregation) But he (and the Court) ruled that Seattle schools were not using race in that manner because Seattle “had never been segregated by law.” Yet, in 1957, the first year the Seattle school board collected demographic data about its students after Brown, they found that only 5% of its students were Black, but 81% of those students were concentrated in just nine of the city’s 112 schools. Six of the city’s ten high schools had only five or fewer Black students each. Seattle had legal residential segregation laws until 1968. It is obvious that Seattle schools suffered from state-sponsored segregation, yet the Court refused to identify it because it would be labeled as “de facto” segregation, which is acceptable according to the Freeman v. Pitts decision.
Perhaps even more insidious than reinforcing the false differentiation between de jure and de facto segregation, Parents Involved codified a colorblind approach to school desegregation attempts. Allowing schools to try to maintain racial diversity through desegregation efforts would “effectively assure that race will always be relevant in American life,” which the Court deemed as harmful. This fear of race being relevant was one reason they rejected the desegregation efforts in Seattle.
Furthermore, here is what Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion in Parents Involved (2007): “For schools that never segregated on the basis of race, such as Seattle… the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Robert’s logic, however, is flawed because in his view, any discrimination must be negative and based in prejudice. Discrimination is this case refers to the pure act of separating into groups, not the colloquial definition of prejudicially separating into groups according to perceived value or superiority. Identifying students according to their race, not with the intention of racially dividing them, but racially integrating the schools, has a positive impact of battling the historical and social effects of segregation.
Sharon Browne, the principal attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, the organization fighting the desegregation program in Seattle for Parents Involved in Community Schools, believes that “teaching our kids that race matters […] is just plain wrong.”
After listening to oral arguments today, it seems like it could be a clear message that the Court is going to be sending to school districts: that race discrimination or the use of race in assigning students to public schools will not longer be allowed or even considered by school districts. What it does is it amounts to race discrimination and race discrimination is wrong. [The case] requires the district to eliminate the consideration of individual characteristics. The Equal Protection Clause protects individuals, not groups.
The Supreme Court agreed with Browne’s colorblind approach. Unfortunately, this approach is just misguided. Theodore Shaw, the President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the same legal entity which argued Brown and many other school desegregation cases) pointed out being conscious of race is not always racist.
The broader issue [of the case] is whether or not it is going to be legal or constitutional in this country to voluntarily and consciously do anything about racial inequality. And for our adversaries… it is very clear. There is no stopping point on that. They believe that outside of a court order, it should be illegal to do anything that is conscious about race because they equate race consciousness with racism. And that is the only way you can get to the point where you say that efforts to integrate public education are somehow discriminatory and segregated. It is a boldfaced lie at worst. At best, it is steeped in ignorance. And it is a fundamental betrayal of what Brown was about, what the Legal Defense Fund has been about, and what this country says it is about. It is also a betrayal of Martin Luther King’s dream, which [Parents Involved in Community Schools] attempts to hijack in support of their colorblind America, which is really not about colorblindness, it is about blindness to the reality of continued racial inequality.
Shaw succinctly reiterates the flaws of the colorblind approach: that equating race consciousness and racism is a false equivalency. Unfortunately, Chief Justice Roberts and the majority of the Court succumb to this argument. And like Shaw said, that is not what Brown was about. Being blind to race in this country also means being blind to racial oppression: the history of it and its manifestations, subtle and overt, today. The Supreme Court has been moving away the just intentions of Brown for decades. Even voluntary desegregation efforts have been deemed unconstitutional.
In his first State of the Union Address, President Trump declared that school choice was the civil rights issue of this generation. The evidence suggests that, in fact, this is true. But not for the reasons Donald Trump believes. Most researchers, focusing on African American students, say that school choice vouchers have little to no effect on how students are performing in schools. This means that when parents send their children out of the community to go to, for instance, a charter school, not only does the public school in the neighborhood lose money to educate the students who remain, but also that the students who leave aren’t truly getting a better education elsewhere.
The school choice voucher system is founded on a lie: that students will get better education if they could just get out of those “failing” urban schools. In fact we see that charter students do no better academically. But the students in the public schools receive less funding and thus continue to “fail.” If the vouchers didn’t exist and the government gave all schools the same funding, then maybe the school wouldn’t be failing. School choice is resegregating students, reinforcing the achievement gap, and draining communities of vital funding and resources. School choice is in fact the “civil rights issue of our generation.” The fight is not how to grow the school choice system, as President Trump desires, but rather how to destroy it.
Racial integration of schools benefits students of all races. Desegregation has shown an increase academic performance of students; improvement of graduation rates, higher rates of employment, higher earnings in adulthood, avoidance of teen pregnancy, and lower rates of delinquency, homicide, and incarceration.
We cannot continue to regress back to school segregation. Chief Justice Warren wrote more than 50 years ago that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Whether schools are racially isolated because of segregationist laws or a “collection of private choices,” schools are hindered in their ability to provide effective, high-equality education. School choice programs fail to the isolating effects of colorblind ideologies, and are thus only perpetuating the problem. The federal government has been complicit in the resegregation of schools since the 1980s, no matter which party is in control. Something must be done. Our future is at stake.