By Benny Sun
America’s school systems are broken. With George Floyd protests proliferating across the country, Americans are now reflecting upon the many deeply-flawed institutions including criminal justice courts, housing policies, and now schooling. Recent reports indicate that the alarming prominence of “intensely segregated schools” where whites are less than 10% of the student body population has tripled in the last 20 years. Now, nearly 42% of Latinos and 40% of African Americans attend minority-majority schools which severely lack in quality, funding, and equal treatment. While Brown v. Board of Ed was a landmark case passed 66 years ago in favor of racial equality in schooling districts, these sentiments have unfortunately not been reflected in the United States.
For instance, New York City’s school district, home to an extremely racially-divided education system, has been called on to revamp its admissions process. Elite high schools in New York including Stuyvesant and Manhattan Beacon employ a standardized-test based admission process, allowing wealthy students to hire private tutors while poorer students are left behind. For this reason, these elite schools have incredibly low racial diversity rates: in Stuyvesant, only 4% of its student population is Hispanic, Latino, or African American. However, to better understand how the public school system has failed racial minorities, we must first understand the historical context of America’s unequal school systems.
To begin, Brown v. The Board of Ed. was simply not followed through by states. During the 1950s and 1960s, nearly 1,000 school districts remained as segregated as before the ruling. This was because a plethora of southern states clashed with lower and federal courts, bringing in any method of slowing down the process of desegregation. As such, a desire for a truly ambitious education reform failed. Moreover, in the years following World War 2, the 1950s saw a period of immense rapid population and housing shortage, prompting the emergence of suburbs around large cities. Under this new development, “white flight” occurred where wealthy white families moved to predominantly white-majority suburban towns, creating racial-minority areas in poor cities and separating high-echelon neighborhoods.
As a result, white-majority neighborhoods grew more prosperous while living standards in urban areas declined due to a depleted tax base. Even though school segregation was banned in 1954, because of the vast separations in areas, busing projects to bring low-income students into higher-quality schools were scrapped altogether. In the worst case, Boston’s Busing project in the 1970s erupted in violence, as white residents harassed racial minorities through insults and threats. Moreover, during the 1980s, the rollback of legal mandates allowed white families to “splinter” from existing districts, separating their school funding and population from the poorer district. Thus, school segregation existed very much in spirit. These impacts are manifest in two important outcomes in schooling districts across the United States: lack of funding for poor districts and consistent separation.
Education spending across the country is widely inconsistent among school districts. States like New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts with fewer lower-income students of color spend twice as much on their students compared with states like Mississippi with a larger population of low-income students. Unfortunately, these fewer dollars means that school districts with less resources provide less services such as more personalized teaching, important field trips, and resources like computers (all essential to the learning process). On the other hand, poorer districts suffer from significantly lower standardized test scores because they are unable to acquire textbooks or test-prep books for teaching materials.
As stated before, the sources behind fewer resources originate from the highly-concentrated areas of poverty areas that some minority students grew up in. Because of the massive white-flight movement in the 1950s, racial-minority families in mostly urban areas were stuck in the cities, where property values sunk and schools saw decreases in funding. Thus, local governments were less able to collect property taxes, the main mechanism for funding schools. For this reason, school quality began dropping off, creating a vicious cycle that pushed more wealthy areas away from these neighborhoods due to poor education. These effects are already well documented: a report by the US Department of Education found that the 20% reduction of pupil-spending in districts is correlated with a whopping 25% reduction in future income gains.
Even if richer families reside near minority-majority school districts, they often do not attend these schools. In a study revolving around the National Educational Longitudinal Survey during the 1980s, Dr. Robert Farlie and Alexandra Resch from MIT discovered an alarming fact: white families simply reverted to nearby private schools instead, cementing the prevalent segregated school district problem. This becomes extremely problematic, as not only does school integration receive less political backing, but interacting with people from all different backgrounds is crucial for raising an open-minded society. By establishing an integrated school district with all races, studies show that these places help white students “overcome prejudice”, while Black and Latino's students receive higher test scores. In some instances, the achievement gap was cut in half in math and one-third in English.
The solution for America’s deeply-divided public schools is tricky, but still possible. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, there are no “neighborhood schools”. Instead, all residents choose their top school choices and district administrators select a match based on socioeconomic factors and preference to ensure an integrated school experience. In New York City, the city council has attempted to push school districts towards integration through offering grants, where schools that develop an integration model are rewarded with extra funding. Luckily, last year, Brooklyn started to craft an admissions process that no longer requires standardized tests. However, without addressing the root of the problem, segregation will still exist in housing.
Overall, because school segregation is entirely based on neighborhood demographics and median income levels, the United States will remain divided unless a major shift occurs soon. As long as Americans are determined to draw lines around each other, whether physical or social, racial progress will be stymied by the lack of educational and economic opportunities that racial minorities face. Learning to live together amidst ethnic and economic tensions may seem impossible right now, but it is the only way Americans can learn to set aside their differences. Through dismantling school and neighborhood segregation, the United States would be one step closer to fulfilling the wish from Brown v. Board of Ed 60 years ago.