Monday, June 05, 2006

De Facto v. De Juro Segregation and Public Education

The Louisville Courier Journal (my city's newspaper) has just reported that Jefferson County Public Schools will have to defend their desegregation plan before the U.S. Supreme Court because *gasp* it actually considers the race of students in its plan to keep public schools integrated. My how things have changed since 1974, when Jefferson County Public Schools was last brought before the Supreme Court because it wasn't doing enough to prevent segregation in schools!

There are two kinds of segregation: de juro (that is, "by law") and de facto (that is, "by fact," or "as a matter of fact"). There is no de juro segregation allowed by law anywhere in the United States. This is not news. Because of this, some people mistakenly believe that there is no segregation in the United States, and more specifically, in Louisville, KY. This is simply a mistake.

I know an older person who is now looking for a new house. This person is not rich, and has grown up in a rural area with almost no black people. Their current neighborhood has never had a black person living in it. But now, for reasons beyond their control, they have to move into the city. Without much money, most of the neighborhoods which their realtor took them to visit were what they called "mixed" neighborhoods - that is, blacks, whites, hispanics, asians, etc. living together.

In response to this, they informed their realtor that they did not want to live in a mixed neighborhood. There are a number of legally and/or morally permissible responses that a realtor can give to this statement, which is essentially a request for what is known as "steering." But, the fact is, while there are both rules and laws against it, "steering" happens all the time, in subtle ways. "Steering" is when a realtor chooses to show houses based primarily or exclusively on the race of the buyer, and it is one of the many, many causes of de facto segregation. But the realtor in question, whose name I don't know or I would probably report them, did not avail himself (I can at least give away his gender, even if I won't give away even the gender of the person who asked to be steered) of any of these permissible answers. Instead he fed into any number of negative stereotypes when he said, "I can't take you to a white neighborhood for the kind of money you're talking about."

In saying that he let out a not so well kept secret of Louisville: if the price is right, you can surround yourself with pretty much whoever you want, including and especially people who look just like you. Sure, there are exceptions to this. One of the teenage girls in my Sunday School class, despite being black, lives in one of the whitest areas of Prospect. (For those of you how don't know Louisville, Prospect is the product of the white flight which followed desegregation. It is, like certain neighborhoods or townships right outside an urban area, the last bastion of the white elite.) But those exceptions are few and far between, leading to largely desegregated areas.

There are also areas of Louisville which have almost exclusively black populations, along with areas that are predominantly hispanic or asian, or even African. Each of these areas are made this way not by some law, but rather because people choose to live near others who remind them of themselves, and because certain minorities and immigrant populations cannot afford to escape the areas in which they have been placed by the economic reality of property value.

Those who wish to say that public life and especially public schools have been effectively desegregated need to consider what would really happen if the school system were allowed to fight only de juro segregation (which no longer exists) and not de facto segregation, which, as its name suggests, is a fact of life.

But I'm not sure that the current "powers that be" have any interest in ensuring that public schools remain desegregated, and that is what concerns me most about my fair city's upcoming appearance before the Supreme Court. There has been of late a well published assault on public schools in America, giving the appearance of a "crisis." The answer to this crisis, of course, has consistently been not investment in "failing" schools, but rather the closing of those schools. The answer has been not an investment in teachers and resources for public schools in general, but rather an investment in "vouchers" to get middle class (and especially white) kids out of the public schools altogether, and into private ones.

There are a number of problems with this plan, and a number of falsehoods on which this plan is based. I have not the time, energy, interest or expertise to pick apart each of these problems and falsehoods. But I will briefly address two important ones. This first is a falsehood, the second a problem.

Earlier I placed the word "crisis" in quotation marks. I did this because I believe (on the basis of some good evidence) that the "crisis" has been, for ideological reasons, inflated far beyond where the data concerning school performance leads. Neo-cons, who still revere Ronald Reagan and his mantra that government is the "problem," not the "solution," consistently try to privatize areas of public concern. The plan for school vouchers is just one privatization among many.

But, in order to privatize areas of public interest you have to establish that the public is failing, and that the problem could be better handled by private entities. Absent really good evidence for this, the axiomatic position that government is bad and the private sector good can lead to a great deal of manipulation, misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the existing data. The performance of public education in the United States is but one example of this.

The "crisis" of public education is founded on, among other things, the fact that American student test much more poorly than their first world competition in math and science. There is good data to support this view, if you conveniently overlook the context of this data. And, of course, overlooking the context of data is easy to do when the numbers you have seem to support your prejudices. However, a more careful look at the data concerning American students performance in math and science tells a much different story.

It turns out that each of the nations who outperform the United States on standardized tests in math and science educate and test a much smaller percentage of their students. That is because in both Western Europe and Japan, our "competition," students are put on "tracks" very early on. If you don't show an academic aptitude very early on, odds are you won't get the chance to have anything other than a vocational education.

I can't say whether or not this is a good idea. It violates my moral intuition, but I haven't studied education methods enough to know whether or not, ultimately, that is the best way of doing things. I do know, however, that it is not our way of doing this, and that it skews the data which comes from these standardized tests in math and science.

That is because all American students, and not just those who have been deemed worthy of a higher education, are subject to testing in math and science. And so many of the kids who represent America would never have been called on to represent any of the "competing" countries. When you divide the population of American students along the same lines that they are divided elsewhere, the numbers start to look much different.

It turns out that the top American student match up perfectly well against the top students from all over the world. And the middle of the pack students match up well against the middle of the pack students from elsewhere. The worst (non-special needs) student fare much better than the worst students from Western Europe and Japan, because at least we have tried to educate them.

(Sorry I can't show you the study: I read about it this past weekend in the New York Times at my parent's house. Not having a subscription to the Times or a membership at the website, I can't call up the article from my computer. Brian, could you try to find it for me, please?)

Connected to this is the problem of school vouchers. Vouchers, it turns out, are for enough money to help get middle class kids out of underperforming public schools and into private ones. But they aren't for enough money to pay for all of the tuition and expenses which come with a private education, and so families who don't have disposable income aren't helped at all by vouchers. This leaves the poorest students to fend for themselves in public schools which are being ribbed of their talent and resources. It is, in other words, not just a bad philosophy (public subsidies for private entities), but also bad policy which makes the divide between the haves and the have nots greater instead of less.

All of this contributes to the problems mentioned at the top of this post. While there are some problems which need addressing in our public schools (class size, teacher quality, teacher compensation, discipline, etc.) our schools are not in the state of crisis that those who would see them privatized seem to think that they are in. They do, however, ensure a quality education for all students, regardless of race or class.

And, they are under attack by those who think that government is the problem rather than the solution. My fear is that the U.S. Supreme Court will, in their approach to the issue of how Jefferson County Public Schools ensures a desegregated student population, lob another bomb in the war against public education. After all, our experience with segregation should have taught us that whether it is a matter of law or just a matter of fact, separate is never equal.

8 comments:

Liam said...

Excellent post, Chris. I think your point about testing against international students is a good one, and I've always felt uncomfortable with German style education (you take a test at age 11 and they decide you're going to be a plumber). Your point about vouchers is also right on.

I would say there is a crisis in public schools, though certainly not the kind the conservatives talk about. The crisis is not because public schools, as public schools, do not function, but because school funding is tied into location, which is tied into income level. If you are in Marine County, the public schools are very good. If you are in the South Bronx, however... And the worst thing is that schools in really bad neighborhoods need even more resources to combat the social problems that have screwed up kids even before they get to kindergarten.

Jonathan Koziol's "Savage Inequalities" is very good on this -- very much recommended by my love, imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis, the social worker.

Brian Cubbage said...

Chris, I will look up the NYT article at my first opportunity. Was it only available to TimesSelect subscribers or something? Most of the articles in the paper are available for free online with a free site registration.

A few things to ponder:

1) You're right that American public schools don't sort their students with nearly the same rigor as school systems in many other countries (like Germany). But the difference is a difference of degree, not of kind. Large school systems in the US-- Jefferson County Public Schools here in Metro Louisville, for instance-- do have a very distinct set of "tracks" that students end up sorted into at a very young age, based on things like grades, test scores, and the judgment of teachers and guidance counselors. Whether it's true or not, overachieving middle-class parents here in Louisville view a child's sorting into anything less than the "Advanced Program" as more or less a death sentence.

The difference is that even in the lower tiers, students get the full curriculum, just perhaps at a lower level and taught in a less interesting way.

2) It's not just conservatives in the Bush administration who are in favor of school vouchers; there's wide support for them among the black middle class. There's considerable debate within the black community over the black middle class-- its actual size, its political and social loyalties, and so forth-- but they see vouchers as a way of getting their kids out of schools that governments have effectively abandoned. They see them, in other words, as a tool they can use to take their children's futures into their own hands.

I generally disapprove of vouchers for the exact reasons you mention. But the idea isn't just the responsibility of the "usual suspects" in BushCo.

3) If memory serves, Philadelphia's public school system underwent partial privatization about five years ago. The state stepped in and privatized it because it consistently underperformed (again, I think that's what happened). It seems that the experiment had mixed results. If we're in search of what might hypothetically happen if public schools were privatized, we could look at Philadelphia.

Very little of this gets to the issue of segregation the Supremes are taking up and that you discuss so well. I'll have to think harder about that.

Tom said...

I saw a documentary on the Philadelphia thing. It seems to me like it was longer ago then that. Anyway, from what I recall results were initially very good, then went down hill in a big way. I'll see if I can't find out more about it. I'm just going on what I remember having seen on some obscure channel a few years ago.

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom said...

What I was thinking about may have been this: A PBS show about Edison, the company that ultimately took over the privatization of Philadelphia’s schools.

A quote from the PBS online forum about that show:

Your show also pointed out that when Edison came into Wichita and spent a ton of cash it was successful. As it was not profitable, Edison could not afford the cash outlay. As cash decreased, Edison's results declined in Wichita and elsewhere. This is exactly what happened to public education in the first place. What was the state of pennsylvania expecting when they cut spending on public school education by 25%?

Tom said...

This reminds me a little bit about my job. I work for NORPASS, through the ITS (Intellegent Transportation Systems) program out of the Kentucky Transportation Center in the University of Kentucky's College of Engineering (lost yet?). ITS was started with funding from the federal government essentially to study what effect pre-clerance weigh station by-passing would have on highway safety.

The idea behind this is to issue transponders to vehicles which are read by equipment at the weigh stations prior to th pull-in, and carriers with good safety records do not have to actually pull into the scales to be inspected. This does two things. First, every time a truck pulls into and out of a weigh station there is an increased risk of a wreak as it merges. Less pull ins mean less wrecks at the scales. Second, by allowing the "good" (read= "safe") carriers to by-pass the scales it allows law-enforcement to focus on the carriers who have the most violations, cracking down on the "bad" ones.

As you can imagine this was found to have a tremedous positive effect on highway safety. At the end of the study, however, federal funding was eleminated (this was when Republicans took control of Congress in the mid 90s). Some of the states, like Kentucky, that had recieved federal money decided that the program was worth continuing and funded it for themselves. Other states did not decide to provide this funding. This left the door open for a private company to enter the weigh station by-passing scene.

PrePass is a private, for profit company that provides weigh station by-passing. They lease the equipment from the states that participate in their program and charge a fee for carriers to participate in it. Their objective is to enroll carriers and charge them for by-passing.

This means that the more carriers and vehicles that they can provide by-passing for the more money they make off of them. The system is then not limited to by-passing carriers who have good safety records and don't repeated have violations at the scales, but to all carriers. Law enforcement is no longer freed to focus on just the carriers that need their attention (as in the state funded systems), but ultimately on no one, as the money making objective becomes providing by-passing for everyone.

You can imagine what impact this has on highway safety, as ultimately there is little to no enforcement. These problems often seem to arise when private companies turn what was a program designed to serve for a public good (in this case highway safety) and turn it into a program designed to make money.

Brian Cubbage said...

Tom: Edison! That's the company whose name I couldn't think of! Yes, it may have been longer than five years ago. I will have to do a little homework.

Your story about PrePass is fascinating. It's a good object lesson in attempts to privatize the public good (and perhaps in figuring out what the underlying public good is in the first place). It seems, though, like PrePass would be an ideal candidate for stricter regulation. But would stricter regulation regulate them out of business by reducing their client pool? Is this the argument their lobbyists (if they have them) make to the regulatory agencies? And do political appointees accept it in the name of promoting small business?

Grrr.

Tom said...

Another quote on the Edison situation:

Dear FRONTLINE,

I just finished watching your special on the Edison Company and Chris Wittle, its founder. I am a teacher of Health and Physical Education with the School District of Philadelphia. My school (K-8)is located in the inner city and is in one of the most dangerous drug neighborhoods. Last year my school was taken over by Edison. After 27 years in education, I must say that it was the worst of my teaching career. As a teacher of HPE, I was forced to teach developmental reading five days a week, 90 minutes each day,to 25 3rd and 4th graders, with no training and more importantly, no certification.(Let me add that Art Ed. and Music Ed. teachers were also teaching reading) I consistently e-mailed the CEO of the PSD, Paul Vallas and Edison, with no replies from either for an entire school year. I continued to teach the reading program for one reason and one reason only, the love of my students. I don't disagree that reading is essential to growing and learning, but where else could I teach reading without a reading certification? Even the PA State Certification Office said that it would be "highly inappropriate" for a HPE teacher to be teaching developmental reading. When asked if I could refuse to teach it, I was told that if I did it would be considered "insubordination." This is just one issue of many I have with Edison.

Another is, as a teacher of HPE, with a M.Ed. in Kinesiology from Temple University, I literally taught nothing last year in the area of physical education. Why? Because the Edison schedule called for 2 classes (60 students) to be run consecutively in a gymnasium made for 30. Not only was it crowded and unsafe, the age of the groups often did not even come close and again more importantly, the children lost out.

Lastly, I would like to speak about the increase in discipline problems that took place this year. When Edison took over, they eliminated our three grade coordinators, who in years past, were the staff who handled the core of the discipline problems. Without them, all behavior problems (and there were many from age 5-15) were placed in the hands of the Academy Director (Assistant Principal). Edison's solution was to "swap" any problems with another teacher. Yea, that was a good idea (not)!!

I could continue, but it seems to be futile. Edison will be in Philadelphia as I understand it for at least one more year. let's hope it's the last.

Joanne Kelly
hatboro, pa