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.
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