Students around the country are taught about America’s glorious victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the seminal moment that undid Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate but equal racial segregation.
Desegregation is touted as a gold standard of equality and progress. But ending segregation is different from creating integration, let alone justice and equity, especially considering that as of 2011, according to PBS, “the percentage of black students in majority white southern schools [is] just below where it stood in 1968.”
This lack of progress since Brown has led to calls for integration measures, notably in New York City where Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a measure that would expand the admissions process for the city’s coveted specialized public high schools — thereby securing more spots for black and Hispanic students at institutions that are currently dominated by Asian and white children.
It sounds progressive, decent, and just. But what if it’s not? What if, at the risk of sounding like a modern-day segregationist, integration isn’t the way forward? What if it’s not about the separate? What if it’s about the equal? What if our attempts to rectify the injustices of Plessy are wasted when we focus primarily on the separate, and not the equal?
Consider this: With school funding formulas in many states placing the brunt more on localities and their taxable wealth, it becomes a near-certainty that communities living in poverty will be served by chronically under-resourced schools while communities of wealth are served by thoroughly resourced schools.
Philadelphia and the surrounding region provide stark examples of this phenomenon. In 2016, In the School District of Philadelphia, a typical student was allotted $13,494 for their education. Cheltenham and Lower Merion, Philadelphia’s neighboring districts, allotted $22,498.83 and $28,172 respectively, per pupil.
Given such inequitable distribution of access to appropriately resourced education, many, like Mayor de Blasio in New York, look to integration as the remedy. But simply moving students in and out of schools won’t address these larger systemic inequities.
Moving kids into different schools to diversify student bodies is akin to putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.
The root causes of inequitable educational experiences are due to the long-standing racism in America’s social structures; red-lined neighborhoods, mass incarceration, and limited means of employment that resulted in the impoverishing of many black neighborhoods.
These factors, combined with the funding formulas that funded schools primarily on the backs of the local tax base ensured perpetuating a system that saw under-resourced schools serving under-employed and over-incarcerated communities of color.
Simply integrating school student populations maintains white control over nearly every other facet of societal power — including the so-called integrated school. Very few, if any, places in America today offer plans to integrate schools while at the same time integrating school boards, PTAs, principal, and teaching forces. That would be closer to true integration.
Integration as a standalone solution undervalues the power of black communities while overvaluing that of white communities.
The underlying assumption of too many desegregation attempts is that proximity to white students alone is, in and of itself, the seventh heaven of educational reforms.
While this form of integration is based upon the probably well-intentioned notion that placing black and Latino students into better-funded schools, where they will be in better physical environments and have access to improved educational resources is altruistic, it also has the unintended consequence creating the narrative that quality education lies within, and only within, schools that predominantly serve white students. It simultaneously perpetuates the notion of whiteness being superior, while failing to address the funding systems that made white educational spaces superior in the first place.
First, such an approach often lead to intra-school segregation wherein AP classes remain predominantly White and “lower” classes predominantly students of color. As noted in the Atlantic, “Black and Latino students make up 37 percent of high school students but only 27 percent of students taking an AP class [while] white and Asian students were more likely to go on to take AP courses. Sixty percent of Asian students with strong math skills took AP math, compared with 30 percent of black students with strong math skills, for example.”
Furthermore, mere integration it also plays into the fallacy of the white savior complex while doing nothing to address the systemic inequities that created unjust educational opportunities in the first place.
After all, if integration was as powerful a lever as many claim, why aren’t white kids being bused to poor black neighborhoods? It’s simple. Integration in this fashion moves black and brown kids to where the money is which also happens to be, not coincidentally, where the white kids are.
These are the deeply entrenched realities that need to be addressed. Funding formulas need to be revised so that schools serving families living in poverty receive increased funds to address the social-emotional needs of students living with the trauma that comes with growing up in a society built on and fertilized with racial injustice. A parallel issue that’s adjacent to schools, and simultaneously impacts them is mass incarceration.
For example, criminal justice reform needs to demilitarize police forces and disincentivize the incarceration of poor, predominantly black and brown communities who, as a result, will likely struggle to find gainful employment upon their release.
Integration alone misses the point because it assumes that the mere diversifying of student bodies will solve the problems of educational inequity. It won’t.
We need to stop tricking ourselves that simply shuffling students around until the schoolyard looks diverse will magically address inequitable access to quality education. The real work is harder because it’s about the almighty dollar. We need to abolish the alignment of school funding to localities’ taxable wealth. Only then will a child’s access to quality education not depend on their zip code.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.