It is the great irony of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation case that celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, that segregation in our schools has gotten even worse, not better. Back in 1954, 17 states still had segregated schools and with court order from the highest court in the land, they were forced to desegregate. How successful were they? Not very. Take Missouri, one of those 17 states. Its most populous city, St. Louis, is still is one of the most segregated cities in the country and its schools are just as segregated as the urban area. But St. Louis is not alone, or even an outlier. New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, is the most segregated in the country.
In the past few weeks, in a host of opinion articles and media interviews, status quo defenders of America’s public school system sought to explain this troubling situation by focusing on their usual villains – those urging comprehensive education reform. They suggested that enduring racial divides in our schools were to be blamed on charter schools and newly emerging educational options, such as vouchers. Donna Brazile, for example, cited charter schools as part of the segregation problem in American education. As much affection as I have for Donna, it’s not a serious argument when the fact is that charter schools make up only 6 percent of the nation’s public schools.
Worse still, top officials in the Justice Department seem to believe in this mythological link between education reforms and segregation. Last year, the Department filed for an injunction to block the Louisiana school voucher program that was designed for low-income, and predominantly minority kids who were and remained trapped in failing schools. Using the spurious argument that the program exacerbated segregation, the Justice Department asked the Court to “permanently enjoin the State of Louisiana from awarding any school vouchers.”
Here are the facts. In Louisiana, 93 percent of the children benefiting from the Louisiana Scholarship Program are minorities, all of whom attend underperforming schools and are from low-income families. An independent analysis of the Louisiana voucher program concluded it has “no negative effect on school desegregation.” Those who take part in the program overwhelmingly are moving from one segregated school to another. The new school just happens to be a better school for them academically.
The bitter truth is that America’s schools have been segregated long before the advent of education reform, charter schools, opportunity scholarships and virtual learning. How did they become that way? America is a segregated country, both racially and socio-economically. White and middle class, Black and brown suburban flight left our city schools with primarily low income kids of color. Segregation is a fact of life in school systems in urban cities across the country.
If our Justice Department is serious about attacking segregation in K-12 education, wouldn’t it make more sense to sue New York than Louisiana? Or Missouri, especially since it was one of the 17 states ordered to desegregate?
So how do we end segregation? If you ask me, it all starts with education. And school choice isn’t its cause but its antidote.
The education reform and educational choice movements grew out of a desire to address our collective failure to give our least privileged citizens the education they deserve – not the education to which they’ve been condemned. Blaming those of us who believe in reform and choice doesn’t do anything to help those kids. It’s just a distraction. Getting our kids in good schools is part of the solution, not the problem. Let’s celebrate those outlying – but growing – educational choice programs that are educating kids that otherwise wouldn’t be educated.
Every student who receives a worthwhile education becomes one more child who can thrive in an integrated world. And for goodness sake, let’s stop finding reasons to fight against the innovation, creativity and success we are seeing in education that our citizens want and need.
Kevin Chavous is senior advisor and executive counsel for the American Federation for Children and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform.