by Guest writer Jose Vilson
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The prospect of integrating public schools has been nothing short of grim in the last six decades. Before mass movements of parents, students, and educators came out in favor of opting the students out of standardized tests, droves of white middle- and upper-class parents opted their students out of public education, and the most famous (or infamous depending on who you ask) catalyst for that was the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case featuring a young Thurgood Marshall. Private schools became more in vogue. Every step forward in the way of equity usually meant three steps back. That’s why it comes as no surprise that, whenever integration pilots come to fruition, they are met with unreasonable resistance.
The best research out there says that, not only do whites not suffer from racial integration, but also people of color actually achieve better. The end-all-be-all isn’t full integration itself either. Integration is an anti-racist strategy that suggests every child in this country is our child. School choice, whether that’s private and parochial schools, or charter and magnet schools, sounds fine when we apply an individual lens to the specific situation. The common rebuttal to integration is drenched in a strict capitalism: “You get yours and I’ll get mine.”
Even in ostensibly integrated schools, we see the color spectra play out where the white students learn on the top, magnet floor, and the students of color learn in the basement with their low expectations in tow. But if the research reinforces the positive effects of integration, our organizing has everything to do with making equity work for all.
In New York City, mayor Bill de Blasio started a pilot integration program in select schools across the city. New York City, unlike other school systems, combats the ridiculous local property tax laws – the main driver of school inequity – with dispersed state and federal funds directed to the neediest schools. That’s why a school in the neighborhood of Washington Heights with a high population of English language learners technically gets more funding than a school on the Upper East Side with a predominantly white, English-fluent students.
At the same time, the resistance to integration has been palpable in the last few years even in a politically “blue city.” In Brooklyn, de Blasio’s rezoning plan has been met with resistance from parties in both the predominantly black school of Public School (PS) 307 and the predominantly white school of PS 8, both for reasons that speak to historical inequity. In the Upper West Side, PS 199 isolationists have excused their fight against the rezoning with a predominantly black and Latino PS 191 by suggesting they’re doing the best they can, speaking in terms of misfortune and not to institutional racism.
How do we fight for better schools nationally, but contradict our actions with our local schools?
Our best advocacy is one in which all of our students benefit from our activism. Historically, education reform has always affected the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. They’re not voiceless; they’re simply unheard as both an individual and systemic matter of operations.When we normalize inequity by throwing suspicions at students who don’t look like they belong, or we set up a situation where we’re perfectly OK closing the gates to our schools so one kid continues to have an advantage over another, that’s what inequity looks like.
This isn’t to say that every school will constitute the make-up of a given city or suburb, though redlining has plenty to do with our educational situation. However, our country should invest in our schools as a matter of principle and justice. No school should worry about class sizes, teacher attrition, or classes like art and gym. What sounds basic to policymakers’ students never shows up in the policymakers’ bills. That’s more than problematic. That’s integral to American history, and we got work to do.
José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist in New York City, NY. He is the author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, and has spoken about education, math, and race for a number of organizations and publications, including The New York Times, Education Week, The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post, Edutopia, GOOD, and El Diario / La Prensa, NY. He is the founder of EduColor, a Math for America fellow and on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality. His website is http://thejosevilson.com.