By David Sheridan with Sabrina Holcomb
Sixty-three years ago today, the Supreme Court in Brown v Board lit the school integration light, and it burned brightly for more than two decades. Then, it began to flicker—and it’s been flickering ever since. But that light never went out.
Now, after years in which we have seen the resurgence and spread of segregation by race and economic class in our schools, the demand for diverse schools is once again on the rise. “Integration is about equitable resources, and how we get them to black and brown students,” says Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian, echoing many in the new generation of education justice activists.
Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, a 7th grade teacher and co-organizer of EdCamp Revolution and currently a doctoral student at Rutgers, says:
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“Brown v. Board had less to do with proximity to white students and more to do with proximity to the resources white schools received. Integration was a way for our children to get access to books and labs for chemistry and physics. Today, schools with white kids have access to a rich and varied curriculum and hands-on experiential learning and the freedom to explore, while schools with black and brown children are relegated to test prep.”
Okaikor and Maryland teacher and education justice activist Erika Strauss Chavarria both agree that corporate education reform has chipped away at Brown v Board. “The pressure to integrate public schools subsided as the corporate education reform movement pushed the narrative that public schools were ‘failing’ and had to be privatized,” says Chavarria. She urges that we pursue school diversity, not as stand-alone, but in concert with the broader fight against institutional racism in our schools and society.
Kimberly Colbert , who is on leave from the classroom to organize educators of color for Education Minnesota, also sees school diversity in a wider context: “As educators and advocates, we have responsibility to do a number of things: change school funding, change the discourse and narrative around public education, and change hearts and minds about what is best for America’s students.”
The great irony of Brown v Board is that America today is far more diverse than anyone in the 1950s could have ever dreamed, while America’s schools are more segregated than they’ve been in decades.
“It angers the heck out of me when some school districts think it’s ok to discriminate against diversity, says Debby Chandler, an NEA Education Support Professional leader from Spokane, Washington. “Our students today need to have the experience of growing up with students who don’t look like them. Diversity teaches us so many lessons about each other.”
Another benefit of school diversity is cited by Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a veteran warrior in the school integration wars: “School segregation makes it possible for a political demagogue to vilify minorities; school diversity reduces racial prejudice.”
In one of its first actions in education, the Trump Administration killed the Department of Education’s “Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities” initiative to boost socioeconomic diversity in schools. “It may be the worst of times for school integration at the federal level,” says Kahlenberg, “but it could be the best of time for progressive school boards and state courts, newly energized by the national political scene, to embrace school diversity.”
Not everyone agrees on the best ways to go about integrating schools, but there is one thing on which everyone does agree: Yes, residential segregation is a huge factor in today’s school segregation, but we cannot use it as an excuse not to fight for school integration.
While seeking school diversity opportunities within school districts, activists must also challenge the drivers of residential segregation–restrictive zoning regulations, gentrification, and redlining practices by loan institutions. Residential segregation, as economist Jared Bernstein points out, “isn’t an accident of fate.”
“What’s frustrated me,” Kahlenberg says, “is that while there is a social science consensus that poverty concentrations are bad for education, there is also an outdated political consensus that there is nothing we can do about it.”
Today’s education justice activists say, “Yes we can!”