Integration Now: Why We Need Integrated Schools & Ideas on How to Get There

Katharine Strange
Oct 18, 2017 · 6 min read

#6 in the “Good Schools Project”
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image courtesy of The Century Foundation

Conventional wisdom states that the way to be a good parent is to buy the most expensive house you can afford in the “best” neighborhood with the “best” schools. What do these schools look like? They are wholistic and challenging. They offer a wide variety of extracurriculars. And they are predominately white.

The “good” schools question is about privilege. How can I give my kid the biggest advantage over others? It feels natural to put your own child first in this way. But although our culture and our instincts tell us to go the extra mile to give our children all possible advantages, there is a fundamental problem with this outlook; it assumes a scarcity of opportunity, when in fact, if you can afford to “choose” your child’s school by way of homeownership, your child already has significant advantages over many other children.

If you are such a privileged person, you have two choices: hoard advantages for your own child and children like her, or share your privilege.

I think back to that first night at the co-op Kindergarten Readiness Panel, which was made up, for the most part, of people like me: middle-class, educated, and white. What were these parents afraid of? That our kids wouldn’t be challenged enough, that our kids wouldn’t be treated like the unique individuals that they are. We worry about our kids’ safety and making sure they get the resources that they need. And somewhere, at the bottom of that list, is the desire for our kids to experience some diversity.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who has dedicated her career to studying school segregation and its effects (and who was recently made a MacArthur Genius Fellow), put it this way,

“Black Americans have to have ‘diversity’ or integration if they want to actually have access to the full opportunities of any city…if you want to have good schools, you have to have proximity to whiteness to get these things in our country. For white Americans, diversity is a bonus.”

Hannah-Jones went on to say that while it benefits all kids, many white, middle-class parents do not value diversity. When white parents choose schools, diversity is at the bottom of the list and is quickly shut out by other priorities. We don’t prioritize integration because we don’t see it as advantaging our children. Integration does benefit middle-class white kids, but more than that, integration is the rising tide that raises all boats.

According to a 2014 study by Professor Rucker Johnson, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, black students who attended integrated schools were more likely to graduate high school, more likely to attend college, and less likely to go to jail. They earned, on average, 15% more than their segregated black peers, and they were even healthier. White students’ outcomes were unaffected by whether they were integrated or not.

There are majority-minority schools that have made progress on the achievement or opportunity gap, but they are the exception rather than the rule. School integration is a proven tool for closing the achievement gap.

Seattle has the largest achievement gap between black and white students in Washington state and the 5th highest in the nation. But, in the 17 years Seattle had forced busing, the achievement gap shrank from 40% to 18%. Then we stopped busing. And the gap grew.

How does integration reduce the achievement gap? It’s not that sitting a white kid next to a black kid works some kind of magic, it’s that schools which predominately serve black and brown kids do not have the same resources as those which serve white kids. These resources, listed below, can either be shared or hoarded.

Money and Power. For historic reasons, white people tend to be wealthier and more powerful than people of color. That translates into better schools for white children. When children of color are segregated from their white peers, they tend to get the “leftovers” of schools, especially when the segregation is district-wide (i.e. a majority black urban district next to a majority white suburban district). Property tax revenue and PTA funds are disproportionately spent on wealthier, white schools.

Social capital. Ask your friends or family how they got into this university, got that internship, or this job, it often comes down to social connections. When we segregate the wealthy and powerful, we hoard those connections.

Positive peer pressure. Peers matter. They connect us with people we need to know, they also influence our behavior. It’s difficult for anyone, adult or child, to go against their peers. A mediocre student may decide to apply for college because all of his friends are. A bright student might, likewise, drop out.

Peer pressure also works on adults. Strong PTAs peer pressure adults into being involved in their children’s schools, leading to an increased sense of ownership, which leads to better outcomes for their kids.

Integration is an important tool in eliminating racism. In the past 20 years, the LGBT movement has made huge strides, going from DOMA to Marriage Equality. How did that happen? LGBT people came out of the closet. And suddenly “gay” wasn’t some flouncing caricature from a bad movie, it was your neighbor, your brother, or your friend. When you know someone from a marginalized group, it becomes much harder to treat them as “other.” 75% of white people have NO non-white friends. This is not an accident, but the desired result of segregation. For most white people, the only black people they know are the ones they see on TV, who are usually portrayed as thugs and criminals. This becomes our stereotype, and when we see a black person in our neighborhood we feel afraid. Thus we self-segregate and the cycle continues.

School integration can help break this cycle. Students who go to school with people of other races show decreases in racism and racial anxiety.

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image courtesy of The Virginia Historical Society

School integration is the only way to achieve equal educational opportunities. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. What will it look like for Seattle? Will it mean busing? Will it mean some version of “controlled choice”? We are the 4th wealthiest city in the nation, with one of the highest population of college-educated people, surely we can come up with some innovation to help fix our inequality problem. I don’t know what a good solution would look like, but I do know that it will involve sacrifice. In an interview for “Adam Ruins Everything,” Nikole Hanah-Jones put it this way:

“You can’t want equality AND advantage for your own child. Those two things are in conflict with each other, because equality means someone has to give up that advantage for everyone else to be in that same place.”

We must ask ourselves, do we believe in equality? If so, what are we willing to sacrifice?

Here are my ideas:

  • support affordable housing across the city. This means upzoning and integrating affordable housing into every community (Yes, even Wallingford)
  • send your kid to your neighborhood school. Volunteer. Join the PTA.
  • talk with your principal and administrators about the importance of hiring teachers of color. Studies show that having even one black teacher in early grades increases black students’ graduation rates.
  • keep up the pressure on legislators to equitably fund our schools
  • start a conversation about integration. When someone asks you about a “good” school, bring up segregation. Don’t be afraid of the elephant in the room.
  • attend a school board meeting. Three Seattle School Board members are up for re-election. What are they going to do about segregation?
  • Check out Nikole Hannah-Jones’ work. In addition to the interview listed above, she did an amazing episode of This American Life last year, and more recently has written about school segregation for NYT Magazine
  • learn more about your own privilege. A great way to start is attending a “Kids and Race” workshop, either Part One: Changing the Narrative, or Part Two: Power and Privilege.*

Scheduling Note: “The Good Schools Project” has been publishing weekly, but will now transition to an occasional schedule. Follow me on Medium, Twitter, or Facebook for future updates. Thanks for reading!

*in the interest of full disclosure, I occasionally work for Kids & Race.

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