Thursday, November 05, 2009

Still segregated after all these years: Jonathan Kozol's "The Shame of the Nation"

Seems like only a half-century ago that the U.S. Supreme Court declared (in Brown v. Board of Education) that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." And where are we today?

Still separate. Still unequal.

It turns out that -- while it's not so hard to eliminate de jure (legally-enforced) segregation -- de facto segregation is a bit harder to root out. Kozol reports that the poorest schools (in large, Northern cities) typically have a student body that is more than 90% black and Hispanic. Schools with a real mixture of races are actually quite rare in and around U.S. urban areas -- they're typically either almost entirely black+hispanic or almost entirely white+other. Even in areas of NYC where the residential neighborhoods themselves are fairly integrated, school choice programs within the public school system create a dynamic where the white kids get sent to one school and the black kids to another.

Kozol describes the harm. Poor schools often have major infrastructure problems such as overcrowded, dilapidated buildings with chemical hazards. It's not rare to lack playgrounds, not to mention basic materials like books and chairs for every student. When one school can spend $17,000 per pupil and another only $9000, it makes a huge difference (multiplied by the number of kids in the school) in terms of the quality of teachers you can attract and the supplies and infrastructure you can buy.

Since race is mixed in with the money situation, it makes the "haves" care that much less about the plight of the "have nots." Probably most of the people reading this post are right now saying to themselves "Of course the children of the rich deserve a better quality of education than the children of the poor because they're paying more in property taxes." When people call America a "land of opportunity," they don't mean it's supposed to have a level playing field. They mean that you can buy opportunity (if you have the money), otherwise you get a curriculum that is designed to produce docile, obedient, low-level employees.

Kozol argues that the de-facto segregation is itself a problem (apart from the money problem) because being able to interact easily and comfortably with people of other races is an important factor for success in a mixed-race country. I agree, as I discussed in my post European dream.

Unfortunately, the problem is incredibly difficult to grapple with. De-facto segregation is not illegal, and apparently is not covered by the Brown decision mentioned above. People who would like to see greater equality can do very little to stop the momentum of the current system. A major overhaul would not merely be expensive -- it would be a political impossibility. In today's America, putting equality and the common good above the individual's right to leave his fellows in the dust (if he can) is almost universally viewed as "communism" and hence evil.

This problem illustrates the difference between civil rights for black people and civil rights for gay people. Black people in the U.S. face major structural inequalities that don't have any simple solutions. The thing that's so infuriating about anti-gay discrimination is that it's just so gratuitous! You could pass a law that doesn't affect the straight majority, and problem is essentially solved. Refusing to grant gay people equal rights is like kicking them in the face just for the sake of kicking them in the face. For black people, it's not nearly so simple. The relevant laws and court cases have been on the books for nearly a half-century or more -- and the inequalities are still there. It's because there's no simple, obvious, fair way to even things out. Ditto for Hispanics and immigrants.

The most encouraging possibilities mentioned in Kozol's book are found in the few schools that really are integrated. Their success demonstrates that it's possible, and may encourage parents to do more to integrate the schools in their own districts.


Anonymous said...

I think the only way we could begin to see more equity in school funding is if funding were taken out of local control. As long as local school districts are in control of fund raising, some will be able to raise more funds than others and argue successfully in the courts that it's within their rights to do so.

It seems that most of the argument in the US isn't about equality but about adequacy. As long as every child receives an adequate education, then we rest assured that we've done our due diligence. What constitutes an adequate education is open for debate, of course.

It's always going to be hard to tell one parent that their child must have less funding so that another child can receive more. It runs counter to our protective nature to allow any perceived harm to our own children, even when it's a sacrifice for the greater good.

How is the situation in other developed countries?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jonathan!!!

I think local control of funding is a big part of the inequity, as I explained in the link above.

Regarding other countries, my main experience has been with France, and -- again in the above link -- I'm very impressed with the French system.

That said, I don't want to give the (mis)impression that the French system is ideal. Compared to other European countries, statistics show that France is one of the worst in terms of social mobility. The U.S. and France are actually quite close in terms of social mobility (the correlation between parent and offspring wealth).

There are some of the same problems in the U.S. and France, especially in terms of minorities being concentrated in certain districts. Even with national control of funding, that's a problem. But (as I said in my earlier post) it's much easier to find successful integrated districts when the funding question is nationalized. My impression is that most of the barrier to social mobility in France has to do with the system of "Grandes ├ęcoles" -- a tracking system that begins after primary school.

littlemissattitude said...

I think it is really interesting that here in the US, middle class and wealthy people will often bitch and moan about "entitlement programs" that benefit the less well off simply because they perceive those programs as inducing the poor to "feel entitled" to certain things. But these same people will often argue that, for example, kids from wealthier families are "entitled" to more money for their schools simply because their parents pay more property tax, which is often where most of the funds for schools come from.

As if it is fine for the wealthy to "feel entitled", but that the poor are trying to rip society off when they "feel entitled".

My solution is to, with in a state, take all the school funds available and divide them equally among all pupils. Because in my world (which admittedly is not always in sync with the world a lot of people live in), all kids are entitled to the same excellent education. One child is not less entitled just because she happens to live in a district that generates less property tax revenues than the district next door.

Then again, I'm convinced that encouragement means as much or more to what kids get out of an education as how much money their school district spends on them. And from what I can see, kids from low income areas just are not encouraged to the same goals that kids from wealthy areas get. They aren't encouraged to get on an academic track, they aren't encouraged to go to college, and they are steered more into vocational education as if that is all they are capable of. This has the effect of creating a permanent underclass of individuals who are not presented nearly often enough with the idea that they don't have to stay in that underclass and do the manual labor that wealthier people feel is beneath them.

And that does a disservice to all of society, whether you see it as segregation based on ethnicity or segregation based on socioeconomic group.

littlemissattitude said...

Clearly, "with in" at the beginning of the third paragraph should actually read "within".

I get on a roll and sometimes weird things happen with my grammar and spelling. :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey LittleMissAttitude!!!

I agree, it's amazing how blind people are to the advantages they themselves have received.

Regarding vocational training: Kozol describes how schools in poor areas often have vocational tracks like hairdressing and sewing (factory work prep) or low-level management (in partnership with corporate sponsors) instead of academic offerings.

Anonymous said...

I think my local school district is an interesting case. It covers the entire county and therefore is responsible for the richest areas and the poorest, yet there are still funding inequities. I'm not sure how that happens.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jonathan!!!

That's the sort of thing that Kozol talks about.

I think a lot of it has to do with people's expectations. It's considered normal -- even desirable -- for some public schools to be a lot better than others. So they don't see any problem with voting for more funding for special programs in exactly the school that already has the most.

Andrew said...

I am late to the conversation, but to bounce off of Jonathon's point... I work in a district that has a rich half and a poor half. They are often pitted against each other. The rich half feels that the poor half costs a lot, but shows little in terms of scores. The poor half resents the benefits of the rich schools. For example, each school gets an ESL teacher... regardless if you are a rich school which has 3 kids who need it, or a poor school with 300. These discrepancies are everywhere.