Andrew Ford is a data analyst in the New York City Department of Education's Division of Early-Childhood Education. His views are his own and do not represent the views of the NYC DOE.
After New York City’s District 15 succeeded in advancing racial integration by removing admissions screens, the City Council required all NYC districts to develop integration plans. Districts have begun holding meetings for parents to have a voice in choosing those plans, and some parents have been pushing back.
Reminiscent of the 1960s white resistance to busing, some parents are protesting integration plans that would jeopardize their child’s current school enrollment. They want what’s best for their children, and they fear that integration will take that away.
Integration advocates respond to this resistance by pointing to research on the benefits of racial diversity. They try to appease these parents with assurances that desegregation will improve the quality of schools for all students and lead to more enriching educational experiences, or at least not harm white students. This response is wrongheaded.
We should not justify racial integration with the benefits of racially diverse classrooms because it commodifies integration, alienates families of color, limits the conversation and, ultimately, misstates the real purpose of desegregation. Instead of integrating schools to improve student outcomes, we should integrate because of the moral obligation to redress centuries of oppression to historically marginalized communities.
Conceding the framing of the debate
Don’t get me wrong; racially integrated schools substantially benefit students. They combat bias, defeat stereotypes, and reduce anxiety. In more traditional, academic outcomes, integrated schools also lead to higher test scores, fewer dropouts, and greater college enrollment.
But offering these results to justify integration concedes a problematic framing. Parents who oppose these plans worry their children will lose a spot at a coveted school and wind up at a low-performing one. To guard their positional advantage, they decry the low-performing schools, advocate for improving the quality of all schools, and shift the framing from desegregation to school quality.
Responding to these parents with research on the academic and social-emotional advantages of integration accepts a school quality focus and engages in the commodification of racial diversity. The quality framing allows parents to weigh the costs and benefits of losing their current school for a more racially diverse one, and this calculus may not favor integration.
For instance, the disparities in NYC school resources may make a greater impact on student outcomes than racial diversity. If we concede educational quality as the focus of the debate, then some parents would seem right to resist those plans that fail to have a net positive impact on their children.
Creating "win-win" situations for those with and without privilege should not be a criterion of a successful integration plan. If some privileged families need to sacrifice their positional advantage or educational resources to help repair centuries of racial injustice, that’s OK and should not impede progress toward that goal. Some white families have threatened to leave the public school system if the plan doesn’t benefit them, but these threats have so far been empty.
Supporting integration with appeals to school quality can also offend parents of color. School Colors, a podcast on the history of race in Central Brooklyn’s schools, describes how some black families reject the notion black children must sit next to white children to learn. When New York State has yet to provide "sound basic education" for minority-white schools, couching issues of race and education in terms of academic benefits seems to ignore systemic racism and frustrates families of color fighting for basic needs at their schools.
Limiting the discussion
Using education quality to justify school integration also limits the discussion to the shifted goals. This narrowing matters and has impacted decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court. The 2007 Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District case led to a landmark decision that undermined the spirit of Brown v. Board by limiting the conversation to school quality.
The PICS case involved two school districts using race-conscious enrollment practices to desegregate their schools. Some parents complained these practices used race to exclude them from their top-choice schools.
In evaluating the integration plans, the court applied a high standard of judicial review called "strict scrutiny" that required the districts to explain why they enacted these plans and how the plans would achieve their goal. Moreover, the "how" had to be narrowly tailored to achieve the "why."
The court accepted the educational benefits of racially diverse classrooms to satisfy the "why" requirement. But, it then used those benefits to limit the conversation and rule against the districts on the "how" requirement. The districts designed their plans to create school populations that matched community demographics, and not to achieve the minimum diversity necessary to achieve the academic benefits.
As Chief Justice John Roberts writes in the opinion, the plans “are tied to each district’s specific racial demographics, rather than to any pedagogic concept of the level of diversity needed to obtain the asserted educational benefits.” For this reason, the court reasoned the plans were not narrowly tailored to achieve the academic benefits and ruled the plans unconstitutional.
A better justification for integration
In the Supreme Court and the local districts, leaning on educational benefits to push integration limits the conversation and shifts the goal. Instead of treating integration as a means of improving school quality, we should understand it as a step toward redressing centuries of oppression to historically marginalized communities.
Understood this way, we can evaluate integration plans on whether they advance historical social justice. For example, school desegregation that results from gentrification would fail a social justice standard even though it would still produce the benefits of a racially diverse classroom. The conversation would not devolve into protecting the positional advantage of privileged students, but focus on how the plans repair racial injustice.