Blacks Can Wait for Gentrification to Improve Schools

Our fascination with inclusion is corrupted with the idea that whiter schools are better.

Schools should get the resources they need whether middle class whites attend them or not.

If we could only realize Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” then we would attain equity.

A recent article in The Hechinger Report pointed out that in New Orleans, public charter schools are “proving to be formidable rivals,” to public and parochial schools, and more white families are opting for charters.

Related: There’s one education reform proven to work on a national scale, so why aren’t we trying it?

According to the Cowen Institute, White and Hispanic students have the highest student population growth rates in New Orleans. Furthermore, 12 percent of the city’s schools had populations composed 25 percent or more of white students. The white students are concentrated in specific schools.

Those numbers reflect what is colloquially referred in education circles as the tipping point, the moment in which white parents pull their children from a school because it’s too black or enroll their children in a school because it has the right composition of black folk (typically middle class).

Public schools have a long history of integrating (busing) primary and secondary schools. Inclusion has been a fundamental goal of public education since the landmark Brown v. Board decision of 1954. But many have demonstrated that schools are still just as segregated today.

Related: Challenged by charters, public and parochial school enrollments fall

Researchers like Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, have charged that charter schools have assisted in the re-segregation of schools. “Charters are either very white places or very non-white places,” Orfield said. “[Charters] are an accelerant to the normal segregation of public schools.”

Charters don’t segregate; people’s attitudes about black children lead to segregated schools.

All-white charters in the suburbs are presumptively the case study for what’s wrong with giving schools more autonomy. However, the focus for change must be placed on the people and not governance structures.

Until attitudes change, bigots will use whatever system they’re afforded to exclude and shift resources toward them.

Related: A new round of segregation plays out in charter schools

Integration is a worthy and noble goal, but we can’t burden disenfranchised groups in efforts to make whites believe in a democratic ideal. Busing didn’t solve our attitude problems. If we learned anything it was that blacks shouldn’t have to move to get the resources their neighborhoods and neighborhood schools deserve. Simply mixing students didn’t led to wholesale improvement to schools in black districts.

I could easily argue that busing poor, black students to wealthy suburbs or districts reaffirms beliefs of white superiority.

Integration also masks how well a school is doing in terms of academic performance. The outcomes used to rate school quality often mute the influence of socioeconomics on those ratings. Having a percentage of students who can pass a statewide exam doesn’t necessarily mean it has more effective teachers, leaders or curricula.

Related: Forget shop class, New Orleans is trying to train black youth for a constantly shifting job market

Similarly, the national discourse on how to improve public schools mirrors conversations in housing. Invariably, someone will offer integration as the ultimate cure-all.

Creating mixed income housing in ways that displace low-income residents may improve outcomes for that particular neighborhood, but it doesn’t improve the outcomes of displaced families. In schools, there is a tendency to establish quality by essentially doing the same.

A school isn’t “better” because it’s whiter or richer. Yet many of us see “better” as richer and whiter. Many districts rate schools the same way. These biases reward schools with resources and acclaim.

Related: Challenged by charters, public and parochial school enrollments fall

Likewise, mixed income advocates will say, “There is only one thing worse than gentrification – no gentrification.”

No – there is an alternative: Authentically build housing for local communities through development plans that include local neighborhood members. It may take more time and work, but removing negative neighborhood conditions, developing community members and incentivizing them to stay within that community are goals that can be accomplished.

We shouldn’t forget that poorer and blacker schools are made worse because of our attitudes toward blacks and people in poverty.

Related: The graduation rates from every school district in one map

A better solution for black and brown residents is to differentiate resources to make neighborhood schools better.

Urban districts are not getting what they need. Districts should increase diversity chiefly by improving the number of quality options in proximity to low income students. A good school you can walk to is simply better than one you can drive to – especially for low-income residents.

We shouldn’t be surprised, only encouraged to see white and black parents who can afford private or parochial schools choose to enroll their children in public schools alongside low-income black students.

Related: Katrina might as well have hit New Orleans a day ago if you’re young, male and black

States should create policy incentives for schools to integrate, at least socioeconmically. Diversity is one of the ultimate end-goals of public education.

However since 1954, we’ve learned an important lesson on how to get there.

Gentrification is an inconvenient solution for school improvement that people of color can’t wait for.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).