Is "separate but equal" the best we can do?

Try this education Rorschach. Imagine a public school that’s knocking the roof off of the state test. Its classes are led by energetic, passionate, thoughtful teachers who engage their students in rigorous study. The curriculum is rich and varied, with plenty of time for history and science, art and music, along with the 3 Rs. Its classrooms are orderly, its students respectful to one another and to adults. But it’s not dour; there’s a sense of joy, even wonder, at the school. It’s a lively, bright, warm place to be.

Now add this one wrinkle: all of its students are poor and black (or Hispanic). It is as “segregated” as Southern schools before Brown. Here’s the test: Do you think this school is unabashedly worth celebrating? Replicating? Viewing as a national model?

There’s no right or wrong answer, but the thought experiment illumines a divide within the education world. If you said “yes, this is a wonderful achievement that we’ve created these sorts of schools,” then count yourself within the (now-mainstream) education-reform community. You look at the typical KIPP school or Amistad Academy or any of the other “high flying” high-poverty, all-minority schools and say “see: it can be done.” You embrace the “no excuses” battle cry. Even schools full of poor and black/brown kids can achieve tremendous results--and we should have more of them.

If, on the other hand, you find this picture regrettable, somewhat sad, maybe even unsettling, your inclinations are more aligned with the traditional civil rights view. Sure, you acknowledge that great “black” schools are better than terrible ones, yet you don’t count this as a success, not really. After all, academic learning is just one part of schools’ missions; helping to create the next generation of citizens is another. And in our diverse, multicultural world, kids need to learn how to work and play with all kinds of people, not just those who look like them.

Moreover, poor minority kids in particular need to learn how to navigate the mores of middle class America. Yes, “paternalistic” schools like KIPP try to prepare their students for that but wouldn’t it be easier if they actually went to school with middle class kids in the first place? And with plenty of recent evidence (including from “conservative” scholars like Eric Hanushek and Caroline Hoxby) showing that “peer effects” really do matter--black students in particular do better when more of their classmates are white--aren’t we tying one hand behind our back when we try to make “separate but equal” work?

This precise debate is one that the Left is currently engaged in. As Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation reported a few weeks ago, a group of civil rights groups recently hosted a conference and invited Administration officials to attend--and to explain why President Obama and Secretary Duncan have focused on fixing high-poverty schools (and creating great high-poverty charter schools)--rather than making these schools more integrated in the first place. (The civil rights groups want more attention and funds for initiatives like magnet schools and “controlled choice” programs.) Kahlenberg told me that participants agreed that it need not be “either/or”: that we should try to create more high-quality high-poverty schools--while also taking forceful action to integrate schools.

Here’s a related suggestion: What about creating a lot more racially- and economically-integrated charter schools? To some, that might sound like an oxymoron: When we think of great charter schools, we tend to picture the KIPPs and Amistads and such, which tend to be all-minority and mostly poor. And public policy has created incentives for schools to focus on this demographic; many states only allow charters to serve “disadvantaged” youngsters or locate in “failing” districts. But philanthropy is guilty, too; several foundations have shunned integrated charter schools because they don’t serve “enough” poor kids or, taken as a whole, their pupil population isn’t “needy” enough.

Yet even in the face of these challenges, at least a handful of fantastic, integrated charter schools have gotten off the ground. Consider Capital City Charter School in Washington--the first public school the Obamas visited as President and First Lady--which serves equal numbers of white, black, and Hispanic children and roughly equal proportions of poor and middle class kids--and which has gotten strong results over its ten-year history. There’s the famous High Tech High (HTH), founded with an explicit mission to serve a diverse group of students in the San Diego area. And there’s the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST)--the best school in Denver, which is just about perfectly integrated along racial and class lines. Such schools should offer inspiration to the school reform, pro-charter crowd, as well as civil rights types--indeed, to just about everyone except neo-separatists who would prefer that, say, African-American youngsters learn from African-American teachers in Afro-centric schools.

But schools like these need help. Both HTH and DSST must forego federal charter start-up funds because they refuse to use a standard lottery. (Federal law mandates that charter schools not use admissions requirements--if a school is oversubscribed, it must use a random lottery to decide who gets in.) It’s not that they want to keep low-income kids out; rather, they want to make sure that enough low-income children can get in. Because these schools are so popular, including among savvy, middle class parents, the applicant pool naturally skews toward better-educated, wealthier families. To counteract this, High Tech High, for example, employs a zip-code based lottery, enabling it to override San Diego’s stark residential segregation. (Each zip code gets so many slots.) And DSST holds two lotteries--one for low-income students, and one for everyone else--allowing it to be sure that at least 40 percent of its students are poor. A change in federal law would allow more charter schools to adopt these strategies--without giving up their start-up funds for replication efforts.

What KIPP and other high-poverty, high performing charter schools have achieved is remarkable and praiseworthy and, in the foreseeable future--because most urban areas have so few white and middle class families with school-age children--making high-poverty schools work has to be a big part of the education-reform agenda. But school segregation is just as harmful today as in 1950--and integrated charter schools could be one way toward a brighter future.

More By Author