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Why Segregation in American schools is rising

The school of life

Segregation in American schools is rising. Ryan Avent, a senior editor at The Economist, observed it first hand in his neighbourhood

Segregation in American schools is rising. Ryan Avent, a senior editor at The Economist, observed it first hand in his neighbourhood

Ryan Avent | July 13th 2017

I live in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac river from Washington, DC. It is a very pleasant sort of inner suburb: rich and liberal, economically and racially diverse. Its public schools are of high – but, crucially, not identically high – quality. Not long ago, uneven population growth rates forced Arlington to move some students from one of its high schools to the other two. That’s how the trouble began.

The overcrowded high school, Washington-Lee, ranks between the other two in performance, in income levels and in the share of students who are white. All three are good schools, but the first two are among the very best in Virginia. In determining how to shift school boundaries, the county chose a model which sent a disproportionate number of low-income and non-white students from Washington-Lee to Wakefield (the less good, less rich, less white school), and a disproportionate number of high-income and white students from Washington-Lee to Yorktown (the other one). The proposal, in other words, amplified rather than dampened underlying differences.

Although Wakefield is hardly a failing school, some of the parents whose children were to be consigned to it were apoplectic. In conversations at bus stops parents sought gingerly to work out on which side of the debate the others stood; talk turned to icy silence and exchanges became as angry as suburban norms permit.

The strength of feeling is understandable. Being in a high-performing classroom makes a meaningful difference to individual outcomes. An experiment conducted in Tennessee found that randomly chosen children placed in high-quality classrooms (as measured by test scores) were more likely to go to college and earn more as adults than children not assigned to such classrooms.

Parents know this instinctively, which is why, ever since the state started to provide education, the allocation of school places has been one of society’s hottest potatoes. Middle-class white families have long fled areas in which the schools threatened to become too diverse, and used their higher incomes to exit the public school system entirely when the state became too hell-bent on integration. School segregation, by race and class, is on the rise: driven by high housing costs and falling social mobility, the number of high-poverty schools in which black and Hispanic students make up a majority has doubled since 2001.

Struggling to get one’s children the best possible education is regarded as being among the chief middle-class virtues, but reinforces many of the biases that education is meant to help overcome. When racial minority groups are confined to poor-performing schools, they get stuck in society’s lower ranks, and white families more easily fall into assuming that non-white schools are poor ones – a prelude to outright bigotry.

One could argue that it is the responsibility of the local government to take broad social welfare into account, and to try to prevent public schools from segregating the population economically and racially. But the local government answers to its citizenry and the voices of the well-off often ring louder than those of others. Anyway, the local government can’t stop people from moving their kids from public schools to private ones.

Still, parents faced with these issues might want to consider whether surrounding their children with rich kids in the name of educational excellence really is the best way to prepare them for life. Children learn all sorts of things from the school they attend: such as what sort of people are “like them” and which are part of a strange other, and which priorities are the right ones to have as an adult. How useful is it to send one’s children the message that affluent white people are the only ones worth hanging around with, or that one should go to whatever lengths necessary to secure the smallest advantage for oneself, whatever the cost to others?

My children are small, so I will not face these painful choices for some years. Perhaps I will change my tune when I do. 

4 Readers' comments

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John Washington - July 24th 2017

In Northern Virginia, classifying students as white and non-white is outdated. Asians outnumber blacks in Northern Virginia, upwards of 15% of the population and more often among the better students. Studies of student populations tend to elide Asians and whites. The highest achieving school in Northern Virginia, Thomas Jefferson magnet school, is 66% Asian, 10% black and 8% Hispanic, leaving 14% white. That means it is majority non-white. In fact, blacks (who make up less than 10% of the population in NOVA) & Asians (around 17%) are underrepresented, while whites are the most underrepresented group given their percentage in the population (62%) . We can also point out that most of our best universities are majority non-white. The old black-white formula is just too far out of date.

ww_in_dc - July 17th 2017

Diversity? What does this mean? Is diversity when white suburban kids represent 15% of the school population? Fairfax County, right next door to Arlington, is majority white. Most schools in Fairfax County are majority white. Yet a few schools have been essentially gerrymandered - they have high concentrations of latino , ESL, subsidized-lunch students. So these schools, under the guise of "diversity" generally capture within their borders a few middle-class neighborhoods to be "representative." And then the white families move. Are they self-segregating? Or has the school district forced their hand? In class, the white kids are essentially the gravy. Teachers turn their attention almost exclusively to the non-English speaking kids just to bring them up to a minimum level required to pass, while educating the white kids falls of the parents. Why? Because the white parents can, while the assumption is that outside the classroom the latino kids will receive no help, no guidance, and no educational opportunities. The end result is residents who work and pay taxes subsidizing lower-income students not only through such monetary vehicles as subsidized school lunches and public education, but also through taking on the task of educating their kids because the school is unable to serve both populations and chooses the one that can't help itself. Spouting about diversity truly misses the point. In a state like Virginia, where the GOP controls state legislature and educational funding falls on the counties (and therefore on property taxes), resources are finite and the burden falls disproportionately on the white (and in FFX county, Asian-American) middle class. Should those who really finance the whole edifice not expect that better outcome for their children? And should they not expect the schools to represent the general makeup of the community?

Parkpeter - July 17th 2017

The truth is that few people believe in diversity enough to put their kids in a significantly lower ranked school. The author's argument is sensible and reasoned to non-parents but unrealistic and borderline sanctimonious to most parents.

gmanklb - July 14th 2017

I have taught at both Yorktown and Wakefield high schools, and I would prefer my children go to Wakefield. I would also add that my personal education included public, DoD, Catholic and military schools, eventually resulting in an Ivy League degree. I watched the redistricting debate from a distance, knowing that any Arlington school would provide an excellent education. At Wakefield, we simply provide that education to more poor children with darker skin tones. While we wanted the school board to do the right thing, we knew they would bow to pressure from the most empowered residents. Ultimately, send us the poor kids and the children of the voiceless. They will not only fit into the Wakefield family, they will grow, achieve and succeed in the most diverse, international environment imaginable in a public high school.