Still Segregated 64 Years After Brown v. Board: It’s Past Time To Do Better, DC

[Ed. Note: The following is by DCPS parents and education advocates Iris Bond Gill and Erin Roth, who unlike many other education reformers in DC actually have skin in this game. Visit them on twitter at @iris007gill (Iris) and @erotheroth (Erin)]

By Iris Bond Gill & Erin Roth

In our nation’s capital, where school reform efforts have been heralded and sustained for over a decade, some of the largest and most persistent opportunity gaps in the country and the most intensely segregated schools still exist.

Today, 64 years after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board ruled that segregated schools could never be equal, three out of four DC public school kids attend “apartheid schools,” where the student body is almost entirely nonwhite (and high-poverty). What’s more, our schools’ achievement gaps have persisted and even widened during our decade of education reform.

In this same time period, DC itself has become more diverse and wealthier, but city leaders have failed to leverage the opportunity of that increasing diversity for all public schools and not just the most advantaged.

This failure stems mainly from a reliance on gentrification; consistent lack of support and investment in our most underserved schools, whose students are overwhelmingly poor and nonwhite; and a growing, unmanaged, and inequitable system of choice. To be sure, there are other factors in this equation, like student and teacher mobility, and the equitable distribution of teachers, to name a few. Regardless, any district with apartheid schools can and should address these issues by examining how families are engaged and sorted as well as how schools are funded and resourced.

DC has done none of that. Rather, our city has relied on the individual choices of white parents and gentrification to raise opportunities for all the rest–a plan that hasn’t worked so well throughout history.

For instance, we know from research that areas of increasing gentrification also exercise more school choice. This means that across the country, white families are more likely to move to black neighborhoods if they can opt of local schools, taking their resources and advocacy efforts elsewhere. In DC, gentrification has been explicitly used as a means of school improvement and family engagement for many years.

Underlying the patchwork of DC’s 67 local education authorities—66 charter LEAs (at our last count) plus DCPS—is a single lottery choice system for all DC’s publicly funded schools. This system is touted to be both fair and efficient–offering opportunities for individual families to seek the best school for their children while also maximizing matches between schools and families. Almost 5 years after the lottery was created here, it’s time to take stock and ask why, if this system is so fair, are our lowest income families increasingly, and disproportionately, losing out in the lottery every year?

While other school systems (such as that in Cambridge, Massachusetts) have responded to similar inequity by building in additional preferences for at-risk students and families with under-resourced by-right schools, our system of charter and traditional public schools has not. While other systems have added intensive, targeted outreach to account for the difference in access to school and lottery information, our system has not.

Instead, we have a system where high-income families hire consultants to maximize their school choices while often maintaining a coveted spot in a by-right school with higher test scores, and children without a well-resourced, by-right school continue to take on much more risk in the lottery.

More specifically, in the last year of lottery results, only 35% of families entering the DC public school lottery represented at-risk students; however, more than 40% of students in DC qualify as at-risk. What’s more, only 36% of the at-risk families who entered the lottery applied for a spot at one of the 46 publicly funded DC schools with less than a quarter at-risk students, the threshold for concentrated at-risk populations where schools require significantly more support to succeed.

These data tell us that, with our current choice system, our neediest kids are more likely to end up in schools serving higher percentages of at-risk students. This is important because we are also not fully or equitably funding our most underserved school communities.

To be sure, DC is not alone in this problem, but that’s no reason to be proud of our fellowship in this camp. In fact, we are repeatedly, blatantly, flouting the meager funding laws set up to prevent this problem. For years, advocates—even the prior chancellor himself—have testified to our city council regarding the misuse of at-risk funds. And yet, year after year, the same repeated illegal use of funds occurs: money that is designed to support our neediest students is used to supplant core school functions that should be covered by other funding from the city.

This means that schools serving the most at-risk students (and therefore that need the most resources) are also more likely to have the very funds designed to help them misspent. And, importantly, very few people are standing up to fight this illegal behavior that disproportionately impacts schools serving large percentages of students of color.

Our continued underinvestment combined with an unmanaged choice system ensures that certain schools and communities face immovable obstacles in the way of school improvement, student and teacher success, and family engagement. Our city cannot truly improve its publicly funded schools–charter and DCPS–without making changes to promote equity around how families are engaged, informed, supported, and sorted. This isn’t easy to do, and we were reminded of possible backlash when a recent video went viral showing white Manhattan parents ranting against a plan to integrate their schools with more low-income students of color.

But it’s time we join other cities in making bold decisions to desegregate our schools. Today, 64 years after Brown v. Board articulated exactly why separate is unequal, we are in the clear and present situation of disobeying equity in funding laws, harboring and furthering apartheid schools, and relying on privileged, white parents to make good choices for historically underserved communities. It’s well past time to take stock, DC. And to do better.

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