Ansley Erickson: Persistent Segregation and the Idea of Choice in American Education

This week, our speaker was Ansley Erickson, a historian of education at Teachers College of Columbia University. Here are my notes from her presentation:

What explains persistent segregation? What is the difference between rhetoric and how its actually enacted? 

How do we understand the relationship between individual choice and actions versus state policy and actions? 

“De jure segregation arises by law or by the deliberate actions of school officials and is unconstitutional. de facto segregation results from housing patterns and does not violate the constitution.” (Nixon, 1969)

“Where resegregation is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications.” (Freeman v Pitts, 1992)

“De jure segregation is ‘imposed by law’ but de facto segregation stems from ‘bias masked deep within the social order’” (Parents Involved v. Seattle, 2007 (note: this was the most recent SCOTUS case regarding desegregation; prohibiting assigning students to schools with the purpose of racial integration, did not recognize racial balancing in schools as a state policy interest)

“De facto segregation means that Negroes are segregated but nobody did it.” (James Baldwin, 1964)

Ansley presented the following false dichotomies of de facto:

Housing / schooling: We think of housing policy as completely separate from public education policy because housing is somewhat outside the domain of state-appointed school officials. In fact, the two are intertwined; private and public actors have mixed together the two domains (e.g. real estate practices, property taxes, et cetera). For example, the “neighborhood unit” planning concept illustrates how neighborhood, schooling and segregation became bound together in the 20th cent US. Clarence Perry, an early neighborhood planner, defined the ideal shape, location, and size of an ideal community. Perry’s model neighborhood had streets, a church, and a community center all arranged around elementary school, all carefully measured to be 160 acres to maintain a count of 1,000 schoolchildren. In Nashville, the focus of Ansley’s research, planning units are denoted by populations in similar income ranges with similar ethnic backgrounds. This ideal, homogenous community model came to be internalized by white, middle-class Americans in the 1970s who then fled cities in “white flight” to avoid integration efforts. White flight, as Jack Dougherty described, was facilitated by federal, state, and local policy (e.g. city planning, urban renewal efforts) not to mention the private interests of real estate agents.

Private / public: Desegregation threatens the divide between private, free market, individual decisions and public policy or state action. Suburbanization has been an avenue for white, mid-to-upper class Americans to move to neighborhoods with schools that they prefer (“shopping for schools”, some say). In that case, state initiatives for desegregation (i.e. re-organize to integrate schools in order to raise achievement) threaten individual choice. Howard Fuller said “there has always been choice in education”; Paul Peterson portrays charter school segregation at “freely chosen.”

In a moment when desegregation is not seen as a current goal (owing perhaps to the present-day inclination to be “race-blind”), it is important to note the ways that federal (e.g. urban renewal plans) , local (e.g. school officials), state (e.g. highway construction, public housing) actors work together to make policy that indirectly creates segregation in order to, in response, better understand the state’s role  in actively desegregating schools.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, public housing is widely distributed, not concentrated in cities, so there is a wide distribution of poor students throughout district. Montgomery County is important because it demonstrates the success of re-organizing a district rather than providing an “opt-in” program (which would likely just push affluent white people further out of poor areas) or “throwing money” at a problem.

Individual choice is conditioned by past and present state action, but the rhetoric of choice promises that individual choice can transcend these limits. We should be cautious about that, Ansley suggests.

So, do inner-city charter schools provide a solution to inequity that results from segregation, or do they just move disadvantaged children our of their communities and into sometimes successful, sometimes mediocre experimental schools? Do suburbanites have any responsibility for the effects of segregation inside cities?

Is school choice a solution, or simply a new form of Nixon’s “save the cities, spare the suburbs”?


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