BY ERIN ARCHERD
Even those united in the cause of improving schools have trouble on agreeing how best to do so, was the lesson at a Monday panel on integration. The researchers, lawyers, politicians, and activists discussed and debated socioeconomic and race-based school integration, and were far from reaching a consensus.
Professor Minnow gave a brief introduction of the speakers and emphasized that although the panelists were focusing on the Cambridge socioeconomic school integration plan, it was a national issue, particularly in light of plans currently before the Supreme Court that factor in race.
The speakers began by giving brief presentations of socioeconomic school integration issues. Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation and HLS ’89, mentioned he had taken Minnow’s class his 1L year.
“I still remember it. I was the very first person to be called on the first day of class and I flubbed the question.”
Kahlenberg went on to describe a world in which there are two systems of public schooling, one for the rich and one for the poor. He believed that poor academic performance was more about poverty than about race.
“40 years ago, researchers found the most important predictor of achievement was the socioeconomic status of the student’s family and second most was socioeconomic status of schools,” he said. “These schools had more positive peer influence, fewer discipline problems, active parents, and attracted the best teachers. Racial difficulties arise not when there are too many African-Americans, but rather when you have concentrations of poverty. It’s not that black children do better, but that poor children do better in middle class schools.”
Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU’s National Racial Justice Program, hoped that the Supreme Court would not force schools into a position in which socioeconomic considerations only and not race could be taken into account when placing students.
“Will use of socioeconomic status reduce the achievement gap?” he asked. “I believe it will in part do that. But I believe that racial and ethnic isolation also have an effect. The problem with the formulation is that it underestimates the powerful effect of continued racial isolation in society today.”
Anthony Galluccio, former Cambridge Mayor and School Board Chair, contended that segregation was alive and well in Cambridge, and noted the self-segregation that came with school choice.
“I would maintain that taking away choice made a difference in our high schools. The reality: spreading middle class parents through the system made all the difference in academic performance, teacher accountability, and principal accountability,” he said. “In a city that has a perfect balance of kids, during race-based desegregation, people resegregated themselves. In a city with poor white kids, Latinos, and African-Americans, it didn’t work.”
Kathy Reddick, President of the Cambridge Chapter of the NAACP, detailed the history of magnet schools designed to entice middle class white parents to send their children to inner city schools. The benefits of these programs have yet to be felt by minority students.
“Cambridge is not a poor district,” she said. “It has $22,000 plus budget per child, [but there] remains a serious lack of will to educate all toward proficiency. Socioeconomic status is a means to educate wealthy children. We have not seen [minorities] move toward the level of affluent children, or full integration in honors and AP classes. Race does still matter in public education, and socioeconomic status cannot substitute for the value of racial inclusion.”
Minnow then asked the panelists what the effect might be if the Supreme Court rejects race as an allowable factor in student placement.
Parker felt socioeconomic status alone would do little to cure the achievement gap.
“You could have a socioeconomically balanced school that is a one race school. My fear is that this system will consistently lead to AA students being denied opportunities. Unless you address race, you’re not going to get rid of the gap.”
Galluccio reemphasized his earlier point about self-segregation by parents.
“All of the discussion relies on a choice based system, but choice in itself is imbalanced,” he said. “Wealthier parents tend to take advantage of it…It’s inherently biased against poorer folks.”
“With choice with no controls, yes that will occur,” said Parker. “You have to impose controls on how choice works. Louisville [one of the school districts whose plan is up before the Supreme Court] had a racially balanced school system. I believe economic integration is important, but I think there are ways to approach it that recognize it’s not one or the other.”
After a discussion on special programs within the schools and the different amount of access by various groups, Minnow asked the panelists what advice they would have for the next generation. Galluccio advocated focusing more attention on the pros and cons of charter schools. Reddick thought that changes should no longer be on “the backs of students of color” and that Cambridge was capable of leading the way in fully integrating each level of its classes.
“We need teachers and superintendents to lead this new movement,” she said. “We need to build successful schools for all students. It can be fixed and we can fix it.”
Parker suggested that schools still do not take into account the needs and desires of minority students and parents.
“My experience suggests that public education and community involvement are important,” he said. “How do you educate all children and why do we seem content at leaving a group uneducated? When we say ‘parents prefer’ what we mean is that ‘white parents prefer.'”
Kahlenberg tried to focus his remarks on overall school improvement.
“It is about raising the overall quality of teachers and then where those teachers are distributed in the system,” he said. “The kids who need them the most are getting the worst teachers.”
Reddick concluded her remarks by pointing out that it was not self-segregation by parents so much as feeling unwelcome in certain schools. She felt the school board was not doing enough to steer families toward the best schools.
“It’s not self-segregation, it’s where you’re invited to go,” she said. “My kids all went to Agassiz, now the Baldwin school, and it was the most uninviting school to a person of color. Parents shouldn’t be making a choice because it’s across the street, but because it has success.”
The panel was co-sponsored by the ACLU-HLS, the American Constitution Society, the Black Law Students Association, the Civil Rights/Civil Liberties Law Review, Direct Action Against Poverty, the Latino Law Review, and La Alianza.