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Separate But Equal: It Wasn't Then, It Isn't Now

In 1954, the Supreme Court, led by former Republican governor of California Earl Warren, overturned Plessy vs. Fergusen, the 1896 decision in which the Court had ruled that racial segregation in the schools was permissible under the Constitution as long as the education that was provided in the schools serving minority students was equal to the education provided to the majority students.  The Warren Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, essentially ruled that "separate but equal" is an oxymoron: If the schools are separate they cannot, by definition, be equal.  Everyone understood that the case was really about the legacy of the South's Jim Crow laws.  It was about officially sanctioned racial segregation, mainly practiced in the South.  The North, pleased with itself, cheered.  Now the shoe is on the other foot.  Now it is the form of segregation practiced in the North that is the issue.  We'll see who cheers now.  Let me explain. 

The civil rights laws passed in the wake of the Brown decision went further than the Court had, providing equal access to all sorts of facilities—public and private—that had previously been segregated.  When I was a young man just out of college and graduate school near Boston, Boston city councilwoman Louise Day Hicks was making a national name for herself standing at the schoolhouse door to prevent African American students in the city from being bused to schools in the Irish sections of the city.  Jonathan Kozol became famous for his book assailing Hicks from the cozy safety of his home in all-white suburban Newton. 

Fewer people heard about Ruth Batson, an African American woman born to Jamaican immigrants, who became a medical doctor, sat on the Board of the Massachusetts General Hospital and devoted herself to seeking better educational opportunities for young African Americans.  Batson did not seek to bus students from one part of Boston to another, nor did she devote herself to throwing bricks.  As a national, state and local NAACP leader, she helped to create a different kind of program, called the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, that would give inner-city African American children a chance to get bused out to to schools in the mostly white suburbs.  Before this blog comes to an end, you will hear more about Ruth Batson's idea.

Her idea did not take off.  But busing did.  And others came along, including magnet schools.  Magnet schools were a product of busing.  Busing produced white flight. Some white parents left the city because of simple prejudice, but many because they did not want their kids going to school with kids who, as they saw it, did not value education, disrupted classrooms and would hold back kids like their own children as the teachers taught to the middle.  So they left.  Cities saw their white, middle class tax-paying residents fleeing, leaving behind students and families who had less taxable income and required much more in support services.  Enter magnet schools.  These schools would get more money and better teachers than the average school.  They would also be schools to which white families would have preferred access.  The reasoning was that it was better to have schools that were semi-segregated that would keep at least some white middle class families in the city schools than to have virtually all the white middle class families leave, leaving behind only poor minority kids.  But, as more and more whites left, and the inner city turned poorer and poorer, and the reputation of city schools went from bad to worse, magnet schools were less and less of an attractive option for middle class white parents.  Racial segregation accelerated.  Poverty became more concentrated.  Employers who needed educated employees abandoned the city for the suburbs if they could, taking the good jobs with them.  Many cities became a melting pot for all the ills of modern society.

Then came charter schools.  Billed as the way to improve schools overall by introducing competition into a moribund government bureaucracy, they failed to capture the imagination of suburban parents who were, on the whole, quite happy with their schools.  So the proponents offered the view that inner city parents deserved the same kind of choices that suburban parents had.  The suburban parents would exercise their ability to choose when they selected which community they would purchase real estate in and the inner city parents would choose between regular public schools and charter schools.  The NAACP has recently observed that these two choices are not equivalent and has called for an outright ban on new charter schools as a result.  They note that the suburban parents rarely choose charter schools for their own children.  From the NAACP's point of view, if the charter schools are not good enough for the white suburban parents, maybe they are not good enough for the African Americans who live in the inner city. Maybe, just maybe, separate is not equal. 

And that gets me to the current state of play.  The years immediately following the Brown decision saw a gradual decline in racial segregation in our schools that continued through 1988. But, since then, as an increasingly conservative Supreme Court handed down rulings that limited the effect of its earlier decisions, the schools became increasingly segregated. Since then, the proportion of intensely segregated schools has more than tripled.  Social class segregation has followed the same pattern, steadily increasing since 1980, as both rich and poor become ever more likely to be living among people in their own income bracket.

So we should now consider another court case, this time Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. M. Jodi Rell, et al., a case filed in Superior Court in Hartford, Connecticut and decided by the Honorable Thomas G. Moukawsher in a decision handed down on September 7, 2016.  The complainants claimed that Connecticut's school finance system was unconstitutional because it did not provide enough funds for those cities to maintain a "thorough and efficient" system of education for their central city students and should be struck down.  

The judge did not join the plaintiffs in concluding that their schools were underfunded.  He could not tell whether they had enough funds or not; he could, however, conclude that the decisions made by the legislature on school funding were simply irrational and he ordered the legislature to come up with a funding formula in which there is some relationship between the allocation of funds and the state's responsibility under its constitution to provide a through and efficient education for all its students.  But he did much more than that.  Reading every word of his decisions from the bench—which took two hours—he displayed his outrage for all to see.  He found that, while the state as a whole has an enviable record in education, low-income students in 40 other states, including Mississippi, outperformed Connecticut's low-income students. Those poor children are concentrated in only 30 of the state's 1,269 municipalities. 

Barely able to contain his anger, the judge in his ruling directed his readers' attention to some of the consequences of this neglect. Sixth graders in the richest districts are four grade levels ahead of those in the poorest.  A functionally illiterate person can get a high school diploma in Bridgeport.  The system is in crisis. 

And here comes the most important part.  The judge made it clear that the state could not evade its responsibility for the appalling condition of urban education in the state.  It could not, he said, hide behind the tradition of local control to justify its failure to provide a thorough and efficient education to all students. He strongly implied that money alone was not going to solve the problems that the suit had brought to his attention.  It was going to take a thorough review of the whole system from top to bottom.

There is no place in the United States where money alone produces similar outcomes for poor and minority students on the one hand and wealthier, majority students on the other.  This should not surprise us.  Many years ago, the United States Commissioner of Education asked one of the nation's leading sociologists, James Coleman, to do a study of equality of education in the nation's schools.  He did so in the expectation that the report would show that schools serving poor and minority children had access to much less in the way of financial resources than schools serving richer, majority children and, further, that this lack of financial resources was responsible for their relatively poor performance. 

But that is not what the study showed.  It showed that the most important determinant of student performance isn't equal funding; it is the socio-economic standing—including education level—of the students' parents.  And the second most important determinant is the socio-economic standing of the other students in the school that a student attends.  Ruth Batson, it turns out, was right. More recent studies not only confirm the Coleman Report findings but show that, when two low-income minority inner-city families are identified as matched in every relevant way, and one family moves to a suburb where the parents have a higher socio-economic status, the children of the family that moves will do considerably better in school. Furthermore, though the formerly inner-city minority student in the suburban school does much better, the performance of the other students in that suburban classroom does not decline as long as the proportion of minority students in that school classroom is kept small.  That was precisely Ruth Batson's formula.

Separate but equal did not work in the South.  And it has not worked in the North, either.  The case Judge Moukawsher decided has been appealed and will be decided by the Connecticut Supreme Court.  Whichever way it goes, there are other, similar cases piling up.  Sooner or later, a supreme court at either the state or federal level is going to conclude that the modern version of separate but equal is no more constitutional than the 19th century version.

The root cause of the enormous and shocking difference in performance between Connecticut's inner cities and its wealthy suburbs is the local control of education finance.  It is this system of education finance that is responsible for the housing segregation that produces in turn the social class and racial segregation underlying the enormous disparities in student performance that outraged Judge Moukawsher.  The solution—easy to say but very hard to implement for political reasons—is an approach to the financing of local schools in which the state would collect the funds for the schools with a statewide tax and distribute those funds to each school based on student need, not local property wealth.  That is how school finance works in most of the top-performing countries. And it is the system we need, but, while we are waiting, maybe we should take another look at Ruth Batson's rather practical idea.

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