It Just Might Work: School integration


I’ve been a big fan of investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones ever since I heard her riveting, two-part series on school segregation on WBEZ Chicago’s “This American Life,” last July.

The story, “The Problem We All Live With,” intuitively leaps into the fray over unequal educational opportunities with Hannah-Jones’ observation that the mother of Michael Brown, the Ferguson, Mo. teenager killed by a white police officer in 2014, fixated her grief and outrage on her efforts to make sure her son had graduated from high school.

As Hannah-Jones recounts, the Normandy School District — an academically struggling district with 97 percent black enrollment, where Brown was educated — lost its accreditation. De-accreditation triggered a Missouri law allowing students from the unaccredited district to switch to a nearby one for free. Although many school officials believed students would find it inconvenient to leave the district, Hannah-Jones reported that 1,000 students — nearly a quarter of those enrolled — joined an exodus to Francis Howell School District, a predominantly white district.

“And that is how Missouri accidentally launched a school integration plan in what was an unfashionably late year for such a thing: 2013,” Hannah-Jones says with no small amount of irony. Integration as an educational policy — synonymous with the racially charged term “forced busing” — has largely fallen out of favor across the country as school districts began to re-segregate in the 1990s.

The uproar from white parents in Francis Howell School District and blatant use of racial stereotypes reacting to the new arrivals strongly suggests that educational desegregation in the 21st Century wouldn’t go much differently than it did in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957.

Follow any debate about school assignment zones in North Carolina, Missouri or virtually any other part of the country, and the theme of white parents shopping for real estate to try to ensure their children get into good schools and are insulated from exposure to those kids is virtually ubiquitous. Meanwhile, every school district in the country struggles to address the widening achievement gap, often by putting additional resources in challenged schools, with little or nothing to show for it.

Hannah-Jones tells her own family’s story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, noting that Americans in their early forties entered middle school at the historic moment when integration was most fully realized.

“By 1988, a year after [my husband] Faraji and I entered middle school, school integration in the United States had reached its peak and the achievement gap between black and white students was at its lowest point since the government began collecting data,” she writes. “The difference in black and white reading scores fell to half of what it was in 1971, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. (As schools have re-segregated, the test-score gap has only grown.) The improvements for black children did not come at the cost of white children. As black test scores rose, so did white ones.”

Strangely, integration is the only policy option that’s not up for discussion, from the local to the federal level. Why won’t we try it?