Oklahoma Segregation

John Thompson: What’s Behind the “Third Wave” of Resegregation

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John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, writes here about the resurgence of segregation in America’s schools.

He writes:

Are we heading into another resegregation era? A half century ago, at least in terms of urban education, “White Flight” gave Jim Crow a new lease on life. Then, Reaganomics subsidized more “suburban flight” as “Supply Side Economics” provided subsidies for moving good-paying jobs from cities to the exurbs. This further stimulated the “Big Sort,” or resegregation based on personal preferences. Segregation by choice, this time accompanied by gentrification and competition-driven corporate school reform, fired a second shotgun blast at inner city schools; this occurred as the Rightwing accelerated the destruction of our industrial base, and they were followed by New Democrats seeking to “end of welfare as we know it.”

Research by Cornell’s Kendra Bischoff, Stanford’s Sean Reardon, Ann Owens of the University of Southern California, and others raise the specter of a third wave of resegregation. Bischoff and Reardon recall that income segregation increased by 4.5% per decade since 1970. It has accelerated greatly since 2007. By 2012, more than 1/3rd of families in large metropolitan areas lived “in neighborhoods of concentrated affluence or concentrated poverty,” as “middle-class neighborhoods have become less common.” Moreover, Bischoff further explains why this segregation is so damaging to schools, “Local environments are important for children’s early and adolescent development, so the more polarized communities become, the more unequal the opportunities available to high- and low-income children.”

Reardon and Ann Owens add nuance to the sorry tale that we’ve always known – how flight from desegregated urban schools played a huge part in dividing modern America against itself. In doing so, it severely damaged our social and physical environments and our physical as well as moral health. Owens finds “that neighborhoods in the 100 largest cities became steadily more isolated by income between 1990 and 2010–but the segregation was driven by families with school-age children.”

She explains:

Whenever we talk about neighborhood and school segregation, they really go hand-in-hand. … There’s really a feedback loop, and it’s often framed as, we can never have integrated schools while we have segregated neighborhoods, but the flip side is true, as well. As long as schools are unequal and linked to neighborhoods, that’s going to play a big role in neighborhood segregation.

Reardon uses a massive Stanford database to analyze “16 different facets of racial segregation: school and residential isolation, segregation within and between districts, racial or socioeconomic isolation, and differences in how likely students are to be exposed to students of particular races or socioeconomic groups.” He shows how the racial achievement gap is not just a legacy of discrimination, personal racism, and poverty. Reardon explains:
Even after you control for kids’ family backgrounds, it’s quite clear in the data. … it’s something about school quality–not only about racial segregation, but about the fact that racial segregation in America almost inevitably leads to these kind of disparities in [students’] exposure to poverty and differences in the kinds of resources that schools have.

My Oklahoma City provides a clear illustration of the patterns these scholars document – of the devastation produced by Jim Crow, the Big Sort, and the devotion to personal choice, as well as our failure to face the moral facts of segregated life. The metropolitan area spreads over 621 square miles. The sprawl created a culture dominated by the automobile, and the resulting social and health care costs. Once a sturdy, frontier culture characterized by neighborliness, Oklahoma City became increasingly obese, isolated and susceptible to the politics of fear. Faced with desegregation orders, the Oklahoma City Public School System (OKCPS) immediately lost nearly half of its 75,000+ students. Now, the OKCPS is an underfunded, 86% low-income district which competes with 26 other school systems.

As Steve Lackmeyer’s Daily Oklahoman in-depth analysis, “Unsustainable,” explains, “After decades of sprawl, Oklahoma City officials know something must change.” Lackmeyer describes the way that previous forms of school choice drove the most destructive patterns of mindless geographical expansion. Developers would overbuild apartments on the edges of the city limits, outside the OKCPS boundaries. Then, to paraphrase one businessman, apartment growth “on the fringe” prompted expansion “beyond the fringe.” These complexes then deteriorated into violent and chaotic eyesores, undermining the quality of life in the areas that became inner-ring suburbs. This nudged the affluent further out into exurbs and school systems serving concentrations of children from extreme privilege.

It’s no surprise that developers overbuild apartments in those areas. Parents make the safest decisions for their own children, as opposed to what would be a best for society as a whole. Sean Readon’s database shows that the average OKCPS student’s test scores are about 2-2/3rds years behind the average student in Edmond, the rich suburb just to the north. However, these outcomes are explained by the deficits children bring to the school, not the quality of classroom instruction. Adjusting for socio-economic factors, student performance increases at very similar rates in the OKCPS and Edmond. (Both are below the national mean, however.)

It’s great that business and political leaders now understand that Oklahoma City must control suburban sprawl as it creates an even more vibrant downtown. But, we should not repeat the sins of the past and promote this third wave of segregation in the central city. There is no reason to believe that charter schools could provide a better education for the children of the Millennials who are moving into the central city. But, today’s developers, who criticize their predecessors for promoting destructive suburban sprawl, often embrace charters in the belief that they are a better “brand.” The worst example of this short-sightedness is the once-secret plan to create up to ten new charters, including a ring around downtown. Its advocates claim to believe that they could find high-performing charters that would not push out harder-to-educate children.

Of course, the new charters designed for upwardly-mobile professional families would not be “No Excuses,” teach-to-the-test schools. A new charter conversion law would allow a long list of institutions to sponsor selective and niche schools – even without the consent of teachers and patrons. The goal would be a “Portfolio” model like New Orleans. The reward and punish behaviorism of KIPP would be subsidized by turning the nicest buildings serving 100% low-income, predominantly black students over to that charter. The poorest children of color, special education students and English Language Learners, and survivors of extreme trauma, would be rejected from both the new charters designed for privileged families and the higher-poverty No Excuses schools. They would not be welcome in affluent charters. And, those that would be unwilling or unable to put up with the endless hours of nonstop teach-to-the-test at KIPP and other higher-poverty charters would be pushed out of the buildings that once housed their neighborhood schools.

In other words, Oklahoma City is just one example of today’s corporate reformers selectively learning the lessons of history. Segregation is awful for children and other living things. Integration is crucial to success in the 21st century, and urban revitalization is necessary to recruit the children of the suburbs and exurbs back into the city center. But, business leaders remain oblivious to the damage done to poor children by segregating them into charter schools.

There is a serious danger that the federal government, and top-down reformers who used the stress of high stakes testing to overcome the stress of the poverty which undermines student performance, will refuse to heed the lessons of history. Families with choices were bound to flee the bubble-in malpractice which corporate school reformers incentivized, prompting more separation. The market-driven reformers also used the stress of competition between charters and neighborhood schools, and the segregation which inevitably resulted, to supposedly reverse the legacy of Jim Crow. It will be even worse, however, as the failure of test-driven, competition-driven reform becomes apparent to corporate reformers, if they continue to respond by doubling down on charter schools and ignoring the ways that they contribute to resegegration.

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