At first blush, the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling two weeks ago against public school districts in Seattle and Louisville that used race as the determining factor in efforts to integrate their campuses seemed like a blow to advocates of diversity. But with all due respect to the great Justice John Paul Stevens-who in a dissenting opinion was harshly critical of Chief Justice John Roberts for being disrespectful and disloyal to the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education-the way we see it, the recent decision isn't all that big a setback.
First of all, Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his concurring opinion, left the door open when he disagreed with the other four justices in the majority by saying that racial diversity in schools is a compelling state interest-he simply doesn't believe it's constitutional if race is the only consideration when making student assignments. So the majority of the court is on the side of allowing schools to consider race as part of the path toward avoiding racial isolation.
But a better reason for optimism is that race doesn't have to be the primary tool in diversifying the public-education experience in America. While achieving a racial balance on campus that closely resembles the racial balance in the greater community is terribly important, it's not the ultimate goal. Too many conservatives seem to think we seek diversity solely for the sake of diversity-that we just want to conduct experiments in social engineering for the hell of it. No, the Holy Grail here is closure of the so-called education achievement gap, and we think a better way of going about it is by diversifying schools by blending the socioeconomic classes.
A nice byproduct of realizing economic diversity would be realizing racial diversity, because economic lines tend to follow racial lines-and, as we all know, familiarity breeds understanding-but the more important outcome would most certainly be better educational performance for more students currently attending schools in low-income neighborhoods.
We don't need studies to tell us what we know just by common sense: Learning is an uphill battle for children who live in poverty, from the moment they wake up in the morning, no matter what box they fill in next to 'race.' They're less likely to eat healthy meals. They often live in households led by parents who either don't possess the tools to be supportive or are simply too busy dealing with the pressures of poverty themselves. Their neighborhoods are dangerous. Their peers, stuck in a cycle of poverty and low expectations, are much less likely to aspire to do well in school as kids in middle-class neighborhoods. We truly are products of our environments.
This is why we want to spread these kids out among middle- and upper-class schools-to show them another way, to get them around kids who are benefiting from healthier surroundings at and away from school. It's not that we think black and Latino children will be smarter if they sit next to white or Asian children-it's that poor children stand a better chance if they're not constantly surrounded only by other poor children. It's really very simple.
But while socioeconomic integration doesn't immediately pose the constitutional problems suddenly associated with overt racial integration, it still isn't an easy pill to swallow for many parents. Most people want their children educated in their own communities, and that's understandable.
That's why, taking the long view, we need to focus on diversifying our neighborhoods; if we have balanced micro-communities, we won't need to fight over educational integration.
Certainly, you can't force well-heeled families to live where they don't want to live, and, obviously, poor folks can't afford to live where many of them would like to live. To be sure, engineering school assignments is much easier than engineering residential assignments. But we can promote policies that facilitate socioeconomic balance. We can get behind ambitious, aggressive affordable-housing policies. We can get creative with incentives for developers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who build and invest in low-income communities. We can support redevelopment plans that genuinely adhere to the spirit and the letter of state law, which allows for cities to capture more property tax money by revitalizing blighted areas (are you listening, San Diego?).
Roughly 40 communities across the country have begun using socioeconomic integration. The Century Foundation, a public-policy think tank, profiled a dozen of them in a report released on June 28, the same day the Supreme Court struck down race-based integration. To read it, go to www.tcf.org and click on 'Education' on the left side of the page.
'All students-rich, poor, black, white, Latino, and Asian-perform significantly better in schools with strong middle-class populations than they do in high poverty schools,' said Richard Kahlenberg, the author of the report.
It's really just common sense, though, isn't it?
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