Education Policy is Civil Rights Policy

In an article just published in the journal Race and Social Policy, I reviewed why education policy is inseparable from civil rights policy. Failure to recognize this connection is the greatest impediment to improving the academic performance of disadvantaged African American and other minority and low-income children.

For years now, education policymakers and advocates have attempted to close the black-white achievement gap by reforming schools. The primary vehicles have been greater accountability for schools and teachers, higher expectations for students, deregulation and semi-privatization by charter schools, and more recently, curricular reform with the Common Core.

All efforts, however, have come up short. The racial achievement gap remains.

In 2008, a group of distinguished experts from diverse backgrounds in social policy, education, religious leadership, and public health issued a statement observing that if children come to school unprepared to learn because of impoverished economic and social conditions, school reform will fail if those conditions remain unaddressed. Since that time, there has been some public (and Obama Administration) attention to the importance of high-quality birth-to-five early childhood programs to bring children to school more ready to learn, of school-based health centers to keep children healthy enough to learn, and of after-school and summer programs to prevent disadvantaged children from falling further behind in the non-school hours. However, this attention, while warranted, has been token, and the achievement gap persists.

These problems are compounded because disadvantaged children are concentrated—increasingly so—in segregated schools attended only by children like themselves. Such schools inevitably exacerbate the achievement gap because in classrooms filled with children needing remediation, the pace of overall instruction must drag.

There have been some worthy efforts to integrate disadvantaged children in more middle-class schools by employing limited inter-district busing and establishing magnet and theme schools combined with parent choice. Yet even if such programs were more widespread (as they should be), too few disadvantaged children live close enough to middle class neighborhoods to make this a feasible solution. Too many live in segregated communities, distant from all-white and all-middle class school systems.

Our metropolitan areas were not segregated by accident, but rather by a century of federal, state, and local policy that was racially explicit, designed purposefully to separate black neighborhoods from white ones. If we continue to believe that segregation happened by accident, it will be more difficult to design appropriate policies to undo it. Acknowledging this history is a first step towards remedies.

In a forum tomorrow, Sherrilyn Ifill, Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc., and I will discuss these themes as they apply to recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the broader St. Louis metropolitan area. We caution, however, that Ferguson and St. Louis are not outliers but rather are typical of communities throughout the nation—North, South, East and West. Tomorrow’s event will be live-streamed and archived for viewing afterwards.

In short: We can’t expect to narrow the achievement gap if children come to school unprepared to take advantage of what good schools can offer. If we concentrate such children in schools of poverty and racial isolation, raising their achievement is even more daunting. Desegregation is a necessary part of a school improvement strategy, and there is no way to desegregate schools without desegregating the urban and suburban neighborhoods of our metropolitan areas. And we are unlikely to embark on policies to desegregate if we fail to identify the racially explicit policies that created the segregated neighborhoods we know today.