Thoughts on desegregation

Liam Julian

The first one is that the terms need changing. When we speak today of school ?desegregation? we?speak not?of the same sort of school desegregation that gave the phrase its resonance?i.e., the forcible insertion, occasionally by federal troops, of minority pupils into all-white classrooms in towns and cities and states whose political representatives were doing everything possible to keep minority pupils out. Now, one?can argue that in 2011?not a few?people still want to keep black kids and white kids separated, which is sadly probably true, but?2011 is patently not 1960 and making even inadvertent comparisons can be unhelpful. Today to?call a school ?segregated? is to attach to the observation historical recrimination, regardless of the claim's dictionary veracity. We should find better words.

Second, Kevin Carey is right to note as others have that creating racially diverse district schools requires that the district in question have a racially diverse student pool. Such pools are frequently nonexistent. Thus, as Carey writes,

That leads the conversation to desegregation policies that cross districts. After all, many high-minority districts sit inside larger metropolitan areas that are much more diverse. The fact that Wake County (atypically) encompasses all of such an area creates the conditions necessary for its desegregation program. But this also creates a new set of challenges.

First, it often means moving students non-trivial distances from their homes to schools and back again every day. That carries a significant non-educational time and money cost: resources spent on buses and trains aren't being spent on better teachers, and that assumes you have buses and trains to begin with.

True. (Why, then, does Carey elsewhere write that the Wake County program?if you don't know about it, see the Washington Post's coverage of the latest Wake-related controversies?is ?justly praised.? Certainly that program is ?moving students non-trivial distances from their homes to schools and back again every day.?) Carey continues:

So it's not that Arne Duncan and education reformers don't care about desegregation. The problem is that the legal and logistic barriers to creating anything like a comprehensive, effective national policy around the issue are very high. The best-known examples don't travel all that well, and it's not a coincidence that they are generally local policies. Where students go to school is an intensely personal decision for parents, one they often organize their whole lives around. I'm a pretty hardcore local control skeptic but this is an area where shifting decision-making up to state and federal governments strikes me as unusually hard to pull off.

The sort of?setup that Wake County attempted to institute hasn't worked in the past and will not work in the future because parents have made clear that they do not want their children sent to schools tens of miles away from their homes, whether or not such busing yields diverse student bodies. Carey calls himself a ?hardcore local control skeptic.? Count me among the hardcore skeptics of government programs that restrict individual choice in pursuit of broader, grander?societal objectives. And count me among those who believe that parents deserve no blame for resisting the type of ?desegregation? system that Wake County once had.

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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