Separate is Not Equal: Housing, Segregation and Educational Inequality

The few weeks before break, everyone at school was talking about the New York Times’ profile of Dasani, a heartbreaking reminder of the insurmountable challenges faced by the 22,000 homeless children in NYC and a testament to the  importance of affordable, safe and healthy housing for children’s success in school and in life. In a time when low-income neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying, the availability of affordable housing is becoming more and more of an issue for New York City public school students. At the same time, due to the very same patterns of gentrification, NYC public schools are faced with a golden opportunity to racially and socio-economically integrate schools after decades of increasing segregation. Integrated schools offer tremendous benefits to students of all backgrounds, and maintaining affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods is an important first step in the process of desegregation.

People don’t want to talk about integration, and they certainly don’t want to talk about it in the context of housing. Integration has been off the table for decades. This lack of discussion has led to increased school segregation for low income and minority students.

Today, many black children still attend schools in racially and economically isolated neighborhoods, while their families still reside in lonely islands of poverty.  Furthermore,  the isolation of black students, particularly of low-income black students, in predominantly black and low-income schools, is increasing.  In  New York, half the city’s 1,600-plus schools are over 90 percent black and Hispanic, making New York City public schools among the most segregated in the entire country. This rampant segregation is a matter of policy not circumstance, as is the lack of affordable housing in neighborhoods with high preforming schools.

A highly segregated school system is just one of the ways in which low-income students are being systemically mistreated by current educational policies.  Research has shown that the achievement of both poor and rich children is depressed by attending a school where most children came from low-income families. More important to the goal of achieving equal educational opportunity, the achievement of low income children increases by attending a predominantly middle-class school, while the achievement of affluent children in the school is not harmed. “(Gerald Grant (2009)

Second, education reform and the spread of charter schools has only served to worsen segregation by race and class so that low-income minority students’ experiences with school are radically different than their wealthier counterparts.  Thanks to a slew of policies surround No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, low-income children must struggle with a rotating mess of under-qualified teachers, inevitable school closures, constant test prep, and a military style emphasis on compliance and rote learning, even in early childhood. This article from Policy mic, outlines how ed-reform and the charter movement are increasing segregation and educational inequality.

“Just as red-lining was used for many years by the FHA to maintain racial purity and avoid ethnic mixing in housing, red-lining is a good description of what is going on today in urban public education to contain and isolate children of the poor in the new chain gang charter schools.  Thanks to requirements of No Child Left Behind, residents of urban areas who send their children to public schools with their sub-par testing results must contend with the federal label of failure and high risk, with public monies often withheld because the poor children in these schools cannot pass tests whose pass rates are directly correlated to family income. “

In other words, low income families who send their children to public schools face the specter of school closures due to low test scores and the resulting withdrawal of funding.  These families are then often pushed into military style charter networks, or at the least into new public schools with a similar buckle-down test prep curriculum.  In New York, the new teacher evaluation system will make schools in low-income neighborhoods even more likely to fail by tying teachers’ evaluations to test scores. Income is the biggest predictor of success on the test, so by tying school and teacher futures to test scores, we punish low-income students and force them out of an increasingly unstable public school system. The more segregated by class a public school is, the more likely it is to be shut down or deliberately underfunded.

“And as the teachers and principals in these schools have been blamed, then, for the student failure that poverty has assured, these red-lined schools are labeled, shut down, or reconstituted per the NCLB plan. The public school buildings, then, are often handed to corporate foundations in sweetheart deals enabled by new charter-embracing laws (try Indiana where charter corporations can buy an empty school for a dollar). Add some corporate, tax-sheltered venture funds and, bingo, a new intensely-segregated charter is born, complete with cheaper marginally prepared teachers (20% cheaper nationally), a chain gang instructional model, total compliance and constant surveillance, zero tolerance, no excuses, and little oversight (see what can happen when institutional safeguards are dangerously absent).”

Of course, this does not apply to every single charter in existence. There are a handful of community-based charters that strive to provide their students and teachers with quality learning experiences.  I student taught at a veritably progressive charter school. Its’ success was  in part due to the fact that it is socioeconomically integrated, with about 40 percent of the student body from the neighboring projects and the other 60 percent from gentrified Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights. Most charters, however, are both intensely segregated by race and class and are highly authoritarian, with a view that silence and compliance leads to learning. (Success Academies, Achievement First, Explore, Uncommon, Kipp etc. all subscribe to autocratic, drill based models of learning) In New York, only 5 of the over 125 charter schools qualify as integrated. Nationally, charters are less integrated than regular public schools. ( See the NY times profile of segregation in schools)

So not only are the policies of education reform perpetuating harmful and unjust segregation in public schools, but also, these policies are consigning our low-income students to the most dehumanizing models of education- models that whiter and wealthier students never have to endure. Low income students shuttled from underfunded public schools to charters and back again are deprived of their rights to fun, to creativity, to agency, to problem solving, to their individuality, to experienced teachers, and to meaningful learning experiences that will prepare them for life, not just the test.  As the article puts it, “in moving beyond No Child Left Behind in ways that are humane, effective, and efficient, we must implement education policies that challenge economic inequality rather than increasing it.” It may be easier to blame teachers, shut down schools and open shiny new charters, but in doing so policy makers are actually making matters worse by exacerbating segregation. If we want to help actual children, policies must address poverty and the stress and trauma that often accompanies it including food insecurity, lack of affordable health care, school segregation and yes, the lack of affordable housing in neighborhoods with good schools.

Locally, one such policy could be creating regulations that ensure the availability of affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods in NYC. This is a particular issue for my school, located in a rapidly changing neighborhood in Brooklyn. My school is in an integrated sweet spot now; We have about 65 percent low income students of color, and 35 percent middle or upper middle class students, mostly white.  It is a truly diverse school, in which students delight in learning about each others’ diverse cultural backgrounds, in which wealthier parents help source school uniforms and supplies for low-income families, and students who have just a few books at home can have playdates with kids who have a private library of hundreds of books. We also have two ethnically and socio-economically diverse dual language classes, and the program is growing. In my own classroom, I can devote more of my time and energy to my neediest students, because at least a few of my students are emotionally safe and sound, nevermind that their parents read with them for an hour each night. At morning meeting, we exchange greetings in Spanish, Swahili, Italian or Latvian.  And our kids are thriving.  A few years from now, however, many of our low-income students may be pushed out of the neighborhood due to rising housing prices. 7 of my students live in one dilapidated building around the corner from the school. If that building gets sold, my students will not be able to find housing in the neighborhood. Legislation that maintains affordable housing in our neighborhood and others like it will go a long way toward integrating schools and improving student achievement and learning experiences across the board.

If Diblasio wants to do one thing to help schools in New York City, he can make sure to create affordable housing for low income families throughout the city as part of a concerted effort to desegregate our school system. Since residential desegregation does not always immediately lead to school desegregation, city government and schools of all kinds will need to to appeal to both the low-income and higher income families in the neighborhood. Schools can do this by offering rich curricula complete with arts and science ( think noisy, productive classrooms, school gardens, field trips, art, music and dance ), community outreach and services for families in need, a comprehensive approach to special education, an emphasis on empowering students of all cultures and finally, progressive minded teachers and administrators who respect and value the differences their students bring to the table. We have a golden opportunity to finally get integration back into the discussion, by thinking not just about schools and instruction, but also, about where our kids go home to each night. There’s no place like home.