The Dream Revisited

Economic Segregation of Schools is Key to Discouraging Integration

by Micere Keels | April 2014

My comments focus on economic integration because I believe that desegregation efforts will be stymied for generations to come, due to the ways in which race and ethnicity are linked to income and wealth. Not even the most postracial White Americans will reside in mostly minority neighborhoods if it means sending their children to higher poverty schools.

I teach an undergraduate course that links urban racial and economic segregation to the problems of high poverty schools. I am at one of the most expensive universities in the U.S., a place where students from well-off families come to get the credentials that will secure their place at the top of the economic ladder. However, it is also a place filled with students eager to look beyond themselves and change the status quo. These are the students who take my class. Students vigorously discuss the problems with economic segregation, talk about their volunteer efforts in poor communities, and pledge to not return to the disconnected suburbs in which they grew up. They inevitably become indignant that previous generations have allowed racial and economic segregation to stand. 

At this point in the course, I try to get them to viscerally understand why despite their good intentions they, and I, are part of the problem. I ask them to think about their future child and whether, when the time comes, they won't do all that is in their power to give their child every educational resource they can. First the class gets quiet, then they stop making eye contact with me, then they start to squirm and shuffle, and then I let them know that they don't need to answer they just need to remember this moment.

We recently examined whether gentrification benefits the local neighborhood public school, and found that socioeconomic integration of formerly poor neighborhoods did not lead to socioeconomic integration of neighborhood schools. Neighborhood schools went largely untouched by the children of gentrifiers. Furthermore, despite the, good or at least benign, intentions of gentrifiers, neighborhood schools sometimes evidenced marginal harm as they became depopulated and received a smaller share of per-pupil funding.

This is because we are increasingly living in the era of school choice, a well intentioned idea. However, using school choice to incentivize higher income families with children to stay in large urban cities means that higher and lower income families can live in the same neighborhood without living in the same community. Community means more than geographic proximity. Sharing a school makes parents a community and makes their children schoolmates. Sharing a school makes parents shared stakeholders in the quality of that school, and shared stakeholders in each other's children. When I chaperone a field trip I don't just ensure that my son comes back safely, I help to ensure that all the children come back safely. 

I remember taking a policy course from Fay Lomax Cook while in grad school at Northwestern, and the lecture that I will never forget was the one on how much better systems function when everyone in society understands their stake in the effectiveness of that system. School economic segregation allows those with resources to erroneously believe that their children's fortunes are separate from the fortunes of children attending high poverty schools.

In part, this is because many mistakenly believe that hoarding resources gives one's children and the children of similar "hardworking" parents the competitive advantage. This may work for one's children in the short-run, but in the long-run this hoarding of educational resources among a few results in lower overall economic growth. 

When I talk with those who grumble about paying to educate "other people's" children, or worry about non-neighborhood children taking advantage of their educational resources, I try to remind them about the interconnectedness of our lives. That when they get old they will be grateful that their high school educated home health worker can read and interpret their doctor's instructions. That they need their garbage man much more than their financial analyst. That their neighborhoods are safer when those at the bottom of society feel they have a stake in it, not crushed by it.

White students are the most segregated group, attending schools where, on average, more than 75% of the students are White. Because this has the immediate effect of consolidating economic resources, segregation does not harm White children's test scores, but there is more to schooling than academics. As we come closer to becoming a majority-minority population, the ability to collaborate across racial and ethnic boundaries will be invaluable. This is best accomplished when children grow up in diverse neighborhoods and schools, where they learn to appreciate cultural differences, rather than learning to be tolerant of cultural differences as adults. 

Micere Keels is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development and faculty affiliate with the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago.

More in Discussion 3: Ending Segregation: Our Progress Today