Are magnet schools a failed integration strategy? New York Times education writer Nikole Hannah-Jones thinks so and challenged magnet school teachers and administrators to return magnet schools to their original purpose of promoting integration. In a keynote speech at the Magnet Schools of America conference in Chicago last week, Hannah-Jones pulled no punches, calling magnet schools “tools of inequality” designed to “keep White parents in a district and not integrate schools.” A critic of school choice as currently implemented, Hannah-Jones said that magnet schools teach parents to “shop” for schools. In the process, however, “We have lost the moral message of public schools: that they are about a common, not an individual good.” Like every policy, there are positives and negatives to magnet schools. On the upside, high-performing magnet schools keep in the system some middle-class families who would otherwise probably leave. The best of them help meet the educational needs of more gifted students and, in many cases, they do create racially and economically diverse schools. On the downside, magnets draw the stronger students of color out of their neighborhood schools, reducing academic diversity in those schools. “You cannot scale exceptional schools,” she said, adding, “If we all keep making decisions to preserve our own advantage we will just sustain an unequal system.” A recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Hannah-Jones famously wrote about
her decision to enroll her daughter in a high-poverty, mostly Black neighborhood school in New York City rather than use her middle-class income and personal connections to enroll her in a more privileged public or private school. The reaction to her article ranged from devotional kudos to outraged disbelief that she would “sacrifice” her child’s education to bolster her argument against choice. Her response was to point out that children in racially isolated schools are being sacrificed every day. She shared stories of bright students of color denied access to racially or economically integrated schools, which invariably have more resources and rigor. “Separate is inherently unequal,” she said. She also provided data showing that
Black-White achievement gaps began shrinking when the federal government forced integration in the late 1960s and hit its lowest point in the late 1980s just as the retreat from integration began. “We cannot ignore the one reform that has actually equalized our society,” she said. It is hard to argue with Hannah-Jones’ definition of the problem. Today, American public schools have
re-segregated and racial achievement gaps in some subjects and grades have widened slightly since the late ’80s. She suggests that the gaps would have continued to shrink had America stayed with integration. In theory, school choice in the form of magnet and charter schools promotes integration by serving students from different and diverse neighborhoods. In practice, however, most magnet and charter schools in Black or Latino neighborhoods of Chicago serve students of color while those in White neighborhoods serve much higher percentages of Whites. Nevertheless, the biggest driver of segregation in public education is not school choice but its opposite—neighborhood school boundaries tied to segregated housing patterns. As author Richard Rothstein documents in his book, “The Color of Law,” with respect to school segregation, housing policy is education policy. Hannah-Jones also criticized the teaching profession, which remains overwhelmingly White even as Whites no longer make up the majority of public school students. “I don’t understand educators who work in schools where they wouldn’t send their own children,” she said. She also named the elephant in the room: “Racism is embedded in the fabric of our country,” said Hannah-Jones. She reminded the audience that just twelve years after the first settlers founded the colony of Virginia in 1607, the first African slaves were brought to America. She told how Thomas Jefferson had to remove all mention of slavery from the Declaration of Independence as a compromise to get Southerners to sign. Jefferson, of course, owned slaves and co-authored the Constitution that codified second-class citizenship of Black slaves with the “three-fifths” clause, which counted each slave as three-fifths of a person. Another 80 years or so passed before slavery was outlawed, followed by a century of what Hannah-Jones called “legal apartheid.” Finally, in the 1960s, Congress passed laws making discrimination in education, housing, voting and employment illegal. Hannah-Jones is making a moral appeal to Americans to choose integration, but in today’s political environment, it’s largely falling on deaf ears. While think tanks like the Century Foundation
celebrate and promote some limited integration successes, most people still choose to live in segregated communities and enroll their kids in segregated schools. Few school districts have maintained forced integration policies. Many, in fact, are going the other way. Since 2000,
71 communities have seceded or attempted to secede from integrated school districts, typically along racial lines. Even bastions of progressivism like the
Upper West Side of Manhattan resist integration. Hannah-Jones closed by saying, “It is a choice: We choose equality or we choose injustice.” Ironically, her use of the word “choice” gets to the core challenge: Most Americans are making their choice every day and it’s not integration.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with