Is Education Journalism Driving School Segregation?

The question in the headline above must be asked because a recent study concludes that informed parents exercising choice are a cause of segregation. If that’s the case, then education journalism may be a culprit. After all, education journalists report on student test scores, graduation and college enrollment rates, school quality and other factors driving parent choice, including demographics. Should we censor education journalists? Shun them?

We all know that segregation perpetuates inequity in education, which is why the Supreme Court declared it illegal in 1954. But, of course, segregation didn’t go away as the media has extensively reported.

In whole regions of the country, White parents stopped enrolling their kids in schools with Black kids. Many switched to private schools. Millions of others moved to the suburbs. Local school boards and administrators drew attendance zones based on segregated housing patterns. And some White communities seceded from diverse school districts. 

After a dramatic national experiment in busing back in the 1970s, most school districts abandoned meaningful efforts to integrate schools and the courts abandoned oversight. A few intrepid leaders have continued to implement strategies for integration, as the Century Foundation reports, but for the most part, their efforts are limited.

Today, schools are just as segregated as they were in the 1960s and the reason is simple: racism. The inarguable fact is that most White people don’t want to live next door to people of color and don’t want their kids in school together. Even self-identified progressives won’t walk the walk when it comes to integration. Examples are everywhere.

Recently, a number of education journalists have revived debate on the topic of integration, most notably New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who insists it is the surest strategy for improving public schools. Anti-choice academics have answered the call with specious studies blaming charter schools for perpetuating segregation.

The charter argument is absurd. Many charter schools exist to explicitly serve communities that are already racially isolated. Accusing charters of increasing segregation is like accusing police of increasing crime because they disproportionately patrol in high-crime neighborhoods. They generally go where the need is greatest—or at least they should.

More recently, the study cited above blames school ratings published by non-profit Great Schools. It implies that publishing information about school quality empowers more affluent, more informed parents to choose better schools. As a result, children of less affluent, less informed parents, including many of color, end up isolated in worse schools.

This argument is equally absurd. The logical follow-up is to stop measuring and publicizing information about student outcomes. According to this fairytale, ignorance about school quality will somehow yield integration bliss.

Great Schools ratings are based on published information. They just do the work of pulling it all together and making it available for anyone who wants to use it. If people use the information to segregate, that’s on them.

But the idea that segregation might decline if the information wasn’t available defies history. Parents got information about school quality long before the internet, before mandated testing and before Great Schools. And many used the information to segregate.

Today, thanks to America’s system of educational transparency, it is no longer possible to deny gaps in achievement, in funding and other outcomes, like rates of graduation, college enrollment and completion. If America has made any progress in advancing equity, it is precisely because of transparency and the credit goes to the journalism sector and non-profits like Great Schools that are spreading the truth.

To the extent that integration helps erase inequities, we should all embrace it. But advocates for integration need to stay focused on the racism standing in their way instead of finding fault with organizations trying to work around our inequities to provide all children with a better education. 

Publishing information about school quality keeps us honest, forces tough conversations and holds us all accountable. That applies equally to ratings websites like Great Schools as it does to education journalists … even when some of them are barking up the wrong tree.

Peter Cunningham
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 Whiteboard ...

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