“I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”—Muhammad Ali The late, great Muhammad Ali said it as only he could: America is getting more diverse and it is delusional for people to resist it. That doesn’t mean they won’t try. The Republican party has a presidential nominee who openly says
racist things even as he insists he isn’t racist. We will find out in a few months whether his message resonates outside a narrow segment of the electorate. Meanwhile, millions of Americans who would not consider themselves racist make individual choices to live in segregated communities and send their kids to segregated schools. Today, schools in America are
more segregated than they were 50 years ago and, with a
few notable exceptions, efforts to integrate schools have mostly been abandoned. New York Times magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, Black and middle class,
argues that integration is the best strategy to improve educational outcomes for kids of color. However, in a more recent piece, she explains
her family’s decision to enroll her child in a low-income, mostly-Black Brooklyn public school so as not to be “part of the problem” that leaves low-income, Black kids isolated in underperforming schools. Now that the school is improving, however, Hannah-Jones fears rather than welcomes integration. She worries that children of color will be marginalized by incoming White, middle-class kids, as has happened elsewhere in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Kate Taylor writes in The New York Times about a
game of musical chairs on the Upper West Side of Chicago as middle-class White parents and low-income families of color are shuffled around by changing school boundaries defined by race and class. New York City has a new
school integration plan but it’s unclear whether it will drive integration or simply track and report on changing school demographics. African-American Minnesota education activist
Chris Stewart evokes W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King Jr. to make his case that integration—while a lofty ideal—won’t happen anytime soon and will distract us from the more important work of improving educational quality for kids of color right now. Stewart writes:
If the American majority wanted integrated schools, we would already have them. Instead, many white families select schools in ways that create social distance between their children and other races. This leaves people of color who love our children to wonder how long we can chase them and continue to further the insulting delusion that Black student achievement can only be had in proximity to Whiteness.
Online magazine Slate dedicated a week to the issue of
race and education, pointing out that, for the first time in history, children of color make up a
majority of the school system. In addition to being over 50 percent people of color, the system is also 50 percent “poor” for the first time in history, with “poor” defined as qualifying for free and reduced lunch.
So what are the political and educational consequences of a system that is Blacker, browner and poorer? Will middle-class America adequately fund the system or will inequity worsen? Today,
America spends about $1,500 less per pupil on poor students than on wealthier ones and about
$2,000 less per pupil on poor students who are Black or Hispanic.
Will middle-class parents of color stay with the system or leave? Today, the parents of nearly 10 million students have opted out of the traditional public school system for private schools, charter schools and home-schooling. Dozens of states now allow the use of public tax dollars for private education through vouchers or education savings accounts; 43 states have charter schools serving nearly three million children, more than half of them students of color; homeschooling is expanding, especially among
higher-income African-Americans. Will the burden to improve a system serving more and more disadvantaged students be too much? Efforts to reform public schools have largely focused on the bottom 5 to 10 percent of schools, mostly in inner cities. With poverty spreading to suburbs and continuing in many rural communities, educational underperformance will be more widespread. Will we define down success or take reform to the suburbs? A new
blog for suburban and rural parents nationwide is asking. Diversity in teaching is another challenge for a changing system. Will college-educated adults of color choose to work in the field? Today, only
18 percent of America’s teachers are people of color and the number of education majors is also down suggesting that interest in the field is waning. One Philadelphia principal is
working to change that but the low salaries and low stature of teaching is a problem for higher-educated people of color. All of this change renders somewhat irrelevant a recent debate among
education reformers asking if the school reform movement can still accommodate White conservatives advocating choice and Black activists focused on structural racism. The fact is, schools are changing and the movement has to adapt. As Muhammad Ali might say:
Get used to it.
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