School integration matters, but so do other reforms

As communities across the country rekindle decades-old battles over racial integration, education reform advocate Chris Stewart argues that other efforts to improve schools and create new options for parents shouldn’t take a back seat.

Most black parents are realists. There is no evidence that perfect integration will occur soon, but our kids need an education today. With this in mind, it is unnerving to see integration fundamentalists criticizing policies aimed at educating our kids where they are. To them, reforms that assist marginalized communities are a consolation prize for our failure to achieve an idealized picture of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream community. To us, they’re an imperfect but ultimately useful pathway helping us to navigate our kids through a racist society.

What if the supposed beneficiaries of public school integration aren’t actually pining for it? There is a long line of black intellectual thought that questions the primacy of integration as an educational goal and as a means of cultural health for black children.

W.E.B. Dubois said: “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education. What he must remember is that there is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools. A mixed school with poor and unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of truth concerning black folk, is bad.”

It’s not that integration isn’t a worthy ideal. It’s often an elusive one, and is sometimes cast as an alternative to charter schools, school choice, and other policies aimed at improving educational outcomes for children who are short-changed by the existing system. Consider the case in Minnesota, where Stewart once served as a school board member, and where charter schools that predominantly serve children of color are trying to fend off the imposition of desegregation rules.

Charter leaders say the rule would have had a disastrous effect on some of Minnesota’s most successful high-poverty schools, many of which have attracted large numbers of students of a single race or ethnicity. Legal protection for parents who choose these schools would have been eliminated.
Meanwhile, mainline district schools in very wealthy communities that are exclusively or nearly all-white would remain untouched. Only schools where 20 percent or more of students are nonwhite must take steps to integrate.

The question here is really about power. Segregation took root in an environment where black families had almost no say in where their children went to school. A renewed focus on integration may help correct that imbalance (and Stewart notes its benefits for students are clear). But it’s far from the only way.