Over the past two weeks we have watched the formation of a startling national consensus that we see “structural” or “systemic” or “institutional” racism in our police departments and criminal justice systems. Where else do we encounter it? In schools.
Recently we’ve heard the shorthand that one’s zip code is a determining factor in life expectancy. It’s also the primary determining factor in the quality of a child’s education. There is significant evidence that school segregation enforced by residency, parents’ educational attainment, and family income are the most important factors in how children will fare in school and their later employability.
Let’s be clear that the dominant system of school funding, property taxes, produces wild inequities between poor urban districts (majority black) that may spend a third of what a wealthy (majority white) suburban district spends on its students, who are already advantaged by parents with money to spend on high quality preschool and summer camps, cultural activities such as art classes and music lessons, museum memberships, travel, not to mention higher quality food and medical care. We see this disparity play out in the data: performance on state wide and national tests, graduation rates, college admissions. Let’s note that there are also majority white, but poor, rural districts that are struggling as well.
Right now, as the pandemic offers a restart, and the public will appears to favor making significant change to address structural racism, let’s change the way we organize and fund our schools. Radically. As an example, let’s take the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania and wipe out all the current district boundaries. Let’s redraw those boundaries into fewer districts with a more equal number of students, smaller than the largest district, Philly (200,000+ students), and larger than the smallest rural district (less than 100 students.) And then let’s commit to spending an equal amount on every regular education student, which will require the creation of a new funding system for schools.
In practical terms, what will this look like? Let’s take Philadelphia and its surrounding school districts. Redistricting with the specific aim of racial and economic equity might mean that segments of the Philly district would be linked with segments of geographically aligned suburban districts in Montgomery County such as Abington, Cheltenham, Springfield, and Lower Merion. It might mean that in Delaware County, the majority black, low-income and perpetually struggling Chester Upland District would be merged with the majority white, wealthy, and high performing Wallington-Swarthmore School District. Current district names would be changed so there is no misunderstanding that one district is absorbing another.
Understand: This is not about busing. This is about creating new districts with new boundaries and sending kids to schools within those boundaries based on location and racial balance. We could certainly expect to see many dilapidated schools rebuilt in new districts because families with privilege have the power to challenge eighty year old schools infested with mold or endangering occupants due to asbestos or schools without playgrounds, libraries, and modern technology.
Needless to say, something like this is incredibly complicated and would need significant planning time with all stakeholders and ongoing oversight. One can also assume that such a plan would encounter strong opposition from many white residents in majority white and high performing districts, as well as from teachers unions and some politicians.
Throughout the past ten days we have seen huge urban demonstrations of black and white people in support of #Black Lives Matter, and significantly, smaller supportive demonstrations in largely white communities. So here’s the question: are we willing to make a change that will have long term results in addressing structural racism but will involve deep change and probably some sacrifice from whites who have benefitted from the current educational map and funding formula? Now’s the time.