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Janresseger: NY Times Editorial: Together We Are Responsible for Equalizing Educational Opportunity Between Cities and Suburbs

This week, the New York Times editorial board published a stunning analysis of unequal educational opportunity among the children of America’s metropolitan areas. The facts are not new, but the effects of the coronavirus have so exposed economic and racial inequality that someone at the newspaper was motivated to pen a sort of manifesto for justice in the nation’s public schools. This piece is ground breaking because it names a reality that has remained invisible to many Americans:

“Our urban areas are laced by invisible but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gaptoothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and, all too often short.  Cities continue to create vast amounts of wealth, but the distribution of those gains resembles the New York skyline: A handful of super-tall buildings, and everyone else in the shade… Our cities are broken because affluent Americans have been segregating themselves from the poor, and our best hope for building a fairer, stronger nation is to break down those barriers.”

Here is the data: “Most poor whites live in mixed-income neighborhoods.  In the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, about a third of low-income whites—3.4 million people—lived in high-poverty urban neighborhoods in 2014, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.  By contrast, 72 percent of low-income blacks, or 5.2 million people, lived in high-poverty urban neighborhoods, as well as 68 percent of low-income Hispanics, or 6.7 million people.”

What has caused the current level of economic and racial segregation? The newspaper’s editors trace the history of the Great Migration: “As African-Americans migrated from the rural south to industrial cities… white communities, and their political leaders, aggressively funneled the new arrivals away from white neighborhoods.”  Then came redlining of mortgage lending and insurance company policies. Despite passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, “The wealth gap between blacks and whites allowed suburban communities to limit integration through zoning laws restricting the construction of denser, more affordable housing.”

Recent acceleration of economic segregation has further separated the experiences of our children and their exposure to each other. The NY Times editors quote groundbreaking 2013 research from Stanford University: “In 1970, 65 percent of the residents of large metropolitan areas lived in neighborhoods with median incomes close to the median for the entire area, according to an analysis by the sociologists Kendra Bischoff and Sean F. Reardon. Most neighborhoods, in other words, approximated the economic diversity of the broader community. But by 2009, only 42 percent lived in such neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the share residing in either very affluent or very poor neighborhoods more than doubled from 15 percent to 33 percent.”

Economic segregation overlaid on racial segregation “has reshaped central cities, filling downtowns with new buildings invariably described as ‘luxury’ condominiums and apartments…. But most wealthy families continue to reside in the suburbs that provide the bulk of housing in every metropolitan area except New York. These suburbs, created to maintain economic exclusivity, have become increasingly exclusive.”

What does it all mean? “Even in cities where the rich and poor continue to live under the same local government, economic segregation saps political support for common, egalitarian infrastructure… The consequences of segregation are particularly stark in public education.  Most urban areas are divided into dozens of school districts, each funded primarily by taxes on local real estate. Affluent families pay for access to high quality public schools by buying homes in those districts…” “Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Brown v Board of Education is not its condemnation of racial segregation, but the bitter lesson that much of America has successfully resisted the legal imperative to end segregation. Progress ultimately requires the consent of the governed: Economic segregation is getting worse because Americans with wealth and power don’t want to help Americans without wealth and power.”

What can be done?  “There can be no equality of opportunity in the United States so long as poor children are segregated in poor neighborhoods. And there is only one viable solution: building affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods. The federal government can help. In 2015, it provided $139.8 billion in payments, tax credits and other forms of housing subsidies—and 60 percent of that money went to households earning at least $100,000, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Imagine what could be accomplished if the government used that money instead to build housing that poorer families could afford to rent. The government also should require communities that want federal funding for roads and other infrastructure to allow the development of denser, more affordable housing,”  The Times editors suggest zoning reforms, and more rigorous enforcement of fair housing laws.

Finally we will need to build the political will for equalizing school funding: “The United States is virtually alone among developed nations in devoting more public resources to educating affluent children than poor children. Breaking the link between property taxing and school funding is an important first step. But equity requires a reversal of the current situation. It simply costs more to provide an equal education to lower-income students… A vocal group of critics has long questioned whether more public spending would improve education. Such arguments are exercises in obfuscation.”

In this piece, the NY Times pulls together research along with ideas long promoted by advocates for equality of opportunity in our public schools. What is stunning is for the editorial board of the nation’s largest newspaper suddenly and aggressively to take up the cause of justice for America’s poorest children in public schools. The writers conclude: “The success of affluent Americans in asserting the privilege to sequester themselves, to retain the benefits of their wealth within the boundaries of their communities, to ignore the welfare of those on the other side of invisible lines, is shortsighted.  This nation is ailing because so many of its citizens have no chance to chart their own destinies. A return to health requires a renewed commitment to provide every American with the freedom that comes from stability and opportunity….”

After you read the NY Times‘ editorial, I urge you also to read a companion piece. While the Times editors write from the point of view of the city and look outward toward the suburbs as they locate injustice, the New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos examines the same injustice from within one of New York’s most exclusive suburbs. Osnos, who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, does not specifically focus on the suburb’s public schools. His his interest instead is the growing faith in individualism that has, in communities like Greenwich, increasingly replaced a public ethic of responsibility for the common good:

“On the ground where I grew up, some of America’s powerful people have championed a version of capitalism that liberates wealth from responsibility. They embraced a fable of self-reliance… a philosophy of business that leaches more wealth from the real economy than it creates, and a vision of politics that forgives cruelty as the price of profit.  In the long battle between the self and service, we have, for the moment, settled firmly on the self. To borrow a phrase from a neighbor… we stopped worrying about ‘the moral issue here.'”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...