A history of school districts and the American caste system

Matthew Ladner

A rendering of California’s Piedmont Unified School District’s new, $66 million STEAM building. The affluent district raises thousands more for each student in local property tax than nearby mostly not-rich and not-white Oakland.

Higher education writer and policy analyst Kevin Carey turned in a stirring indictment of school districts as instruments of racial and economic segregation in the quarterly journal Democracy. Carey drinks a different flavor of ideological tea than my preferred flavor, but as jeremiads go, this one is well worth reading. Carey’s delve into the dissents delivered by Justice Thurgood Marshall in the Edgewood and Milliken decisions are especially poignant. Marshall, the attorney in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, dissented furiously as the Supreme Court demurred from further action to equalize funding or consolidate districts for purposes of integration:

Marshall saw the future clearly. “School district lines, however innocently drawn, will surely be perceived as fences to separate the races,” he wrote. “In the short run, it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities—one white, the other black—but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret.”

Everything Thurgood Marshall feared came true. Detroit Public Schools have been perpetually wracked by crisis and decay. The wealth disparity along the Grosse Pointe border is so stark you can see it through Google’s satellite images—on one side of Alter Road, dense and prosperous neighborhoods, on the other, hundreds of vacant lots. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the Alamo Heights school district today receives more than $19,000 per student in state and local funds. Most of its students are white. Edgewood, still alone, gets less than $10,000. Ninety-seven percent of its students are Hispanic. The bigots who wrote the restrictive covenants into Alamo Heights property deeds all those decades ago were fighting a war for power and opportunity in the coming century. They won.

This history recalls the tragedy of Reconstruction in the old South and Plessy vs. Ferguson. Plessy’s “separate but equal” quickly turned very separate but entirely unequal. The North’s failure to prevent the South from replacing slavery with Jim Crow and sharecropping was a horrible betrayal of the sacrifices made during the war and of America’s ideals. White southerners lost the war but subverted the peace through exhaustion-inducing asymmetrical tactics. They lived in the South after all; the North, they reasoned (correctly), would not be capable of occupying their states forever. Decades later, in 1896, the Supreme Court faced the dilemma of following the clear intent of the Constitution, or alternatively issuing an order that the North had little stomach to enforce.

The court blinked, creating a repugnant “separate but equal” standard that would stand for decades until Brown vs. Board. Only a single Justice delivered a (blistering) dissent to separate but equal:

But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. … In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case.

Caste however is precisely the problem that Carey describes today. Americans buy their way into school boundaries with effective schools. Suburbanites have deep reservoirs of social, political and financial capital, and they have leveraged themselves heavily to purchase homes on the desirable side of district boundaries. District advocates possessed of a certain level of naivete often argue that “district schools take everyone.” The reality, of course, is quite different: District schools take everyone who can afford to live within their attendance boundary. Those who have paid the toll have a gigantic vested interest in the maintenance of the status-quo in the form of both access to the highest performing schools and with regards to property values.

One of Carey’s proposed solutions to promote school integration is to redistrict school districts in a way similar to those of legislative and Congressional districts. This would be an entirely admirable proposal if one’s purpose were to spur a nationwide political bloodbath every 10 years. For instance, the Maryland suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C., have a reputation as a progressive stronghold, but when a district there proposed redistricting, the community went to Defcon 5. If you want to stare into the abyss, read this article and imagine this happening everywhere every 10 years.

Fortunately, we have a different strategy available to us, and we’ve been pursuing a different strategy – creating school options where access is delightfully independent of the zip code in which the child lives: magnet schools, charter schools, private choice programs and home schooling. Public K-12 funding is safely enshrined in state constitutions, enjoys overwhelming public support, and won’t be going anywhere. Zip code assignment to schools, however, is a practice which does not merit anyone’s support. A frontal assault on purchased privilege may seem tempting but is as doomed to failure as the well-meaning efforts of the American Reconstruction.

If we look at the world as having a fixed sum of desirable schools, we should not be surprised if the wealthy hoard access to them. They already have this access, and they won’t willingly surrender it. They constitute an incredibly powerful bipartisan community of self-interest. If we expand the supply of desirable schools and thus weaken the link between zip code and schooling, and if we give communities of all types more options to specialized schooling, we have a chance.

We should not view an ideal school system as a forever war over finite seats in desirable schools. Rather, we should aim to create a liberal system of education giving educators the freedom to create education opportunities and families the flexibility to select between them based upon the interests and needs of the students – with meaningful levels of assistance for disadvantaged students.

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