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"Socioeconomic School Integration - A Response,"

by Makani Themba November/December 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

Richard Kahlenberg's might actually be the smart alternative to racial integration he asserts it is if it weren't for one troublesome thing -- racism. While not repeating Gary Orfield's fine critique of the piece, let me say that Kahlenberg appears to be unaware that racism is more than low income or limited access, that class cannot be a substitute for race. Additionally, the "evidence" he submits to support his argument has serious flaws.

Race and class are certainly both important factors in education policy, but there are plenty of issues to be dealt with outside of the space where the two intersect. Teacher expectations, fair student treatment, student sense of belonging, the presence of teachers of color, and culturally appropriate, culturally relevant instruction are all important elements of quality education that cannot be addressed without race-conscious remedies. The inarguable fact is that we can never hope to achieve quality education for all without addressing racism. Socioeconomic integration "by choice" is not only a poor substitute for addressing racism, it is an inadequate approach to addressing economic inequities.

Kahlenberg is partially correct when he writes that the presence of a core of middle-class families acting as advocates is the "single most powerful predictor of a good education." Aside from the fact that there is no single, most powerful predictor of a good education, broad political will to do what's necessary is critical to creating good schools. However, white middle-class families (and most certainly rich families) don't have to advocate as hard or as consistently for decent education as people of color have to. It is assumed that white middle-class children are deserving of quality education, and that their parents will make a fuss if they don't get one whether they advocate or not. People of color, regardless of class, must often work tirelessly for even substandard education. They are the folk who crowd the school board meetings and plea for books instead of worksheets, classrooms with light fixtures, and teachers who will treat their children fairly. Clearly, if advocacy alone is what gets a kid a good education, there would be a lot more highly educated poor kids of color and many more neglected middle-class students.

Race not only plays a factor in the efficacy and necessity of advocacy, it often determines the kind of information parents receive about their children's education so they know what they should advocate about. Parents of color are less likely to be formally engaged by teachers and less likely to be considered partners or peers in the educational process. Although part of the problem is that poorer schools often lack the infrastructure to provide formal, ongoing feedback on student progress beyond minimum district requirements, race has long been established as a factor in communication challenges between teachers and parents of color, regardless of class.

Adequate funding, well-trained teachers, involved parents, high expectations and modern equipment are among the necessary elements of a quality education. Who has these resources and why isn't limited to education policy. It is part and parcel of the sociopolitical context that created the inequities in the first place. Poorer schools have greater needs. There are more kids requiring remedial education, special education and other services. Before one even gets to administrative "bloat" (administrative abuse is not limited to high-poverty schools as Kahlenberg suggests), high poverty schools' administrative infrastructures are necessarily larger and salaries are often higher because many of these schools are in urban centers where it costs more to do business. Any school that significantly increases its share of "high maintenance" students will have to either increase its funding to keep up or fall woefully behind. That is the unavoidable reality that has dogged previous experiments with socioeconomic integration as well as racial integration -- few parents with a choice want to see their school's resources stretched between their kids and the children they perceive as "the troubled others." All of which demonstrates the underlying folly of assuming that somehow socioeconomic integration can happen without the same political fallout of racial integration.

The problems with Kahlenberg's argument are only compounded by his view that such integration should be accomplished by "choice." All over the country, choice programs are creating greater inequities between and within schools. In Roanoke, Virginia, where my four children attended school for three years, magnet programs developed priority slots for white students and reorganized special academic programs so that program participants had little contact with the school's "regular students." Addison Middle School's Challenge Program, for example, takes white kids regardless of their academic performance. Challenge students have their own staircase, corridor and section in the cafeteria. Addison is not alone. School districts all over the country are touting such measures in order to assuage parent concerns about student "safety" at urban schools. Although these magnet programs seem to create integrated schools, they are instead creating two separate but unequal schools within a school that focus the most resources on students with the least need. In fact, inequality at magnet schools has become such an issue that a number of civil rights groups have petitioned the federal government to investigate.

"Good schools" and "bad schools" are both products of a complicated mix in which racism and, more accurately, white privilege plays a major role. As evident throughout the excellent collection In Pursuit of a Dream Deferred: Linking Housing and Education Policy (eds. powell, Kearney & Kay), it's impossible to consider any kind of school integration looking at school policy alone.

Institutionalized white privilege and racism undermine quality education. The policies designed to maintain these systems of privilege and oppression serve to segregate people geographically and culturally in order to reserve the best resources for whites. Of course, there are some people of color who manage to benefit under this system and some whites that don't, but it's clear that the intention and outcomes of these policies are racially biased, and this bias must be remedied. Due to the overconcentration of poverty in communities of color as a result of white privilege, there are certainly benefits to be gained by interventions that seek to address class inequities. However, Kahlenberg's proposal seeks to ignore race and withdraw the power of law from efforts to address class. Both are wrongheaded and ignore the basic problem.

Poor schools are poor because they have inadequate resources to address the challenges they face -- and racism greatly compounds these challenges. Affluent schools are better because they have more resources and fewer challenges -- and white privilege greatly enhances their resources. The real problem is marshalling the political will to address the obvious. These are "only" poor kids of color, and that, sadly, is the point.

Makani Themba is director of a new Applied Research Ctr. Project, The Transnational Racial Justice Initiative (145 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011, 540/857-3088), which is attempting to leverage the upcoming UN World Conf. on Racism, Xenophobia & Other Forms of Intolerance to build capacity among US organizers to address structural racism. Her latest book is Making Policy, Making Change: How Communities Are Taking Law Into Their Own Hands (Chardon Press, 1999).


Makani Thmba ( writes and works on issues of rce, media and policy. Her latest book is Making Policy, Making Changes (Chardon Press).


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