Monday, September 17, 2007

Buying Off the Fighters (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

[To read the entire series, go here.]

After white parents in this racially mixed city complained about school overcrowding, school authorities set out to draw up a sweeping rezoning plan. The results: all but a handful of the hundreds of students required to move this fall were black — and many were sent to virtually all-black, low-performing schools.

--New York Times, September 17, 2007

An interesting article in today’s New York Times reports on an effort in Tuscaloosa to resegregate their public schools. As is regularly the case in America, today, this resegregation is being framed as an effort to create “neighborhood” schools. The same thing has been happening here in Milwaukee, for example. Of course, it just happens that “neighborhoods” in American cities are extremely segregated. So “neighborhood schools” are really a code-phrase for resegregation.

I don’t have any more information about this case than is provided in the Times article. But the article seems (probably unintentionally) to tell a fairly classic story about the catch-22s involved in empowering individuals instead of entire communities.

The article notes that black parents have been “battling the rezoning for weeks.” However, one of the key tools concerned parents are using is the provision in the NCLB law that allows students to transfer out of poor performing schools. As the article notes:

Parents looking for recourse turned to the No Child Left Behind law. Its testing requirements have enabled parents to distinguish good schools from bad. And other provisions give students stuck in troubled schools the right to transfer. In a protest at an elementary school after school opened last month, about 60 black relatives and supporters of rezoned children repeatedly cited the law. Much of the raucous meeting was broadcast live by a black-run radio station.

While “some black parents wrote to the Alabama superintendent of education” to argue “that the rezoning violated the federal law,” the superintendent noted “that Tuscaloosa was offering students who were moved to low-performing schools the right to transfer into better schools. That, he said, had kept it within the law.” Let’s assume that the superintendent is accurate in his understanding of the law for the moment (commenters are free to correct me).

In essence, what the whites in charge of Tuscaloosa schools may have done is turn some public schools into “open” schools for white children and inso “magnet” schools for children of color—especially poor children of color who, as usual, seem to have been especially targeted for exclusion. (In Milwaukee school leaders were more explicit about their intentions, seeking to create “neighborhood” specialty schools in white areas that students outside the neighborhood had to apply to get into.) As Kozol, among many others has noted, magnet schools are generally created in poor districts to keep middle-class professionals, often white, parents from leaving the district or sending their kids to private schools. By creating bureaucratic hurdles for admission, regardless of whether there are any real academic or other evidentiary requirements for admission, they keep parents with less savvy and social capital out.

In the Tuscaloosa case, even if the district simply allows every student whose parent jumps the hurdles they place in their way back in, the plan is likely to accomplish the resegregation (that they, of course, deny seeking) in the first place. In general, the students transferring back will be those with parents with the self-assurance to engage with the system and demand a transfer, parents likely to be less-poor than their neighbors, and more likely to be able to effectively support their children’s education. From a social class standpoint, in general these are probably not the families that white parents, administrators, and politicians most wanted to get out of their schools in the first place. Regardless of their skin color, or how contentious these parents may be, likely “they” are probably more like “us” than those “other” blacks and latinos.

In any case, the number of returning students is certain to be much smaller than the number excluded in the first place. The district reports in the article that they have “only” moved 880 students. Even if this is the truth, which I doubt (in my experience, there are many ways to play with these numbers), only 170 students apparently have requested transfers back in. So, at “worst,” only about 20% of those they wanted to get rid of are coming back. And in the future these numbers will probably fall as the controversy inevitably dies down. (I think NCLB also allows schools to refuse transfer if they are “full”, further ensuring that “too many” students can’t come back).

Finally, and most importantly from my perspective, those requesting transfers are likely to be students with the “squeaky wheel” parents. This is important because if you exclude a large number of poor students of color from particular schools and then let back in those students whose parents have the gumption to fight, you are essentially “buying off” those who are most likely to lead rebellion against the resegregation plan. This approach may allow you to resegregate while eliminating from the opposition those with the most leadership capacity, while probably also splitting the opposing black community along class lines.

While some parents with transferred kids will probably still fight against the problem of resegregation more generally, this approach may successfully prevent the emergence of the critical mass of strong leaders necessary to fight the plan over the long term.

Assuming the article is giving the correct impression about what is going on in Tuscaloosa, it would be interesting to see if what I am surmising actually takes place. It’s important to stress that I am not saying that we should necessarily eliminate escape hatches like this. Choices like these are often tragic. I’m only noting the potential consequences that they may produce.

Do some of the few apparently positive provisions of NCLB, actually end up making it easier for them to segregate the schools than if these provisions didn’t exist in the first place?

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