Excerpted from: Jamie Gullen, Colorblind Education Reform: How Race-neutral Policies Perpetuate Segregation and Why Voluntary Integration Should Be Put Back on the Reform Agenda , 15 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change 251 (2012) (340 Footnotes
Education has been heralded as the civil rights issue of our generation. President Obama spent much of his 2011 State of the Union Address speaking about the importance of education reform for the future of our nation. Throughout the month of September in both 2010 and 2011, NBC aired a special series called Education Nation, aimed at engaging policymakers and the public through persistent coverage on the state of education . . . . Waiting for Superman, a documentary released in 2010, challenged many of the current educational practices that may contribute to sub-standard achievement results for students in American schools. Despite all of the media and political attention focused on the education crisis in America, very little discussion has centered on the racial nature of the educational achievement gap.
While education reform efforts in the past twenty years from the federal to the local level have aimed to improve student educational outcomes generally, the racial achievement gap still persists. From national reading and math assessment data, to high school drop out rates, the picture is clear: students of color are scoring much lower on academic assessments than their white peers and are dropping out of high school at much higher rates. This achievement gap is even wider for students attending schools in high poverty, racially segregated, urban school districts.
Racially segregated schools and districts have been on the rise since the early 1990s, reversing gains toward desegregation made between the 1950s and 1980s. For example, in more than one-third of the 100 largest school districts in America, the student population is more than seventy-five percent non-white. Additionally, segregated schools with high African American and Latino populations are much more likely to be high-poverty schools. In eighty-six percent of schools that have high concentrations of African American and Latino students, over half of those students qualify for a free or reduced lunch.
Despite the re-segregation of schools and clear disparities in achievement along racial and socioeconomic lines, the responses by the education reform movement, the federal government, and the courts have largely skirted around the issue of race. For example, President Obama did not once mention race or poverty in his 2011 State of the Union Address, but rather focused on themes such as competition in a global marketplace, the importance of math and science training for a new generation of jobs, and the failure of the public education system to meet the needs of all students. Meanwhile, the United States Supreme Court has held that school districts cannot use race as a tie-breaking factor when assigning students to schools in order to achieve integration. Leaders in the education reform movement must place an increased emphasis on the racial nature of educational inequity and advocate for voluntary integration strategies to lessen racial segregation and ultimately close the racial achievement gap.
Section I explores the scope of the problem, giving an overview of the research on the racial achievement gap in America, and especially on the wider gap that persists in racially segregated high poverty schools. Section II examines the current legal landscape surrounding the ability of school districts to take race into account when designing race-conscious programs and policies. Section III looks to the current political climate, with a focus on post-racial liberalism in the era of Obama's presidency and the challenge that creates for directly confronting racial issues.Section IV discusses the problems posed by the race-neutral approaches taken by most education reformers, with a specific focus on the No Child Left Behind Act chartered by President Bush, The Race to the Top Fund created by President Obama, and the growing charter school movement. Section V makes the case for a renewed focus on decreasing racial segregation and isolation in American schools as an essential component of any real effort to close the racial achievement gap. Section VI offers suggestions to overcome the legal, political, and cultural challenges to integrating schools effectively.
While the effort to improve racially segregated and under-performing schools should certainly continue, a long-term education reform movement truly aimed at closing the achievement gap must include efforts to implement voluntary integration strategies in its reform agenda.