Want Innovation? How About Integrated Equitable Schools?

09/23/2017 10:45 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2017

Secretary of Education Betsy Devos says that students in the US attend schools that are a “mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons and denies futures.” She accuses public schools of being stuck in the past. She claims to want innovation.

1: the introduction of something new

2: a new idea, method, or device: novelty

DeVos and her allies want to give public funds to parents to send their children to any public, charter or private schools, whether or not they are religious and whether or not they discriminate by race, religion or sexual orientation.

If enacted, her policies would mean returning to a time when schools were more segregated by race, religion, and class. That is not new or novel. In fact, it is stuck in the past. Segregation is not innovative. It is old school.

DeVos believes that individual parents are in the best position to choose a school that is best for their child, rather than democratically elected representatives. That unlimited choice would return us to a time when individual parents’ inclinations and, yes, their prejudices were prioritized over the needs of the communities in which they live and over the needs of the nation.

For several decades after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision in 1954 public schools in the US became more integrated. However, that trend has reversed. Public schools are becoming more segregated, not just by race but by socioeconomic status as well. In other words, it is becoming more likely that student will attend schools with children who are more similar to one another than not. That trend may satisfy the narrow interests and proclivities of some, but it is destructive to the nation.

Segregated schools are destructive to the nation not just because the inherent inequality of separate education shortchanges particular categories of individual students, but because it deprives all students of the benefit of learning to live across differences in our unalterably diverse country. Integrated schools are not only a moral and democratic imperative but an economic one too. Research indicates that diverse groups are more productive and creative and make better decisions. Learning to participate in diverse groups should start in school not on the job.

The idea of mediating racial and socioeconomic school segregation is not new. But, doing something substantive about it would be innovative.

Here are several policies that promote the old, but still vital idea and value of diversity and equity. Isolated boutique enactments are not innovative. Widespread systemic implementation would be.

  • Stop funding local public schools primarily through property taxes. Since communities have significantly varied tax bases, this is inherently inequitable. Instead, shift school funding to graduated state and personal federal income, capital gains, and corporate taxes.
  • Incentivize more integrated neighborhoods through changes in lending and zoning practices. It was, in fact, federal policies that help to limit integrated and promote segregated neighborhoods. It is time to reverse that deplorable history.
  • Since addressing inequity is necessarily a long-term effort, prioritize funding to schools with the greatest percentages of children from low-incomes and traditionally underrepresented groups.
  • Increase federal funding, so that rather than taking from well endowed, middle-class schools, funding for the rest can be increased.
  • Increase federal funding for special education, so that meeting the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act does not come at the expense of other children.
  • Provide nutritional, social, health, and economic support to children and their families, so that all children can engage fully in learning.
  • Invest in infrastructure and research jobs with decent wages so that adults are employed and provide stability at home.
  • Promote positive social and emotional learning practices in all schools so that all students are known, valued and respected.
  • Fund professional learning and formative assessment practices so that teachers continue to learn how to best engage and address the learning needs of all students.

None of these ideas are new. However, as a nation, we have only tinkered at designing solutions. We are a nation of interdependent communities and states. Systemic efforts to address inequity have always been limited not by what is possible, but by the political constraints driven by economic elites. The self-proclaimed realists among the empowered condescendingly claim, “We cannot afford all that.” What they really mean is, “I don’t want to pay for it.”

It’s time to give priority to the needs of the majority of Americans. More integrated, well-funded schools would benefit everyone. That would be innovative.

Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist. He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.

His writings are collected at www.arthurcamins.com

Follow Arthur on Twitter: @arthurcamins

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