Over the past two decades, education reform has been a major topic of debate and policymaking, from President Bush’s No Child Left Behind bill to President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. Reforms have generally followed the pattern of adapting mechanisms from the for-profit business world to “fix” supposedly broken aspects of the public education system: weakening teacher unions, replacing public schools with privately-run charters, tying teacher pay to test score results, and so on.
Yet there is one idea that was once a major focus of reform efforts, but has been set aside for years: racial desegregation.
That is, until now. Last week, Bernie Sanders released a plan to revitalize school integration efforts. It’s both an excellent plan and brings attention to a vitally important racial justice issue.
Historical context is important here. For a couple decades after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the federal government put real effort into forcing school districts to integrate their populations. The main objective was to equalize educational opportunity, particularly in the South. Stuffing black populations into crummy, under-resourced institutions was one of the major mechanisms of the Jim Crow apartheid system — but if white and black children went to the same schools, then they should receive education of a similar quality (or at least a lot closer than before).
Because cities across the nation were (and remain) extremely segregated, and whites violently resisted any attempt to integrate actual neighborhoods, the only realistic option was using transportation to achieve a decent demographic mix. But this led to an enormous white backlash across the country.
So what would Sanders do? He would end the prohibition on funding desegregation transport (a relic from that 1970’s backlash), provide several pots of money to encourage schools to desegregate, triple funding support for the poorest schools, expand funding for minority teacher education, ramp up desegregation orders, and provide more money for school construction and maintenance, (as well as several other policies not directly related to desegregation). It’s an excellent start, to say the least.
School integration has been outside the main political discussion for a long time, and it’s long since time we started talking about it again.
Bernie Sanders deserves enormous credit for bringing it back on the national radar and offering a meaningful plan to address it.
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