In Massachusetts, where echoes of the 1970s busing riots still haunt the commonwealth’s public school system, a new integration effort is underfoot in education – one that could, for the first time, shine a light on the state’s hypersegregated districts and push them to change the status quo inside and outside their borders.
“Being from Lynn, everyone thinks my school district is diverse,” Brendan Crighton, a Democratic state senator, says about the urban outcrop north of Boston that he represents, an early industrial center brought to its knees after a major fire in the 1980s, but one that’s currently experiencing a resurgence in part due to a thriving immigrant community.
“On the surface, it is diverse,” he says about the 16,000-student school district, where 42% of students are Hispanic, 37% are white, 11% are Black and 23% of families live below the federal poverty line. “But our schools are actually highly segregated. To get people to see that and be able to change that would be a huge accomplishment.”
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To that end, Crighton filed a bill this month that would label schools and school districts as either “diverse,” “segregated” or “intensely segregated,” and would institute annual reporting on a host of new data points, including the racial composition of students taking the SAT or ACT, advanced placement courses and other certain math and science classes. It would also establish a voluntary competitive grant program for districts seeking to better integrate their schools, as well as groups of school districts that partner to increase diversity across parts of Massachusetts.
“This is not a super-complicated policy solution,” Crighton says. “We want to break it down so policymakers can see this as a clear problem, and I think it will encourage districts to have these harder conversations. I think we can find a way to make that happen.”
Similar efforts are underway in Maryland, Minnesota, New York and many other statehouses where lawmakers are wrestling with the most intractable and contentious issue plaguing the country’s public school systems – segregated schools.
The momentum comes as the Biden administration takes aim at systemic racism and inequality in the wake of George Floyd’s death and in the midst of a pandemic that exposed and then exacerbated major racial fault lines in America’s education, health care and housing systems.
Earlier this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the president talked about “consigning millions of American children to under-resourced schools” in a speech he delivered marking the 100 years that’s passed since white rioters burned to the ground the prosperous and thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood and massacred hundreds of people who lived there.
The president’s fiscal 2022 budget request includes a $20 billion equity grant that would more than double the federal Title I program for schools serving lots of low-income families – with all new funding prioritized for states that find more equitable ways to target the aid to schools that need it the most.
Biden’s messaging “complements and reaffirms” a lot of the work that’s been underway for years in Massachusetts, Crighton says.
In fact, the Massachusetts bill has roots in two federal efforts – the Strength In Diversity Act, a bill from Rep. Bobby Scott, Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which cleared the House last year but died in the Senate, and the Obama-era Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities grant, which the Trump administration eliminated in 2017. Both sought to push states and school districts to tackle segregation in their public school systems.
“For years, people have been scared to talk about this because of the history of Boston in the ’70s and busing, but it’s shifted a lot with all these conversations about race and the action in the past few years,” Crighton says.
Public opinion seems to be on Crighton’s side.
New polling from the Century Foundation found that 84% of people said it was somewhat, very or extremely important that public schools have a mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and 83% said it was important to have a mix of students from different economic backgrounds.
Historically, though, the issue has proven largely intractable.
Research published last year by Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project shows that while the vast majority of parents – regardless of political affiliation, race and class – strongly favor schools that are racially and economically integrated, affluent white families who have more choices for where they enroll their children almost always end up enrolling them in schools that mostly serve other affluent white families.
The biggest reason for that, the researchers found, was that wealthy white parents value school quality over integration, view integrated schools as “educationally inferior” and determine school quality in large part based on how many other white, advantaged parents send their children to a particular school.
That’s been the crux of the problem in Maryland’s Montgomery County, a school district bordering the District of Columbia that on its face is racially and economically diverse but where there exist pockets of intense wealth that have maintained hyper-segregated feeder patterns for decades.
Controversial efforts to rezone the school district have been nearly a decade in the making, and the ongoing battle is held up by Maryland gubernatorial candidate John King, a former education secretary under the Obama administration, as one of the most blatant examples of how a progressive state like Maryland still wrestles with major issues of inequality.
In New York City, former school Superintendent Richard Carranza announced his departure in February, citing as one of his main reasons for leaving the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio to fully commit to and support his vision for integration.
For Crighton, chairman of the state Senate’s housing committee, taking a hard look at school segregation in the state was a natural next step of his committee’s efforts to drive integration in the housing market. He says he expects the proposed bill to draw widespread support next legislative session, especially on the heels of last year’s controversial zoning overhaul, which cleared a path for more Black and Hispanic families to access communities they’ve long been locked out of.
“It’s going to take a long time to get all communities to do the right things, but we’re already seeing multi-family projects that were previously held up by a few votes now happen,” Crighton says. “It’s making a difference.”
What will be more difficult, he concedes, but is just as important to fully tackling the issue of segregated schools – especially in school districts like Lynn, which is home to 11 schools that are more than 100 years old and where property taxes don’t bolster the system in the same way they do in wealthier districts – is a massive injection of funding for school infrastructure needs.
“The quality of our school buildings has always been linked to school segregation,” he says, noting that cities just outside Boston, like Lynn, suffer from an outdated school construction funding formula that “creates barriers for low-income communities and communities of color to finance new construction.”
Crighton has also filed a bill that would provide additional funding to school construction projects that increase diversity.
“We continue to build state-of-the-art schools in wealthier and whiter communities, which only further segregates our schools and neighborhoods,” Crighton says. “Putting real dollars behind school integration can help make it a reality.”
The Biden administration is in the process of pushing an infrastructure package that would send $100 billion to K-12 schools to update facilities, though it’s unclear the votes are there to drive it through the evenly split Senate.
“Unless we dump a ton more funding into this, we’re never going to catch up. And as a result, you’ll see more white flight than you already are in gateway cities where, even if people want to be in a diverse classroom and want their kids to learn in a diverse setting, they’re not going to send their kids to a school that’s falling apart,” Crighton says. “They can’t compete.”