"How We Ended Up Here": How America's Public School Crisis Started, and What Chance (and You) Are Doing to Help
Why America's public schools are so underfunded, and what Chance and you can do to help.
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Earlier this month, Chance the Rapper met with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and challenged him to “do your job” and adequately fund Chicago’s public schools (Chance subsequently put his own money up, making a $1 million donation to Chicago schools). After the meeting, Chance challenged the media, and Complex in particular, to “give a comprehensive history of how we got here.”
So, where is “here”? A 21st-century America—not just Chicago—rife with apartheid schools that serve almost exclusively Black and Brown students, are chronically underfunded, and struggle to fulfill every student’s right to the quality education that can give them a fair shot at success. An America more interested in funding the school-to-prison pipeline than public schools themselves. An America where we spend less than $10,000 a year to educate a child but anywhere from $35,000 to $64,000 to incarcerate one.
Every American should be outraged by this truth, a truth which a growing movement, which includes journalists likeThe New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, is connecting to another truth: We’ve never fully desegregated our schools. As a result, we’re still stuck in a place where too few white kids and kids of color—and their teachers, and their families—are part of an integrated learning community. We are still so separate that we simply cannot grasp how unequal things really are.
Or maybe we’re just paralyzed by fear.
“The water we swim in is racism and segregation,” says Sarah Camiscoli, founder and director of IntegrateNYC4Me, a three-year-old youth-led organization that brings students from segregated schools together to design solutions for integration. “So creating integration demands an incredible amount of courage and commitment and disruption. Many people, especially young people, before us have modeled this—the Freedom Riders, the Little Rock Nine, SNCC. All these young people have said, ‘No, I’m standing for something different, I’m being brave.’ So what are we doing as adults? How are we honoring that legacy?”
Aside from enduring efforts in a handful of communities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Louisville, Kentucky; and Wake County, North Carolina (integration efforts that were hard-fought, and, in two of four cases, are now in jeopardy), as well as a new pilot program in New York City, the answer is: not much. Integration plans are not in wide effect. And instead of getting better, the problem is getting worse. Recent data shows a trend toward even deeper segregation: A nationwide study released in April 2016 by the Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, found that between the academic years of 2000–2001 and 2013–2014, the percentage of “isolated schools”—where 75 percent or more of students are of the same race or class—grew from 9 percent to 16 percent.
Most of the schools where students are segregated by, race, class, language, or all three are in cities like Chicago. In February of last year, The Atlantic analyzed recent data from the National Equity Atlas and found that “kids of color represent a majority of the student body in 83 of the 100 largest cities” in America, and that “in 58 of those cities, at least three-fourths of non-white students attend majority low-income schools.”
Where does Chicago fall on the list? Ranking U.S. cities by how many of their black students attend majority low-income schools, Detroit is first, and Chicago is eighth, followed by Philadelphia and New York. For Latino students, Detroit is first again, and Chicago is number nine. This past summer, Chicago’s WBEZ reported that only 12 percent of the city’s schools have more than 25 percent white students. Fully 88 percent of Chicago city schools are segregated.
Why Does Segregation Hurt?
“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren made that clear on May 17, 1954, when he delivered the unanimous verdict in the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The court ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools is a violation of the 14th Amendment, and ordered the United States of America to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
But rather than embracing that goal, America has more often than not resisted it, beginning in September 1957, when white people formed a human blockade to stop nine African-American students, who would come to be known as “The Little Rock Nine,” from entering the all-white Little Rock Central High for the first time. The governor called in the Arkansas National Guard—not to protect the Black students, but to support the segregationists—and President Dwight Eisenhower then sent in the Army.
Once those nine brave students finally crossed the school’s threshold, though, the battle began in earnest. They endured violence and taunts at worst and silence at best from their white peers. Tensions remained so high that the next fall every high school in Little Rock simply shut down, and stayed closed for what is known as “the lost year.”
Since Brown v. Board, such tremendous force has been mounted against integration that despite heroic counter-efforts, we’re mostly still separate, and still unequal. As Gary Orfield, co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, wrote in a 2014 opinion piece in Time magazine, “Though the situation in the South is still much better than before 1954's Brown v. Board of Education required integration, we have lost the progress made in the last 40 years. During that time, the U.S. Supreme Court, the institution that opened the desegregation struggle, has slammed the door for many communities, with rulings that have dismantled even very successful desegregation plans.”
And, simply put, money for public schools—which typically comes from property taxes—follows that same trend. Chance’s beef with Gov. Rauner began in December, when Rauner vetoed a bill that designated $215 million in much-needed aid for Chicago schools. Since then, Chicago has detailed the potential consequences of not having those funds, including cutting summer school and lopping three weeks off the school year. But these are just two moves of thousands in the never-ending school-funding fights that play out in every statehouse across America every budget season—and often wind up in court.
Imagine a classroom where 50, 60, 70 percent of your students are facing some degree of crisis.”
Chicago Public Schools is suing the state of Illinois for alleged violations of the Illinois Civil Rights Act. Their case states that Black and Latino students make up 20 percent of Illinois public school students but receive only 15 percent of the money the state appropriates for education. (For example: Over the past six years, the Chicago Public Schools have spent $320 million on new school construction, and plan to spend another $330 million, but 73 percent of that money went to or is earmarked for schools where white students make up more than a quarter of the student body.) The Los Angeles Unified School District is also being sued. In New York state, advocates are still chasing Governor Andrew Cuomo to pay out money won more than a decade ago through the successful Campaign For Fiscal Equity. In Kansas, home to Brown v. Board, the courts ruled just this week that state funding is not sufficient to provide an adequate education for every student, and that Black, Brown, and poor students are especially harmed. The list goes on and on, and The Education Law Center tracks all of it.
“Because there’s no Constitutional right to an education in the United States, all of these cases are based on states’ constitutions,” explains Miriam Nunberg, a former attorney with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Nunberg elaborates that though segregation is rarely explicitly the focus of these cases, because of the way school districts are drawn around segregated neighborhoods and municipalities (known as “gerrymandering”), it is always implicit.
Nunberg and other educational justice advocates are hopeful about the potential of a recent decision in a 10-year-old Connecticut lawsuit—Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding vs. Rell, currently in front of the Connecticut Supreme Court—to help people connect the dots. Even though segregation itself is not named in the lawsuit, “the judge ordered the state to rethink everything about the system,” she says. “From the adequacy of school funding to elementary and secondary education standards, teacher evaluation, hiring and compensation, and special education identification and spending.”
And Money Alone Isn’t Enough
There’s a strong case to be made—everywhere—that even funding every American school and every student equally would not be “adequate,” given the hurdles that poor students have to overcome, many of which are also the fruit of segregation.Commentary on the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s current four-year contract agreement, reached in October 2016, is notable for how it emphasizes teacher and student “quality of life” support as the most important union victories: the first enforceable limit on the size of classes in 20 years, $7 million earmarked to hire teachers' assistants in kindergarten-through-second-grade classes with more than 32 students, the removal of administrative duties from counselors, clinicians and special education teachers so they can focus on students’ needs, and significant funding earmarked for after-school programs, counseling, social work, psychiatric services, and medical clinics at the neediest schools. Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey told DNAinfo that the “biggest loss” involved the limit on the number of students assigned to Chicago Public Schools social workers—right now Chicago’s ratio is five times the limit the National Association of Social Workers recommends.
Sixty years after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High, by many measures and most accounts, we have gotten it very, very wrong.”
"Imagine a classroom where 50, 60, 70 percent of your students are facing some degree of crisis,” says Sandra Soto, principal of Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School in New York. “How much teaching are you really able to get through when you're having to address basic needs? So just sharing the responsibility of caring for the underserved, I think, is going to do a lot to facilitate teaching and learning in the classroom."
Not to mention that the metrics widely used to assess school quality—test scores, suspension rates—create a narrative that it’s the schools that serve primarily Black and Brown students that are “failing,” not our society at large, and therefore the schools don’t deserve additional funding, or indeed should be shut down. Segregated schools just can’t win.
What Can Be Done?
Chance’s challenge to Governor Rauner, along with his subsequent $1 million donation to the Chicago Public Schools and call for matching donations, is as important for the light his high-wattage celebrity can shed on the larger problem of school segregation—in Chicago, and everywhere—as for the immediate aid it can provide.
Teach Us All, a documentary that premiered last week at SXSWedu in Austin, features two of the Little Rock Nine, and kicks off a social-justice campaign that aims to wake America up to the fact that we are “here” because we have failed as a nation to recognize educational inequality as our most urgent civil rights issue. “Sixty years after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High, by many measures and most accounts, we have gotten it very, very wrong,” says director Sonia Lowman. “Whether that’s through our prejudices, ignorance, silence, apathy, or our fear that things won't, or can't change. But we still have a chance to get it right.”
In the film, students’ testimony underscores the urgency of the problem: "I saw a lot of my classmates get pushed out of school for minor things, such as going into a classroom with your hoodie on, and your teacher just not wanting to deal with you,” says Jathan Melendez, a student in Los Angeles. “And not understanding that we come from communities where we might have got banged on right before we came to school, families are not healthy, people get shot at every day. We have to deal with these conditions and teachers don't necessarily understand it."
Though the situation in the South is still much better than before 1954's Brown v. Board of Education required integration, we have lost the progress made in the last 40 years."
Advocates argue that these are the students who need the most highly effective and empathetic teachers, not to mention wraparound social supports, none of which comes cheap. So through his public questioning of why public schools are always underfunded, Chance is on the right path. As Pedro Noguera of the UCLA Graduate School of Education says in the film, "We can't just wait for the politicians to do it for us. We've got to put pressure on them. We've got to create the sentiment that lets the politicians know public education is essential for our future. And we want it; we'll insist upon it."
Integration advocates also say that the policy solutions are there, but they’re waiting for the will of the people to help make them real, sometimes using what happened with gay marriage as an example of how quickly a groundswell of public support could drive change.
“There are people right now who are coming up with solutions which would transform the educational landscape,” says Camiscoli. “The task is to support them in coming to fruition by developing powerful multiracial collectives that are willing to take a stand in the face of disagreement. What if 60 percent of the people who participate in public schools got behind our cause?”
As Elijah Fox, a student in New York City, puts it, "Unity is the only plausible pathway to justice.”
"When school desegregation happened in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, it was difficult and contentious but there was a little bit more commitment to the idea that an injustice to one is an injustice to all. And we would do well to remember that,” adds Jill Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a Brooklyn public middle and high school.
Arkansas State Senator Joyce Elliot puts it more plainly: "I just say outright we have to have a whole lot of white folks advocating for doing something about this. Because that's where the power structure is."
Lowman hopes that the film taps into a common humanity. “We need more teacher voice, parental engagement, and community mobilization to create the demand for equitable, quality education,” she says. “And most importantly, students need to stand up and take leadership in carrying forth the legacy of the Little Rock Nine.”
In New York City, those students are already getting organized. Hebh Jamal, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan, founded the New York City Youth Council on School Integration in partnership with IntegrateNYC4Me. She is calling for students in other cities to organize in a similar fashion. "There need to be more models like this, and more students need to come together because this directly affects you and will affect your children and your grandchildren,” Jamal says.
To Jamal’s point, if we don’t want to stay “here” forever, we need to make some big changes. We need to stop cutting people off from opportunities because of the color of their skin; we need to stop trapping children in a segregated, unequally resourced school system that reinforces cycles of injustice and poverty. Under a Trump administration, with a Secretary of Education who is on the record as an advocate of school privatization—and hails from near Detroit, that city where Black and Brown students are most isolated of all—the need for action is more urgent than ever.
On March 3, The Chicago Tribune reported that Rauner had offered to partner with Chance. "It's an incredible opportunity to change our system,” said Rauner. “I have power in some ways, you have great power in other ways. If we stood together, worked together to figure this out, I think we could get big things done and I'd be excited to do that with you, work together in the coming days to try to get good things for...our low-income neighborhoods, our low-income schools in Chicago and around the state of Illinois.”
In a roundabout way, Rauner has put the question of segregation on the table alongside the question of how to fund our schools. Now let’s have a national conversation about the answers.
How You Can Get Involved
Help build an IntegrateUS chapter in your city.
Request a screening of Teach Us All in your area.
Read We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang.
Call your governor and other state-level elected representatives and ask them how your state’s budget will provide for public schools.