Marchitello & Pennington — School Choice and Integration: Together, They Can Disrupt Deep-Seated Inequities in Our Public School System

It is a sad fact that high-quality education is a limited resource in the United States. Most often, it is affluent and white students who go to the best schools. And, as the response to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent proposal to integrate a handful of specialized high schools makes clear, that scarcity pits parents against one another — obscuring the larger problem of an inequitable public school system.

The core problem that created and continues to sustain what de Blasio rightly calls this “monumental injustice” is the very structure of the public school system, which produces and reproduces racial and economic inequality by hoarding resources and opportunities for wealthy and white families. As Nikole Hannah-Jones notes: “… we do know that our country’s education system was built on a racial caste and that once we isolate black and Latino children or poor children away from white and middle-class children, we often don’t give them the same resources.”

To achieve high-quality education for all students, this discriminatory status quo must be disrupted. That’s where integration comes in. School integration presents a promising method for doing this. Integrated schools are socially beneficial and help to improve the academic performance of both white and nonwhite students.

At the same time, other reform efforts such as school choice are meaningful and necessary. Yet some education advocates create competition between these initiatives, ultimately weakening efforts in support of a comprehensive school reform approach that could offer both short- and long-term solutions.

School choice serves an immediate need for students, while integration is a further-reaching strategy that looks to ensure that students of color are not segregated in low-quality schools. These two reforms can and must work hand in hand.

Choice is important because it provides alternatives for millions of students of color who are zoned for low-quality neighborhood schools. No students should be forced to remain in these types of schools while holding their breath waiting for systemic reform.

But school choice doesn’t disrupt those very systems that produced the need for alternative schooling options in the first place. Instead, it runs parallel to the traditional public school system without challenging its underlying inequities. Yes, there are “diverse by design” charter schools that push on the status quo of segregated schooling, but they represent a small portion of the charter sector — just 2 percent. And while there is evidence that in some instances, charter schools can create productive competition with district schools that marginally enhances quality, such improvements are unlikely to lead to much-needed systemic reform.

Some of the pushback against integration stems from the common approach of trying to assimilate students of color into white schools rather than truly integrating the public school system. This is a critical distinction. Assimilationist integration assumes that what students of color need is proximity to white students. That viewpoint is wrong. In fact, many schools serving predominantly students of color are excellent, just as many schools serving mostly white students are low-quality. Instead, a truly integrated school system requires something new: It demands an integrated staff and administration. It tosses out Eurocentric, white-dominated curricula and replaces them with multicultural, integrated programs.

Simply put, the American public school system was built for the benefit of white students. In effect, true integration works to eliminate white privilege and instead ensure that the public school system supports all students and cultures equally.

Charter schools have a role to play here, too. They can help to pioneer the very policies, practices, and curricula that will be required to fully and truly integrate public schools. The project of integration is to redesign the public school system from one that reproduces structural inequality to one that serves all students. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary.

Many white people have historically resisted integration. And, given the overt and disturbing levels of racism across the country today, skepticism about ever achieving true integration now is understandable. Yet this is also the time of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maxine Waters, and Lupe Valdez.

Increasingly, Americans get that high-quality schools cannot be reserved principally for white people or the wealthy. As with any public institution, they must be available and accessible to all. Although the American public school system hasn’t yet lived up to that standard, applying reforms with both immediate and long-term solutions is a promising approach for reaching the end goal of an equitable education system.

Max Marchitello is a senior policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners. Kaitlin Pennington is a senior analyst with Bellwether Education Partners in the policy and thought leadership practice area. Bellwether was co-founded by Andrew J. Rotherham, who sits on The 74’s board of directors.

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