Americans Oppose School Segregation in Theory. So Why Not in Practice?

Perpetual Baffour, Talk Poverty, July 11, 2017

In the Upper West Side of New York City, Public School 199 stands on West 70th Street as a high-wealth, high-performing, and intensely sought-after elementary school. But this fall, the popular school will usher in a new, different class of students—and the enrollment change has drawn fear, scorn, and fierce opposition from local parents.

In the fall of 2015, the New York City Department of Education announced plans to redraw District 3’s attendance zones with the goal of making schools like P.S. 199 more economically integrated. The proposed changes would move several elementary school students from Public School 191—a neighboring, high-poverty, majority-minority school—into P.S. 199.

Parents at the wealthy school were outraged, and the city’s first attempt to integrate the two schools failed amid the backlash. After contentious debates and heated protests, the city dropped the plan, stating it would need more time to devise a new approach that “reached consensus.”

The city resurrected its proposal the next year, and although the rezoning plan is still fraught with conflict, it somehow muscled its way through the dissension to reach a final vote last fall. District 3’s Community Education Council—a locally elected parent group that votes on zoning policies—had long been in favor of new zoning lines and approved the city’s plan on a 9-to-1 vote.

But parents who are opposed to the plan have continued to fight. Some are placing political pressure, threatening to campaign against any official who supports the new zones. Others have warned of enrolling their children in private school. Some have even hinted at taking legal action. Overall, the battles roiling P.S. 199 and P.S. 191’s elementary school campuses have proved that when it comes to school integration, change is no easy task.

One would think Americans are ready for school integration, though. In a new study released by me and my colleague, Ulrich Boser, we found that most Americans—more than 60 percent—report that school segregation is an important issue for them, and nearly 70 percent of Americans agree that more should be done to integrate low- and high-poverty schools.

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If most Americans are in favor of school integration, why aren’t diverse, integrated classrooms spreading across the country?

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Research shows that reporting favorable views of integration can demonstrate a “superficial tolerance” of integration. But sending one’s own child to an integrating school is a much greater challenge: It requires a person to acknowledge—and maybe uproot—deep-seated stereotypes about families with low incomes and education.

Poverty is also racialized in the United States, and words like “low-income” in America can trigger other words like “black” and “brown.” Children of color, as young as five, are more likely to be perceived as violent and disruptive, which can stoke fears about integrating schools on both economic and racial lines.

District 3’s rezoning plan will take full effect this fall.

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Fortunately, it’s not the only plan to mark a real shift in school diversity for New York City. The New York City Department of Education recently unveiled its citywide plan for integration, pledging to increase diversity across their entire public schooling system.

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