The Elusive 'Golden Age' in Public Education. Hint: It Has Never Existed

In the persistent debate surrounding inequities in public education, two factions exist.

On one side there are those who consistently elucidate that the imbalances that permeate school districts in this country are not due to any fault of teacher ineffectiveness, a particular pedagogy or practice, but rather, segregation and poverty (e.g., "It's poverty, stupid!"). On the other side lie those of us who try to see things a third way, in a more nuanced or pragmatic way.

According to a 2014 article from the Nation, 10 years after Brown, one in 85 Black students enrolled in southern schools attended segregated schools. Even though Brown was a long overdue legal decision, because the actual Supreme Court decision held very little enforcement concerning changing public sentiment about persons of color, it did not eliminate segregation; it merely made the doctrine of "separate but equal" no longer legal.

This distinction is not just a subtle difference, but essential to how we should understand the current state of public education and those who want to oversimplify by saying that we have entered into an era of "re-segregation."

In 2012, the Washington Post highlighted that the poverty rate in 1964 was 19 percent. In the intervening years, that rate did not rise above 15.2 percent. The poverty rate for 2014 (the most recent data) is 14.5 percent. It seems, at least according to simple observation of the statistics, that economic poverty is not as prevalent as it was in 1964. However, where conflict arises is usually in the interpretation of who is in poverty and the disparate impact of poverty on students of color and their communities.

One could argue based on the statistics, that poverty is no better or worse than it has been in the past 50 years. Unfortunately, that is not the conclusion many progressives and others people have drawn for a plethora of reasons, including a failure to acknowledge that the structural and institutional barriers that have existed for decades in many urban school districts has not changed.

What very few are articulating is why this line of debate is so salient with the current population of teachers. What has changed is not that Black and Brown students are in poverty, that has been consistent, but what has changed is that poverty has now seeped into the suburbs where those who thought they were escaping the "integration" of public schools have resided since the Brown decision in 1954.

While it should be of national concern if any child is subjected to living in poverty, what is problematic is that, because of historical amnesia or purposeful intent designed to advance certain agendas, we have not reached a place in American history in which we can simply conclude that if students were in schools which were not segregated or if we miraculously "eliminated" poverty, that positive academic and social outcomes would rain down from sea to shining sea.

Simply put, there are far more factors to school inequality than just income inequality.

Howard Fuller in the fall 2004 edition of Education Next, put it succinctly.

First, the Brown decision, while ending legally sanctioned segregation, did not (maybe could not) address the fundamental disparities in power inherent in a society where "white skin privilege" dominated. The decision did not prevent racists from using a variety of legal tactics and their control of law-enforcement agencies to resist the implementation of Brown... The second flaw arose from the view that equal education was not possible without integration.

He goes on to articulate that "oppressive rules and social customs" which consistently put persons of color at risk, were the norm even when the laws changed. What was also of note is that there was little if at all discussion about the likelihood that students of color would be in educational settings in which some of their teachers held little regard for the lived experiences of their students, or if they were sympathetic to the complexities of students of color, had very little training in how to successfully educate students through what is now called "culturally relevant pedagogy."

Institutionally, there has been little thought to the idea that a school, either in the immediate aftermath of Brown or today, could be "integrated" but yet how students were selected for certain classrooms or courses be segregated. What is most egregious is the undertones of the discussion around segregation and poverty is the idea that the notion of "white is right" should be the normative behavior and design when it comes to public education.

Freeden Oeur has noted in his research that there is a difference between segregation and selection. As long as we are wedded to the idea of "neighborhood" schools, there will be self-selection and segregation. What many critics fail to account for is that most neighborhoods in this country are not integrated, arguably, purposefully so. Schools are simply mirrors of their locations and neighborhoods. If we want to truly integrate schools, perhaps we should begin by having a public discussion about why are neighborhoods, whether by gated communities or invisible walls, so isolated and segregated.

Economic inequality is harmful in many ways. What is also perhaps more psychologically harmful is "poverty of the mind." Persistent low expectations from teachers and other adults, being denied high level coursework, and being feared can create deep internal scars. What is needed is a new more equitable formula to create schools that promote diversity of cultures, races/ethnicities and social classes. Without serious discussions about the psycho-social effects of adults treating (or rather mistreating) children "in poverty," we will continue to miss the mark when it comes to achieving educational excellence in public schools.