Why Is Congress Redlining Our Schools?
Redlining was the once-common practice in which banks would draw a red line on a map—often along a natural barrier like a highway or river—to designate neighborhoods where they would not invest. Stigmatized and denied access to loans and other resources, redlined communities, populated by African-Americans and other people of color, often became places that lacked businesses, jobs, grocery stores and other services, and thus could not retain a thriving middle class. Redlining produced and reinforced a vicious cycle of decline for which residents themselves were typically blamed.
Today a new form of redlining is emerging. If passed, the long-awaited Senate bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would build a bigger highway between low-performing schools serving high-need students—the so-called “bottom 5 percent”—and all other schools. Tragically, the proposed plan would weaken schools in the most vulnerable communities and further entrench the problems—concentrated poverty, segregation and lack of human and fiscal resources—that underlie their failure.
Although the current draft of the law scales back some of the worst overreaches of No Child Left Behind, the sanctions for failing to make “adequate yearly progress” that have threatened all schools under NCLB are now focused solely on the 5 percent of schools designated as lowest-performing by the states. As we have learned in warm-up exercises offered by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, these schools will nearly always be the ones serving the poorest students and the greatest numbers of new immigrants. In many states they will represent a growing number of apartheid schools populated almost entirely by low-income African-American and Latino students in our increasingly race- and class-segregated system.
In the new vision for ESEA, these schools, once identified, will be subjected to school “turnaround” models that require the schools to be closed, turned into charters, reconstituted (by firing nearly half the staff) or “transformed,” according to a complicated set of requirements that include everything from instructional reforms to test-based teacher evaluation. The proposed array of punitive sanctions, coupled with unproven reforms, will increasingly destabilize schools and neighborhoods, making them even less desirable places to work and live and stimulating the flight of teachers and families who have options.
Meanwhile, the most important solutions for these students and their schools are ignored by NCLB and the proposed new bill, as well as by current federal policy in general, leaving their most serious problems unaddressed.
There is no plan in the current or proposed ESEA or in other federal legislation to stem the rapid slide of families into poverty, homelessness and food insecurity; to address the inequitable distribution of state and local funds to schools; to improve teaching and learning conditions in underfunded, high-poverty schools; or to recruit and train expert teachers who will stay in these schools and stop the revolving door of untrained novices who leave children further behind. There are no significant investments in training to better prepare teachers to teach new English learners, students with disabilities and others with a range of needs.
There is no major investment in preschool or in wraparound services that will address the many needs of children for extended learning time, healthcare and social services so they can learn. While a recent Race to the Top initiative offers some preschool funding, it is minuscule in relation to the need and will not make up for the huge cuts in these services occurring in communities across the country. (After widespread cuts, preschool spending at the end of 2010 stood at almost $700 per pupil less than in 2001. Meanwhile, state cuts to education spending reached more than $7.5 billion this year on top of $3 billion in cuts last year.)
It’s not as though we don’t know what works. We could implement the policies that have reduced the achievement gap and transformed learning outcomes for students in high-achieving nations where government policies largely prevent childhood poverty by guaranteeing housing, healthcare and basic income security. These same strategies were substantially successful in our own nation through the programs and policies of the war on poverty and the Great Society, which dramatically reduced poverty, increased employment, rebuilt depressed communities, invested in preschool and K-12 education in cities and poor rural areas, desegregated schools, funded financial aid for college and invested in teacher training programs that ended teacher shortages. In the 1970s teaching in urban communities was made desirable by the higher-than-average salaries, large scholarships and forgivable loans that subsidized teacher preparation, and by the exciting curriculum and program innovations that federal funding supported in many city school districts.
These efforts led to big improvements in achievement and attainment from the ’60s through the ’80s. The black-white reading gap shrank by two-thirds for 17-year-olds, black high school and college graduation rates more than doubled, and, in 1975, rates of college attendance among whites, blacks and Latinos reached parity for the first and only time before or since.
Almost all the programs described above were ended or shrunk in the ’80s, targets of the Reagan revolution, which systematically sought to dismantle federal supports for urban and rural development, housing, social services and education. Poverty and homelessness increased sharply. As the federal education budget was cut in half, funding for urban and poor rural schools declined precipitously, desegregation aid was discontinued and teaching supports were reduced, leading to growing shortages when teacher demand increased in the late 1980s. Despite some modest pushback during the Clinton years, the momentum toward increasing inequality was not reversed.
How Educational Redlining Works
The racial and economic segregation that sets the stage for redlining is now firmly in place. One in four American children lives in poverty, nearly 60 percent more than in 1974, and the number of people living in severe poverty has reached a record high. A national study released in 2009 found that one in fifty children in America is homeless and living in a shelter, motel, car, shared housing, abandoned building, park or orphanage. The proportions in some school districts exceed one in ten, and the number is growing rapidly.
Furthermore, this poverty is concentrated in increasingly resegregated communities and schools. More than 70 percent of black and Latino students attend predominantly minority schools, and nearly 40 percent attend intensely segregated schools, where more than 90 percent of students are minority and most are poor.
Poverty rates make a huge difference in student achievement. Few people are aware, for example, that in 2009 US schools with fewer than 10 percent of students in poverty ranked first among all nations on the Programme for International Student Achievement tests in reading, while those serving more than 75 percent of students in poverty scored alongside nations like Serbia, ranking about fiftieth.
The schools identified as low-performing not only serve a growing underclass of impoverished families; they also typically do so with fewer state and local dollars per pupil than wealthier districts around them. Unlike high-achieving nations that fund their schools centrally and equally, most American states spend three times more on their wealthiest schools than they do on their poorest.
In California, for example, urban school districts often spend less than the state average although their children have the greatest needs. With inadequate budgets, crumbling buildings, class sizes of more than thirty (in some cases nearing fifty) and not enough desks or books, many schools serving the neediest students have long ago canceled art, music and physical education, shut down libraries and fired librarians, nurses and counselors. They have lost reading specialists, science teachers and school psychologists. As they suffer cut after cut while they seek to meet the needs of children who are often hungry and homeless as well as shortchanged in terms of educational opportunities, these schools must decide how they will underserve their students, not whether they will.
These disparities in school funding also lead to disparities in salaries and working conditions, which create shortages of qualified personnel in high-need districts. A recent study found that in California and New York, for example, the highest-spending districts offer salaries more than twice as high as those in the lowest-spending districts. Even within a single region, the average teacher in high-poverty Oakland earned $54,000 in 2009 while her counterpart in wealthy Portola Valley (home to Silicon Valley industrialists) earned $89,000. Nationally, teachers in low-poverty districts earn one-third more at the top of the salary range than those in high-poverty districts. And the teachers who work in the neediest communities also manage larger classes with fewer books, materials and supports of all kinds.
These disparities are greatest across districts, but they are exacerbated further within most large districts, where resources are unequally distributed. It is no surprise then that the Education Department recently reported that schools serving mostly African-American students are twice as likely to have teachers with only one or two years of experience than schools in the same district serving mostly white students. Because they are less experienced and educated, teachers at schools with more Latino and African-American students are paid $2,500 less on average than teachers in the district as a whole.
Now comes the federal government to announce that such schools—where students score lower on tests than in more advantaged communities—should be labeled as failing and threatened with closure or staff firings. This makes educational redlining official. The federal share of less than 10 percent of school budgets is a tiny drop in the bucket, and far from enough to tip the scales that are so dramatically out of balance. Not only is there no plan in federal law to tackle poverty, segregation or the massive state and local underfunding of these schools; the plans embodied in Senate ESEA proposals are likely to undermine these communities even further.