The Color of School Reform represents the kind of scholarship that by rights should influence the design of smart policy. But this is a book out of its time, a Rip Van Winkle-ish narrative. The vexing and vital question it confronts–why, nearly fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, so many black inner-city children get an education that’s separate and unequal–has almost disappeared from the public conversation about education. When the talk is about school reform, race is the invisible topic.
For almost two decades, an extraordinarily long time in policy annals, education has occupied center stage in the domestic arena. Cold war scare tactics–the Reagan-era warning, delivered by a presidential commission in A Nation at Risk, that “a rising tide of mediocrity threatens our very future”–launched the issue. Fear that an undereducated generation would cause the United States to lose the economic cold war has kept it in the limelight.
“Excellence” and “standards,” not equity, have been the animating themes. For some, including those who crafted President Clinton’s initiatives, systemic reform of the public schools is what’s needed. That means revamping every aspect of education, from how teachers are trained to how textbooks are selected, from the content of the curriculum to the ways knowledge is tested, in order to make public education accountable and to improve student performance. Under the banner of systemic reform, almost every state has established standards, benchmarks specifying what students are expected to know, and most states have developed tests to measure students’ performance. Woeful test results have recently pushed some states to relax their standards, but the appeal of standards themselves remains strong.
On the other side are those who insist that systemic reform doesn’t go far enough, that the public schools are a bankrupt institution. Parents know best: A new education marketplace is needed, enabling families to choose the school and the type of education they want for their children. One way to deliver choice is through vouchers, which let parents shop for schools. Two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland, already offer vouchers for poor, low-achieving children, and the state of Florida is about to follow suit. The fact that vouchers can be used to attend church-run schools has prompted constitutional challenge (a successful challenge at this point in Cleveland); but if, as anticipated in many quarters, the Supreme Court gives the green light, voucher schemes will be implemented in many other locales. Charter schools, publicly financed and regulated but privately run, represent another strategy for promoting choice. That approach has taken off in a big way: In less than a decade, charter schools have been authorized in more than thirty states.
Remarkably, race has not been a topic in this conversation. The aspiration to equalize educational opportunity for black children is rarely voiced. If the subject of equity is broached at all, it is framed in terms of class, not race. Now and again a Jonathan Kozol surfaces with a cri de coeur about the appalling state of inner-city education. Policy-makers momentarily profess to be dismayed, then move on to other matters.
Integration, which used to be treated as the defining characteristic of equal opportunity, is fast becoming history. Judges in many school districts, among them those of Charlotte and Boston, ancient battlegrounds in the war for racial fairness, have restored local school boards’ authority to assign students. It’s time to move on, these judges are saying, and the predictable result has been greater racial isolation in urban public schools. Charter schools can reinforce the pattern of segregation by appealing to niche markets, and vouchers are likely to have the same effect.