Sixty-two years ago, the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case outlawed formal racial segregation in our nation’s public schools. Forty-eight years ago, the federal Fair Housing Act outlawed racial discrimination in housing. While much good has been accomplished in the intervening years, racial isolation in housing continues to plague many metropolitan areas. Historical redlining, disinvestment in black neighborhoods, continuing housing discrimination, and other factors sustained informal residential segregation. This trend, combined with neighborhood-based public school enrollment, results in many of our nation’s public schools remaining similarly segregated as schools in the pre-Brown era.
Diverse school environments benefit all students.
This matters a great deal. Diverse school environments benefit all students. All students – and particularly economically disadvantaged students and students of color – reap academic benefits from integration. Students in diverse schools are more likely to develop empathy, to build cross-cultural communication skills, and to create bonds (what is often called “social capital”) with those of different backgrounds. At a time of increasing political and social polarization, and of fear of “the other,” intentionally diverse schools become even more vital to the future of our pluralistic democratic society.
District efforts to create more integrated schools by changing attendance zones often encounter resistance to proposals that move children to different schools or dramatically change school demographics. Given these challenges, those committed to diversity and integration should explore new methods and policies for creating and encouraging more integrated schools, while still continuing to fight for greater equity in student assignment to district schools.
At a time of increasing political and social polarization, and of fear of “the other,” intentionally diverse schools become even more vital to the future of our pluralistic democratic society.
One of the most successful ways to create and sustain diverse schools may come from an unlikely sector: public charter schools. Because charter schools are not part of a school district, they usually can draw on broader attendance zones than a district’s zoned elementary schools. And because charters are schools of choice, they can market themselves as diverse and welcoming to students and families from all backgrounds and from multiple neighborhoods. These “diverse-by-design” charter schools represent a growing part of charter school sector.
The 25-year-old public charter school movement, which currently includes more than 7,000 schools and serves over 2 million students, has been criticized as adding to school segregation. In reality, many charter schools have a mission to serve students who are economically disadvantaged and live in neighborhoods where school options are limited and district schools are already segregated. These public charter school leaders are working to provide educational opportunity to children who in many cases would otherwise lack it.
The recently formed National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools serves as a focal point for the growth and quality of diverse-by-design schools, and includes among its membership both independent charter schools and those that are part of larger networks. Member schools are located throughout the country, in cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, Baltimore, New York City, Boston, Washington, DC, New Orleans, Rochester and Tulsa.
Even as New York City, the nation’s largest school system, struggles to change attendance zones, a growing number of charter schools in the city are succeeding at creating racially, ethnically, linguistically and economically diverse schools that serve large numbers of students with special needs. Schools such as Brooklyn Prospect, Community Roots, the International Charter School of New York, Hebrew Language Academy and Harlem Hebrew (the latter two managed by my organization, Hebrew Public) are actively countering decades of systemic segregation.
Policy makers should take heed of this burgeoning effort.