Confessions from A Recovering Academic; Or, The Problems with Proffered Solutions To N.J.’s Segregated Schools (with apologies to Emily Dickinson)

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The Civil Rights Project has a new academic paper out called “New Jersey’s Segregated Schools Trends and Paths Forward,” a follow-up to a report on the same subject supplemented by new data from 2010-2015. This release of this report has been dutifully covered by New Jersey traditional media outlets (see the Star-Ledger, NJ Spotlight, NJ Today) by reciting a few talking points: New Jersey is more diverse than it used to be—there’s a “remarkable increase in the proportion of students attending multiracial schools over the past twenty-five years”—but we’re still the sixth most segregated school system in the nation;  one-fourth of Black students attend schools where enrollment is 90 percent non-White; the Abbott rulings, which direct vast amounts of money towards 31 poor districts, (some no longer poor) erased funding inequities  (um, not really) but did nothing to integrate schools.

In other words, it’s easy to write a check. It’s hard to override New Jersey’s lust for local control.

But the media blurbs that followed the report’s publication fail to dig into the flawed analyses and vacuous recommendations pitched by its authors, Professors Gary Orfield, Jongyeon Ee and Ryan Coughlan Guttman.

A personal disclosure: I have been sober for two decades but remain a recovering academic. I hit bottom when I went to the annual Modern Language Association convention (I remember one of my professors trilling, “it’s a smorgasbord of riches!”) and wandered into a session called “The Clitoral Imagery of Emily Dickinson.” At the time I had three children under four years old, which may have precipitated my “aha” moment: is academia’s compulsive production of frippery really the best use of my time?

This is just to say that I have retained a certain skepticism towards academia and, in particular, how easily data—whether in the form of couplets or education analyses—can be distorted. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Forgive the digression. Back to the report.

I’m totally on board with lead author Orfield’s conclusion that New Jersey’s intensely segregated school system is largely due to its failure to provide affordable housing. Our culture of home rule and the state’s profligate granting of secessions to segregated portions of towns has resulted in what Paul Tractenberg calls “apartheid districts,” or districts with intense segregation, and what the late Alan Karcher called “municipal madness.”

Professor Orfield writes,

Housing segregation plays a major role in shaping the landscape of school segregation in the state. In areas, like New Jersey, with serious housing segregation in the absence of integration programs, or large choice programs with free transportation, housing deeply shapes school opportunity and tends to perpetuate inequality. Given the long-established patterns, the severe segregation of subsidized housing, and continuing discrimination in housing and home finance markets, housing choice is limited for families of color and becomes a barrier that persists unless it is confronted directly.

Here’s how it works. While we do have affordable housing ordinances, there’s a long tradition of Jersey towns evading their responsibility through a loophole in state statute that allows municipalities to enter into Regional Contribution Agreements that let them pay off another town to take its share of affordable units. Planet Princeton’s Krystal Knapp explains how wealthy Princeton, nine miles from the low-performing Trenton City Schools, maintains its Whiteness:

According to Fair Share Housing, Princeton Township paid Trenton $460,0000 in 1996 through a regional contribution agreement to build 23 affordable units in Trenton instead of Princeton. Fair Share Housing and other affordable housing advocates argue that such agreements concentrate poverty and promote segregation.

The Orfield report nails it on the housing front—alert me, please, when Princeton offers empty seats to Trenton students—but I’m less enthusiastic about the rest. While there’s much emphasis on the necessity of school choice (“choice can strongly foster diversity and increase the options for students living in areas where the existing schools are weak”) there’s an oxymoronic antipathy towards public charter schools which, in our most segregated districts, are often the only choices available to families who can’t afford private schools or out-of-district tuition. This political agenda corrupts an ostensibly objective analysis of the impact of charter schools on student outcomes, as well as their importance to parents.

Maybe it’s genetic.

Gary Orfield’s younger brother is Myron Orfield. Myron is the director of the Minnesota-based Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity (IMO). There’s a related organization in Collingswood, New Jersey called the “Metropolitan Area Research Corporation.” Both are connected to another organization called “Building One America.” In fact, if you want to donate to “Building One America,” the website informs you that “you’ll be taken to a PayPal page where you can use your PayPal account OR use a credit card. The PayPal page will say ‘Metropolitan Area Research Corporation’. Your PayPal or credit record will say ‘BOA’. Again, thank you for your support.”

Building One America (or its local arm, “Building One New Jersey”) is adamantly opposed to public charter schools. From its primary publication: “There are billions being made in the privatization of public sector institutions and government services, including the charter school industry.” And, “programs for the urban poor … stoke resentment and reinforce stereotypes among middle class taxpayers while enriching out-of-town owners and Wall Street investors of the for-profit housing industry, charter schools and development agencies while at the same time creating and sustaining a local class of often anti-union not-for-profit advocates.”

Hmm. How’d we get to “anti-union”? Let’s go back to Myron, Minnesota, and IMO. Investigative journalist Beth Hawkins reports on a class action suit based on Myron’s “research” that “accuses the state of Minnesota of depriving students of a quality education by allowing segregated schools. The rise of charter schools, the suit claims, has made integration impossible.”

So, maybe Myron makes the leap from charter to “anti-union” because charter school teachers don’t have to unionize. You won’t be surprised to hear that Building One America’s “Civil Rights Summit,” which starred Myron Orfield, was sponsored by the United Steelworkers Union, AFL-CIO, the Carpenters Union and several teacher unions. (Beth: “Orfield’s work has become increasingly strident and ideological. Last year he was forced to concede that half the funding for a marquee report came from teachers unions, which used it to push anti-charter policies.”) And you most likely won’t be surprised to hear that Building One New Jersey’s summit’s primary sponsor was NJEA and the primary honoree was Sean Spiller, currently NJEA’s Vice President.

Now, Gary isn’t his brother’s keeper and a quick Google search reveals a high regard for his scholarship. But his section on charter schools makes me wonder if he is spending too much time with Myron.

Turn to page 15 of the report and look at the two pie charts. The first one depicts the demographics of charter school students, who represent a mere three percent of  New Jersey’s public school enrollment. The chart shows that 55.3 percent of charter school students are Black, 30.9 percent are Hispanic, 7.8 percent are White and 4.9 percent are Asian. The adjacent chart depicts the demographics of traditional district students and shows that 15.7 percent are Black, 26.2 percent are Hispanic, 46.4 percent are White and 9.9 percent are Asian.

Ta da! Charters schools promote segregation.

Or not.

Surely professor Orfield knows that New Jersey charter schools cluster in communities that are largely Black and Hispanic. Newark’s traditional district, which serves 35,329 students, is pretty evenly divided between Black and Hispanic students; about 8 percent are White and there are very few Asian students. So, of course, Newark’s charter sector reflects the resident students’ demographics, although Black parents tend to choose charters more often: KIPP’s Team Academy is 93.4 percent Black and Uncommon’s North Star Academy is 86.3 percent Black. (The reasons why more Black families are enthusiastic about charter school culture is beyond the scope of this post. If you’re interested, start with Beth’s interview with Bill Wilson, founder of Minneapolis’ Higher Ground Academy charter school where almost all students, who excel academically, are Black and impoverished. Explains Wilson, “segregation is the practice of stopping a person or group from enrolling in a school, not what happens when families choose a program that protects and celebrates their children’s heritage.”)

Thus, to compare charter school enrollment (clustered in municipalities with atypically high proportions of Black and Hispanic residents) with traditional district enrollment, which skews White, is to compare apples and oranges. The pie charts are meaningless. They prove nothing except that minority families consigned to low-performing school districts are desperate for non-traditional options.

Charlie Barone could have been referring to professor Orfield’s report when he writes in this recent article,

Some studies misleadingly claim that charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools. First, it is not surprising that charter schools are concentrated in communities with high proportions of students of color. Charter schools were created to provide an alternative for those very children to the low-performing traditional public schools they were previously forced to attend. Second, in comparing schools, these studies often have employed faulty methodology comparing the demographics of individual charter schools to the demographics of the district or the state in which they are located. The only valid comparison, however, is that between a public charter school and the traditional public school to which a student would otherwise have been assigned.

Now let’s look at Orfield et al.’s recommendations for how New Jersey can integrate schools (page 40).

Professor Orfield advises that “school choice should not be embraced as an end onto itself” because it “accords the biggest rewards to the most sophisticated families.”

What is his proxy for “most sophisticated families”? Is it family income? Nope. Eighty-eight percent of KIPP Newark charter school families are economically disadvantaged. Seventy-nine percent of Newark Public Schools’ families are economically disadvantaged. Also Newark and Camden school districts, where many charters are located, offer universal enrollment systems that facilitate school choice among traditionals, magnets and charters. What else could he mean? He doesn’t say.

Professor Orfield’s next recommendation is, “To achieve better outcomes, communities and school districts need coordinated plans to support successful and lasting diversity and to help stabilize areas threatened by resegregation. Where there is a strong housing market, communities should take advantage of gentrification and combine school efforts with housing aid plans to stabilize diverse communities and schools. Of course this requires that school district and city officials work in concert to develop such plans.”

Great idea! That will never happen without legislative mandates. Which will never happen. (See here.)

Next, professor Orfield recommends that “teachers and administrators” should “manage diversity and create successful interracial staff” while community leaders should learn about “the cultural and historical contributions of the major communities.” Sure. We definitely need more teachers of color. That’s a national problem and the professor offers no solutions.

Lastly, professor Orfield advises that “the basic lesson of the report is that the future of the state and its communities depends on making an extremely diverse society work much better than what has been achieved so far. New Jersey does not face a problem without solutions—but it is on a path that will make things worse. Turning onto a viable future path will take understanding and leadership and could produce very large rewards.”

I can’t find a single pragmatic course of action within these “recommendations.” 

But, then again, there is an awful lot missing, primarily a focus on what’s best for kids stuck in low-performing districts. I could only find this: “Blacks and Hispanics, however, typically go to schools segregated from Whites and with a clear majority of children living in poverty. This pattern has large implications, weakening educational opportunities and attainment, life chances and blocking experiences that can prepare students for success in a multiracial highly stratified society.” Of course we all (well, many of us) agree that New Jersey would be better off if our best traditional schools were less segregated, but that won’t happen without a statewide heart-and-brain transplant.  And even in integrated districts like South Orange-Maplewood, as the Star-Ledger just reported, “parents groups have been lodging [complaints] against the school system for years—once they get inside, students’ educations differ, depending on their race.”

Yet professor Orfield et al. would have Black and Hispanic parents wait for a paradigm shift a la Thomas Kuhn, for some seismic change in the state’s zeitgeist, for some miraculous conversion of the suburban mindset that would compel an opening of gated high-performing schools to needy children trapped in dysfunctional ones. Meanwhile, we should sit and wait for transubstantiation.

That’s a non-starter, at least with the Black and Latino parents I speak to. Their kids are in school now. They need good schools now. That’s why they flock to public charters where, says Barone, “CREDO has found that .. Black students in poverty receive the equivalent of 59 days of additional learning in math and 44 days of additional learning in reading compared to their peers with similar demographics in traditional public schools.”

In fact, charter schools offer some potential integration possibilities precluded for traditional districts and so highly valued by professor Orfield. As my colleague Rob Samuelson points out, “the flexible nature of a charter school allows it to match curricula to individual communities, draw students from a wider geographic area and partner with local districts and organizations to attract a diverse group of students.”

Professor Orfield’s report isn’t about what’s best for kids or how to fix broken schools. Instead, it’s a  rationalization for inaction, for a tolerance of the educational barriers that low-income Black and Brown families face right now. As such, it’s as useless as studying arcane imagery in Emily Dickinson.

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