Separate and Unequal Is Hurting America’s Children. It’s Time to Invest in Education and Integration on Behalf of Every Student.
This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity 5 decades after the Kerner Commission issued its seminal report on racial division and disparities in the United States.
During the summer of 1967, a series of explosive race riots shook urban centers throughout the United States. In their aftermath, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—widely known as the Kerner Commission—to investigate why these riots occurred and to help ensure that similar events would not happen again. The final report issued by the Kerner Commission in February 1968 contained the oft-repeated conclusion that the nation was “moving towards two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” And, in response, it set forth a series of recommendations to end the pervasive discrimination and segregation that existed in nearly every segment of American life.
In the 50 years since the release of the Kerner Report, our country has struggled to fulfill its mission—and perhaps nowhere has this fight been more evident than in our nation’s classrooms. During the decades that have followed, we have witnessed both positive strides toward integrating and diversifying our schools, as well as deliberate attempts to reverse this progress by further dividing our communities.
In the 50 years since the release of the Kerner Report, our country has struggled to fulfill its mission — and perhaps nowhere has this fight been more evident than in our nation’s classrooms.
These deliberate attempts have allowed for continued inequities to exist in America’s education system. Although our nation’s students are more diverse than ever before, over the last quarter century our schools have begun sliding backward toward a state of segregation. As a result, a disproportionate number of children who come from low-income families and communities of color now find themselves isolated into underfunded and unequal classrooms.
If our society wishes to reverse these disturbing trends, we must follow two distinct yet equally important courses of action.
First, we must ensure that all children—no matter where they grow up—receive the resources and support they need to get a high-quality education. That begins with making sufficient investments to put a well-qualified teacher in every classroom.
Despite the vital role that teachers play in preparing our next generation for success, they are chronically underpaid in comparison to other professionals with similar levels of education. This explains why, in many states, roughly 1 out of every 5 teachers has to work a second job just to make ends meet. In addition, low salaries have contributed to teacher shortages across the country, particularly in underserved communities where children face the greatest challenges. Low salaries—combined with the staggering costs of higher education—also explain why the profession faces persistent difficulty in attracting people of color, despite the clear benefits a diverse teacher pool offers to all students, especially children of color.
Fortunately, teachers in states such as Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia are now banding together to demand higher pay and better funding for their schools. Educators in Arizona have also taken action to hold their lawmakers accountable for neglecting to adequately support the state’s education system. Furthermore, states such as Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee have enacted ambitious plans to recruit well-trained and diverse teachers into those schools with the greatest needs.
However, we cannot stop at simply increasing support for schools located in underserved neighborhoods. There is a second, crucial agenda that we must also adopt to improve our education system: helping more families move into areas with better schools, safer streets, and greater access to basic services like public transportation and playgrounds. The authors of the Kerner Report called attention to the undeniable importance of realizing these objectives when they wrote: “We support integration as the priority education strategy; it is essential to the future of American society.”
A half century later, the truth of their conclusion has withstood the test of time. Research shows that integrated school systems provide educational benefits to students of all backgrounds. So it should come as no surprise that more than two thirds of the American people support these kinds of efforts.
There are strategies that leaders at every level of government can follow to integrate our schools. Federal officials can introduce initiatives that build more affordable and mixed-income developments in affluent areas, and enforce fair housing laws designed to break down barriers that separate families of different racial and economic backgrounds. At the local level, districts can pursue a number of measures to make their classrooms more diverse—including redrawing attendance zones based on economic diversity and implementing “controlled choice programs” that consider the income and education level of parents when assigning their kids to a particular public school. These moves typically increase racial integration as well, even where court cases have sought to restrict districts from considering race explicitly. Finally, policymakers who are serious about promoting greater equality in our classrooms should consider realigning existing municipal boundaries that reinforce segregated housing patterns and instead implement policies that consolidate school districts regionally.
Today, as our country reflects on the legacy of the Kerner Commission, we realize just how far America still must travel to provide all children—regardless of their color or background—with the tools to succeed. If we truly believe that a good education serves as an indispensable foundation in helping every student to build a brighter future, then we have no choice but to invest in every school and to take more decisive steps toward integrating our schools. The stakes are simply too high for us to follow any other path.
Neera Tanden is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.