Our Public Schools Are Still Separate and Unequal
Desegregated busing still exists—only the children have changed. This transferring of children outside their local districts has grown even stronger. Instead of Black children being bused in, there’s an increase of White children being bused out in order to attend schools in less-diverse areas.
As we approach the 65th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka—where the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” and therefore is unconstitutional—we are now more than ever dealing with the repercussions of separating children by race.
Decades later, this continued practice proves the lengths people will go to separate their children.
I work in a public middle school that is over 90% students of color. It’s located in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and yet many of the people living here choose to send their children to schools outside of the neighborhood. Ours is a reputable school, with a competitive arts program, regents’ classes, and children who get into specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant. Yet the parents would rather take buses, scooters, or SUVs instead of having their children attend their zoned school.
I can’t help but think that if our population were 90% White, parents would be scrambling to get their children in, maybe even bribing their way in.
Meanwhile, a mere zip code away, hundreds of parents are fighting for coveted seats to higher-achieving schools. Many of those families are relocating, thus forcing rents to increase to exorbitant prices—thereby taking away homes and spots of deserving families who can no longer afford to live there.
Not only do these schools have students entering their system with higher test scores, but having wealthier parents allows them to raise hundreds of thousands—sometimes millions—of dollars to pay for special programs and materials that schools in lower economical standing cannot afford to do.
Hence, separate and unequal.
Furthering this already yawning gap between schools is the influx of charter schools. Some sing their praises without considering their effects, claiming they give underserved communities the chance for a better education. Charter schools are not only cherry-picking top students, but they are also siphoning off the money that had once been traditional public school funds. In addition, they make it so that local children and active parents have to move to other locations—further depriving local districts.
Public schools need strong parental involvement to succeed. We need families that live in the community to go to schools in the community. And we need the funds that have been siphoned off for charters to be redirected back to public schools.
Otherwise, these schools cannot remain equal.
The biggest target for inequality is the middle schools. Next year begins a new initiative to integrate middle schools in two popular regions in New York City. Instead of this opportunity being embraced to finally balance the schools, the result for many is more busing—more distance. I’ve met a number of families who have left the city altogether in fear that their children won’t get into a “good” school. Believe it or not, some have even left the country. A privilege many don’t have.
People walk around wearing T-shirts and paraphernalia espousing their pride in Brooklyn, but few are willing to allow their children to experience the learning that comes from mixing races and backgrounds. One experience I believe to be the best part of city life.
While there may have been small gains in access to education for some students of color, it hasn’t been enough to rid us of the separate and unequal status in our public schools.
If we truly want that change to happen, we all must take part in the process. Parents have to stop taking their kids away from the communities they live in and instead see what they can do to make them better.
We need to carefully review leadership and integrate our schools from the top down. We need to bring back the premise behind public education, that all children are entitled to a free and fair education.
Separate but equal has no place in our public school system. We need to put an end to transporting students away from their zoned schools and start working together as communities to make them better—for all students.
Elana Rabinowitz is an ESL teacher and freelance writer, whose commentaries and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, The Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, and other outlets. She writes about education, social justice, and relationships. She is based in Brooklyn, New York, and is currently working on her memoir. She speaks English, as well as some Spanish and some Sinhala. She can be reached through her website.