Reader Feedback: The Desegregation Debate
Former state representative Wayne Smith submitted his response to a feature story in our August issue, "Fixing Wilmington's Schools."
Regarding your article on desegregation in the August issue, important facets were left out. In particular, the defeat of the proposed consent agreement as a negotiated settlement to the federal forced-busing order was critical to the development of today’s educational landscape.
Had the consent agreement been enacted, it would have drastically curtailed the usefulness of charter schools and the school choice law by keeping in place racial requirements for school attendance (in addition to violating the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution).
As the author of the Neighborhood Schools Act, I disagree with the statement that “charters and the Neighborhood Schools Act have had especially disastrous effects on city schools.” The Neighborhood Schools Act ended the unconstitutional segregation of children in attendance zones by the government (in the form of the federally sanctioned oversight regime) by taking race out of the equation for student assignments (even in Brandywine, with its “hardship” exemption.
They adopted an economic diversity standard, which obviously was designed to circumvent the outlawing of the use of race in student assignments). I think that, if you look at the data, you will see that, while implementation of the Neighborhood Schools Act has coincided with higher racial identifiability of various schools in northern New Castle County, it has not had an impact on the performance of individual students.
Rather, since students tend to be assigned to schools based on geographic residence, and poverty tends to overlay with geography, there has been an aggregation of students below the poverty line in certain schools—with the coincidence of academic performance that often entails. Part of the state’s case in successfully dissolving the court order in the mid-1990s was showing that who a child sat next to had very little effect on their academic performance—part of the evidence produced that convinced Judge Susan Robinson that the state had eliminated segregation “root and branch” (the judicial term that had by then become the standard of judging when judicial oversight of schools could be ended).
Thus, returning to neighborhood attendance zones, with the aggregation of kids by geography, tended to end the dispersion of lower-performing (and often) high-poverty students, and concentrate them in measurement units (schools) where their performance stood out. In a sense, it has made addressing this issue easier since the dispersion of low-performance students in schools around the county tended to mask their existence in schools that had mediocre performance results because only a relatively small percentage of their students came from high-poverty neighborhoods. Those students were still there. They were just hidden—and, unfortunately, forgotten.
A legal quibble is that segregation is not the term to describe current attendance characteristics. Segregation results from an act of commission—of which there is none since courts have long blessed geographic attendance for schools as appropriate and constitutional, regardless of student performance or racial identifiability. The proper term is racial identifiability—a quibble, but the side that would have the state again assign students based on race constantly drags out the term “segregation” and “re-segregation” because those loaded terms are designed to produce an effect on the reader/listener.
I happen to think that ending federal forced busing, enacting the Neighborhood Schools Act, and the flowering of parental options embodied by a robust system of charter schools and school choice have been very good things for all students and parents—a view shared by many of your readers.
Former state representative