Public Education’s White Flight Problem

More than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, little has changed, and several groups are hoping to use policy and practice to fix this longstanding issue.

Livia Gershon| Longreads | June 2020 | 6 minutes (1,576 words)

Last year, the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education came and went, and America’s public schools are the most segregated they’ve been in decades. According to a report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1988 to 2016 the share of “intensely segregated” schools in which 90 to 100 percent students are non-white more than tripled. Forty percent of black students and 42 percent of Latinx students now attend these super-segregated schools, which are often in high-poverty areas. The average white student, meanwhile, attends a school that is 69 percent white.

Decades of research has found that segregated schools and schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty have devastating effects on poor black and Latinx children. Yet since the 1980s, the peak of integration, a rollback of legal mandates has made it easier for white families to withdraw from integrated districts. Increasingly, white people have been opting out, forming splinter districts with relatively high-income families. But if privileged white parents bear a lot of responsibility for today’s school segregation, a growing movement suggests that they should take responsibility for addressing the problem. Across the country, local organizations are encouraging white parents to join in the work of integrating schools, starting with their own families.

One of the leaders of the movement was Courtney Everts Mykytyn, who in 2015 founded a national network called Integrated Schools. The organization now has 19 local chapters in cities from Seattle to Dallas to Washington, D.C. Mykytyn died in December after being struck by a car. I spoke with her about her work shortly before her death.

“It began out of my own experience in our Los Angeles neighborhood,” she said. “The few white and/or privileged families that I knew in our neighborhood were not even considering the local schools — not even saying no. That kind of got me thinking a lot about, What does it mean to be a neighbor?”

Some Integrated Schools chapters are essentially one-parent operations, offering a sounding board for those thinking about “desegregating their kids.” Others organize community meetings where they host parents for discussion. Integrated Schools’ first request of school shoppers is a “two tours pledge,” which calls for privileged parents to check out at least two schools where the majority of students are from a different racial, socioeconomic, or linguistic background. Parents are encouraged to look for positive qualities in those schools and discuss them with parent-friends. “So much of this work is really hearts-and-minds, movement-building work,” Mykytyn said. “We call it playground work. Each of these moments, at preschool pickup, all of those places are places where you have the power to tilt a conversation in a way that might undermine segregation a little bit.”

Integrated Schools also runs a book club and produces a podcast featuring conversations with education experts and fellow parents. There’s a growing audience of white people interested in the connection between schools and racial justice, Mykytyn found, spurred in part by the rise of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. “The conversations that I was having 10, 12 years ago when my kids were little were really different than what we’re having now,” Mykytyn said. “People are willing to think about their role in upholding the system in a way that isn’t easy.”

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Some of the clearest evidence showing the impact of school segregation comes from Rucker Johnson, a public policy scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. By looking at court-ordered desegregation plans from the 1960s to 1990, Johnson found that black students in desegregated districts ultimately completed more years of education and had higher earnings, better health, and less chance of being incarcerated than their segregated peers. For the white students with whom they sat in classrooms, there was no downside. Key to Johnson’s analysis was that the observation that desegregation’s benefits come largely from increased state funding flowing into desegregated schools. That is, what makes a difference is not merely diversity, but resources.

Noliwe Rooks, an interdisciplinary scholar at Cornell University who is on the Integrated Schools board of directors, told me that the advantages of integration aren’t a matter of osmosis — with rich, white students conferring opportunities to other kids. Rather, she said, integrating schools is the only method that has shown success in combating inequality of funds: “The history of public education teaches us, in the U.S. at least, that the resources that wealthier kids, well-supported kids, that they come to expect — that those resources are consistently hoarded.”

Tremendous social pressure keeps it that way. It’s not unusual for parents to tell Kylene Dibble — the executive director of the Pitt County, North Carolina, chapter of Parents for Public Schools — that they’ve heard there is only one elementary school in the area worth considering. Dibble’s group, which formed six years ago as a way to give parents greater influence in local schools, has made integration a priority. She implores parents to look beyond GreatSchools ratings and the state report card system, since those numbers tend to reflect the wealth or poverty of the kids who attend the school, not the educational experience. Schools serving a large number of kids who qualify for free and reduced-price meals are almost invariably those tagged with warnings (“below average” and “worrying sign”). “There’s this misconception that the schools are good because they have a certain report card grade, or bad because they have a certain report card grade,” Dibble said. “Those report card grades don’t reflect that this D school has a string orchestra quartet, or this C school has a phenomenal culinary program and they actually open up as a restaurant every week.”

What’s ironic about white, highly educated parents writing off certain schools is that their children are the ones who are least likely to suffer any consequences based on the schools they attend. Researchers have found that that, even though attending a highly segregated, mostly black and Latinx school is related to lower test scores for nonwhite students, it doesn’t have the same effect on white kids. In fact, integrated schools seem to benefit white students by helping them overcome prejudice. Children of all races tend to score lower on standardized tests if they attend a high-poverty school, but highly educated, wealthier families generally have the resources to help their kids if they struggle academically.

Dibble’s organization runs a parent-engagement program for 20 parents per year, teaching them about public education and giving them tools to advocate for their schools. One module includes a history of segregation in Pitt County and encourages a mixed-race, mixed-income group of parents to assess their own experiences with public education. “We have pretty open conversations about that,” she told me. “We put the graphs up.” When parents look at the numbers, it’s impossible to deny that school report card grades are directly related to poverty, not potential. Dibble’s group also offers tours of public schools to politicians, clergy, and real estate agents to help enlighten new families’ first contacts. “Realtors, they have very specific thoughts about certain schools without walking through the door,” she said. “A lot of it is about changing perceptions.”

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Part of the point of bringing in privileged parents to help integrate schools is acquiring the resources — political connections, grant-writing experience, and sheer wealth — that come with them. But there’s a danger, too, that some parents may use their power to make demands that seem important to them rather than work with others to set common priorities. Schools that appear diverse on paper may still be segregated internally, with rich, white parents finding ways to get their kids into honors and advanced placement programs. “We can put all the kids into a school together, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing meaningful integration where everyone’s dreams are valued,” Mykytyn said.

There’s also a bigger question about how far voluntary integration can go in solving society-wide problems. Rooks would like to see more people throwing their weight behind institutional change of the kind happening in Brooklyn’s District 15, where a mixed-race, mixed-income group of parents has been working to redraw or eliminate zoning lines and rewrite admissions policies to reduce segregation. New York City is one of the most segregated places to attend school in the country, and as local officials have declined to pursue a robust citywide integration plan, activists in many neighborhoods have recently been looking at District 15 as a model.

Integrated Schools isn’t doing policy advocacy, Mykytyn told me, though they might eventually enter that arena. “I think the missing piece has been building a strong constituency as people who are invested and committed,” she said. And it would require building a larger network of more diverse parents. “Policy can get overrun by well-meaning white people as well,” Mykytyn went on. “Work we do in a local setting that is policy-direct has to be in partnership.”

With the focus still on getting privileged parents to think about the role they play in maintaining segregation, Rooks said that she’s been impressed with how receptive people are to Integrated Schools’ message. “I completely support an organization that tells white parents, ‘Look, this is the way you live your values,’” she explained. But that won’t be sufficient to solve deep inequity, concentrated poverty, and institutional racism in schools. “Freedom isn’t voluntary,” Rooks said. “Justice shouldn’t have to be voluntary.”

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Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for the Guardian, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, Aeon and other places.

Editor: Betsy Morais

Fact-checker: Matt Giles

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross