Can Elizabeth Warren’s education plan finally end segregation in US schools?
Friday, October 25, 2019
One of the more disappointing failures in U.S. K-12 education has been the attempt to end segregation in U.S. classrooms. As I pointed out in an earlier article on this touchy subject, the end of segregated classrooms, seemingly promised more than 60 years ago in the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, never came close to being fulfilled.
In reality, the degree of segregation in 2019 is about the same as it was in the 1960s. Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has a radical plan to change that. Whether it will help or hurt her candidacy remains to be seen, but it is a radical policy change even for Democrats.
How Bad Is It?
Racial segregation in U.S. K-12 schools has steadily increased for decades and has accelerated in recent years. According to research conducted by The Center for American Progress and confirmed by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, a third of students nationwide attend schools where 90% of the students are of the same race. Almost half of U.S. schools are “hyper-segregated,” with three-quarters of the students from low-income families.
When I began researching this subject, my understanding, mistaken as it turns out, was that the swing back to a segregated U.S. school system had taken place without the awareness of many Americans.
For some, that’s true. But to a larger extent — and this will certainly complicate any implementation of Elizabeth Warren’s plan — white Americans are OK with it.
In her 2017 book, “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation and the Rise of Public Education,” Princeton University professor Noliwe Rooks explains in detail how actively white parents and activists have directed the course of this segregation increase. Basically, white parents have no objection to segregation if it doesn’t impair their own child’s education and oppose integration when they believe that integrated classrooms will offer a less rigorous education.
White Parents, Education Standards and Academic Performance
Little evidence supports this common fear. The underperformance of black students in some settings seems to have almost everything to do with the quality of education offered — the principal and dramatic claim made in Brown v. Board of Education — not the inability of black students to absorb what they’re taught.
A 2012 study, for example, found that more than half of predominantly white high-schools offered their students calculus, but that it was offered by only third of predominantly black and brown schools.
Multiple studies have shown that white students’ test scores and graduation rates do not decline in highly integrated schools. Even busing, much hated by many white parents and even some black parents, was found not to adversely affect student performance.
Nevertheless, Warren’s plan will be a tough sell. That increasing the percentage of black and brown students in a predominantly white school lowers educational standards is a belief baked into many white communities.
How Radical Is Warren’s Plan?
Warren’s education plan, if carried out, will dramatically change the course of American education and could reverse the increasing segregation of U.S. schools. Among the most important policy points related to school segregation:
- A four-fold increase in the federal funding for schools with primarily low-income students, who are disproportionately brown and black.
- multiple billions of dollars yearly specifically earmarked for school desegregation and special and bilingual education
- free college tuition for all
- cancellation of nearly all student debt
- an end to what Warren calls “high stakes testing” that has characterized education reform over the last decade or so
- a dramatic increase in Pell Grants, which pay for eligible college students non-tuition expenses
- several more substantial education programs related to desegregation and beyond the scope of this short article
All of these changes would be paid for by a 2% annual wealth tax on persons with net worths of more than $50 million. Taken as a whole and in conjunction with her other proposed initiatives, Warren’s education plan is almost certainly the most radical proposal ever made by a major party candidate. This is both its appeal and main weakness.
How Achievable Is Warren’s Plan?
In one way or another, almost all of Warren’s proposed education changes as well as most of her other initiatives will disadvantage the wealthiest, most influential segments of American society.
Most of those affected will respond negatively in terms like this National Review lede: “She proposes to lock in high-earning, highly taxed Americans, penning them in order that they may be shorn and milked as though they were livestock.”
In an era where lobbyists are perhaps the most immediately influential cohort in Washington, Warren’s plans, attractive to some, will understandably attract vigorous, well-funded opposition. Were I a Republican strategist, I would emphasize how her plans penalize the rich for their success and would then link it to other failed and expensive educational initiatives.
And many more Americans who are not wealthy may still oppose it because they will fear that wealth taxes will deprive them of the right to enjoy their own future wealth. Americans are famously aspirational.
I have a Republican friend who opposes wealth taxes and high taxes on the wealthy generally. But he’s especially suspicious of inheritance taxes, which would deprive him of the right to pass on his wealth to his children. He’s in his late 50s and for several years has been a manager at Target.
We may soon find out how all this plays out: in the London betting markets in October 2019, the two most likely presidential candidates were Warren and Trump, which also suggests that the future of U.S. education will be strongly influenced, if not determined, by the outcome of next year’s presidential election.
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