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Increasing Access Isnít Enough: We Should Fight for School Integrations

by ZoŽ Burkholder - June 03, 2021

This commentary argues that school integrations (in the plural) are essential to the civic function of citizenship training in US public schools.

On April 28th, President Joe Biden gave a rousing Congressional address that proposed policies for “rebuilding the nation, revitalizing our democracy and winning the future for America.” Better, more affordable schools from preschool through college are central to this vision, as they should be. American public schools and universities fulfill our nation’s creed that all children, no matter the circumstances of their birth, can achieve the American Dream. They also prepare children for active, democratic citizenship by teaching students to read, write, cipher, communicate effectively, and think critically so they can hold down a job, serve in the military, pay their taxes, support their families, give back to their communities, and make informed decisions as voters. As a parent of two high schoolers, I found President Biden’s promise to improve access to public education while reducing costs absolutely thrilling.

But what was missing from the President’s address was a richer consideration of how to improve the quality of our nation’s schools. While lowering costs and expanding access are vital objectives, it is every bit as essential to fortify the civic functions of public education in a nation where democratic norms have so recently come under threat, as evidenced by the attack on the U.S. Capitol and declining faith in democracy.

In our new book Integrations: A History of Racial Equality and Civic Renewal in Public Education, Lawrence Blum and I argue that revitalizing the civic function of public education requires a bolder, clearer commitment to meaningful school integrations. We analyze the long and twisted history of U.S. school segregation, patterns of inequality that affected not only African Americans but also Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinxs. It’s not a simple—or singular—history, but instead multiple complex and overlapping histories that lay bare the systemic racism at the heart of our cherished institution of public schools.

Black, Native American, Asian American, and Latinx families have worked tirelessly to improve the quality of public education. Because segregation was a potent tool of oppression, activists used school integration to promote more equitable schools. But again, the resulting struggles were as varied as the forms of segregation that inspired them, such that Native Americans in North Carolina had completely different conceptions of what school integration was and how it should work than Native Americans in South Dakota, much less African Americans in Arkansas, Chinese Americans in California, or Puerto Ricans in New York. Over time, struggles for school integration expanded to include efforts to decolonize the curriculum, integrate the faculty and staff, redesign discipline policies, see to the needs of English language learners, and include all parents as equals in school governance. Today, students of color in many communities continue to advocate for school integration. [See Figure 1]  


Figure 1: Students in Montclair, New Jersey organized a rally to challenge racism and demand more integrated schools, June 2020. Photo by Chanda Hall.

But how exactly does school integration relate to educational equality? The short answer is that educational equality, defined as equal access to educational goods and services, does not in theory require school integration in the form of racial mixing. However, based on lived experiences and historical evidence, school segregation correlates very strongly with educational inequality, which suggests that school integration must remain at the forefront of our concerns.

Integrated schools symbolize equal citizenship and promote equal opportunities in a society that continues to grapple with historical legacies of slavery, settler colonialism, and racial apartheid. In other words, the best reason to support school integration today is not because it improves educational equality (sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t), but instead because it boosts the civic function of education in a democracy, which requires that we prepare youth to thrive in a society that becomes more racially and ethnically diverse each year.

As the National Academy for Education has emphasized in its new report, Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse, the U.S. desperately needs “to better prepare students to examine and discuss complex civic, political and social issues” to meet the obligations of 21st century citizenship in a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy. The revitalization of civic education in the U.S. will take more than better curricula and stronger teacher education; it requires students to grow and learn in racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse schools.

As a politician, President Biden has a mixed record on school integration, a fact that Kamala Harris laid bare during the second presidential debate. His current educational policy agenda has some real strengths, but it avoids the pressing question of racial inequality and the fact that U.S. schools have sky-high levels of segregation and inequality.

We’ve come a long way since Biden voted against school integration laws in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and one crucial discovery is that we should conceive of school integrations in the plural to recognize the diverse experiences of different marginalized groups, and also the multiple visions of meaningful integration by communities struggling with specific forms of educational racism. Thoughtfully designed, flexible school integrations tailored to the specific needs of different communities can create more equitable public schools that fortify our democracy by training students in kindness, empathy, and understanding of human diversity.

President Biden, increasing access to public education is laudatory, but it is not enough. The time has come to fight for school integrations.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 03, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23716, Date Accessed: 6/15/2021 12:09:21 PM

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About the Author
  • ZoŽ Burkholder
    Montclair State University
    E-mail Author
    ZOň BURKHOLDER, Ph.D., is a professor of educational foundations at Montclair State University, specializing in the history of school desegregation, educational equality, and anti-racist education. She is the founding director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Project. Dr. Burkholder is the author of An African American Dilemma: A History of School Integration and Civil Rights in the North (Oxford University Press, 2021), Integrations: The Struggle for Racial Equality and Civic Renewal in Public Education (University of Chicago Press, 2021, with Lawrence Blum), and Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900Ė1954 (Oxford University Press, 2011), as well as numerous scholarly articles and political commentaries.
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