Opinion: Schools are economically segregated – and MLK would disapprove

America’s public schools were meant to bring together children from all walks of life. (Shutterstock)

Five decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., many carry on his legacy through the struggle for racially integrated schools. Yet as King put it in a 1968 speech, the deeper struggle was “for genuine equality, which means economic equality.” Justice in education would demand not just racially integrated schools, but also economically integrated schools.

The fight for racial integration meant overturning state laws and a century of history – it was an uphill battle from the start. But economic integration should have been easier. In the mid-18th century, when education reformers first made the case for inclusive and taxpayer-supported education, they argued that “common schools” would ease the class differences between children from different backgrounds.

As Horace Mann, the most prominent of these reformers, argued in 1848, such schools would serve to counter the “domination of capital and the servility of labor.” Learning together on common ground, rich and poor would see themselves in common cause – a necessity for the survival of the republic.

More than 150 years later, the nation has yet to realize this vision. In fact, it has been largely forgotten. Modern Americans regularly scrutinize the aims and intentions of the Founding Fathers; but the early designs for public education – outlined by Mann, the first secretary of education in Massachusetts, as well as by leaders like Henry Barnard, Thaddeus Stevens, and Caleb Mills – are mostly overlooked. Today, the average low-income student in the U.S. attends a school where two-thirds of students are poor. Nearly half of low-income students attend schools with poverty rates of 75 percent or higher.

Education historians, like myself, have generally focused their research and attention on racial segregation, rather than on economic segregation. But as income inequality continues to deepen, the aim of economically integrated schools has never been more relevant. If we are concerned with justice, we must revitalize this original vision of public education.


Horace Mann (1796-1859) was an early advocate of public education in the U.S. (Fotolia/AP)

Shared community

Early advocates of taxpayer-supported common schools argued that public education would promote integration across social classes. They thought it would instill a spirit of shared community and open what Horace Mann called “a wider area over which the social feelings will expand.”

And, generally speaking, it worked. The ultra-rich mostly continued to send their children to private academies. But many middle- and upper-income households began to send their children to public schools. As historians have shown, economically segregated schools did not systematically emerge until the mid-20th century, as a product of exclusionary zoning and discriminatory housing policies. Schools weren’t perfectly integrated by any means, particularly with regard to race. They were, however, vital sites of cross-class interaction.

Many prominent Americans – including U.S. presidents – were products of the public schools. Commonly, they sat side by side in classrooms with people from different walks of life.

But over the past half-century, students have been increasingly likely to go to school with students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Since 1970, residential segregation has increased sharply, with twice as many families now living in either rich or poor neighborhoods – a trend that has been particularly acute in urban areas. And segregation by income is most extreme among families with school-age children. Poor children are increasingly likely to go to school with poor children. Similar economic isolation is true of the middle and affluent classes.

Contemporary Americans commonly accept that their schools will be segregated by social class. Yet the architects of American public education would have viewed such an outcome as a catastrophe. In fact, they might attribute growing economic inequality to the systematic separation of rich and poor. As Horace Mann argued, it was the core mission of public schools to bring different young people together – to consider not just “what one individual or family needs,” but rather “what the whole community needs.”

Many parents do continue seek out diverse schools. A number of school districts have worked to devise student assignment plans that advance the aim of integration. And some charter schools are reaching this market by pursuing what has been called a “diverse-by-design” strategy. As demonstrated by research, diverse schools can and often do improve achievement across a range of social and cognitive outcomes, such as critical thinking, empathy and open-mindedness.

Largely overlooked, however, has been the political benefit of integrated schools. One rarely encounters the once-common argument that the health of American democracy depends on rich and poor attending school together. This is particularly surprising in an age of tremendous disparities in wealth and power. Members of Congress, on average, are 12 times wealthier than the typical American. Moreover, lawmakers are increasingly responsive to the privileged, even at the expense of middle-class voters.

If elites are isolated from their lower- and middle-income peers, they may be less likely to see a relationship of mutual commitment and responsibility to those of lesser means. As scholars Kendra Bischoff and Sean F. Reardon have argued, “If socioeconomic segregation means that more advantaged families do not share social environments and public institutions such as schools, public services, and parks with low-income families, advantaged families may hold back their support for investments in shared resources.”


What can be done?

Today more than 100 school districts or charter school chains work to integrate schools economically. Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, has four decades of experience balancing enrollments by social class, seeking to match the diversity of the city as a whole in each school.

This, of course, is only possible in a diverse place. Median family income in Cambridge is roughly US$100,000, while 15 percent of city residents live below the poverty line. It is also made possible through heavy investments in public education in the city. After all, it is far easier to convince middle-class and affluent parents to send their children to the public schools when per-pupil expenditures rival the highest-spending suburbs, as they do in Cambridge.

But not every district has Cambridge’s advantages. Nor does every district have similar political will.

The latter of those two constraints, however, may soon begin to change. Faced with a growing divide between rich and poor, Americans may begin to demand schools that not only serve young people equally from a funding standpoint, but also educate them together in the same classrooms.

Common schools by themselves are not enough to solve the problem of economic inequality. Yet if Americans seek to create a society in which the rich and the poor see themselves in common cause, common schools may be a necessary – and long overdue – step. We must come to see, in the words of Martin Luther King, that, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”The Conversation


Jack Schneider is Assistant Professor of Education at University of Massachusetts Lowell.  This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


7 responses to “Opinion: Schools are economically segregated – and MLK would disapprove”

  1. Sue Haynie

    Interesting article and I can see the reasoning and logic behind economic diversity in public schools.

    Having said that, the author doesn’t address a reality that’s happening in many districts across the country, including Norwalk. In 2018/19, Norwalk’s student body is 57.4% Free/Reduced Lunch. In 2017, it was 50%; in 2010 43.2%; in 2001 20.7%. The City of Norwalk’s demographics changes during this 18 year period do not mirror its public school’s changes.

    Do any of Professor Schneider’s studies account for parent choices or home-buyer choices that affect economic diversity distributions and/or how those would be addressed?

  2. Piberman

    Professional high income parents remain to be convinced their children’s school experience would be “improved” with greater “diversity” school classes including students from single parent families at poverty levels.. Which helps explain surrounding town home values many times greater than Norwalk – a City with a poverty rate of about 10%. The issue is not that diversity students would benefit from schooling with students from professional parent households. Just that the reverse is not yet apparent.

  3. Eleanor Lx

    The founding fathers never envisioned a vast welfare system where the financial incentives for leeching on public benefits provide greater “wages” than entry level jobs. Quite simply, you can not have your cake and eat it too . . . at what point are there not consequences for poor choices? We have to be a society of self-sufficiency where government can not replace the paternal structure of the family and responsibility for bringing children into this earth should not put undue strain on your fellow citizen. Unfortunately, the radicalization of the left continues on their brainwashing crusade of class warfare and failed socialist policies – much of which has made every major CT city a basket case.

  4. Rusty Guardrail

    E.Lx, you begin with a valid point but then you slide down into absurd name-calling generalities. America has yet to overcome the fallout from its history of slavery and genocide. Our taxes? They mostly pay for ongoing U.S. military installations/operations here and in dozens of foreign countries. The leftover crumbs go to education, infrastructure, help for those who need it. The fact that there are cheaters does not justify denying help to those who need and deserve it. USA is an empire with pretensions to democracy. Less than 1% of Americans own everything here including the elected government.

  5. Mike Lyons

    Rusty, your numbers are rusty. Herewith some facts:

    First, the military. Rusty says taxes “mostly pay for ongoing U.S. military installations/operations here and in dozens of foreign countries.” Not so; military spending of $893 billion is 20% of the Federal budget. Twenty percent is not “most”. What IS “most” is social welfare spending, with the biggest chunks going to Social Security (by far the biggest expense at $1.046 trillion), Medicare next at $625 billion, followed by Medicaid at $412 billion. Other welfare programs cumulatively cost about $730 billion, for a total of $2.813 trillion (over three times the amount spent on the military).

    Rusty goes on to say that “Less than 1% of Americans own everything here including the elected government.” The actual numbers are that “the richest 1% of the American population in 2007 owned 34.6% of the country’s total wealth” – a lot, but far from “everything”.

    Unless America becomes a police state that bans parents from moving or from privately educating their kids, the only way to keep the economically successful sending their kids to schools like Norwalk’s is by dramatically improving those schools – which is what the Board of Education is striving to do, with some success.

  6. Rusty Guardrail

    I don’t object to whatever level of taxing and spending is necessary to achieve quality public education. Education is paramount.

    Social security and Medicare payments are not “welfare”. They are INSURANCE previously bought and paid for by the recipient. FICA stands for Federal Insurance Contribution Act. Medicare is being hurt by the government’s disgraceful failure to regulate the healthcare industry.

    3 million Americans own 1/3 of the wealth. Those 3 million control everything. They are allowed to anonymously pump unlimited funds into political campaigns, yielding a government unable/unwilling to govern. 270 million Americans share the remaining 65% of the wealth. Those 270 million are lucky to control anything ever.

    Subtracting these insurance programs from the federal budget leaves roughly $2.5 mil, at least 1/3 of which is military spending.

  7. Susan Wallerstein

    From NY TImes 1/20 “What King Said About Northern Liberalism” by Jeanne Theoharis
    “There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North which is truly liberal,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told an interracial audience in New York City in 1960. He called for a liberalism that “rises up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in Mississippi, but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the right to live in his neighborhood.”

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