School Segregation: A Cure Just Like the Disease?

Published March 16, 2013

Review of Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community That Ended the Era of School Desegregation, by Sarah Garland (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013; 239 pp; 978-0-8070-0177-6, $26.95 hardback)

Government-mandated school segregation was an evil that had to be eradicated, an affront to the basic American values of equality under the law and individual liberty. But what if what replaced it—even if well-intentioned—continued to condemn many African-Americans to inferior schools based simply on their race? Would that outcome be any more just?

Those questions underlie Divided We Fail, a book about black families who took on the integration system of Jefferson County, Kentucky, which—along with Seattle, Washington’s—the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2007. The system required that no school have less than 15 percent African-American students, and no more than 50 percent.

As author Sarah Garland illustrates, the end result of Jefferson County’s system was to freeze some black kids out of the most desirable schools because they would have put the institutions past their black-enrollment limits. The threshold also ensured African Americans would never have majority control over any school.

Garland notes the activists who took on the system didn’t typically oppose integration, but “they wanted equal outcomes for black children and they also wanted equal power over the schools and over the content and trajectory of their children’s education.”

Dismissing Choice
Garland, a white Louisville native and one-time bused student, makes it clear she, too, supports integration, but she came to sympathize with the activists when she learned of their grievances. This book is from an integration choir member, not an opponent.

Unfortunately, Garland’s choir status is all too clear when she attacks school choice, which attaches funding to children instead of schools and, in so doing, gives greater power to individual families. When parents can decide where to direct their children and education dollars, they have far more influence than when children are assigned to schools based on whatever a state, judge, or school board deems best.

Of course those are contested points, but rather than seriously grapple with them Garland dismisses choice with the shallowest of claims, asserting, “fundamental to a market-based system of choice-based education was Darwinian competition that created winners and losers; desegregation was meant to equalize all schools, lift all boats.”

Need Creates Options
Au contraire
! While free markets certainly result in producer competition, the end result is not usually winners and losers among customers. Does Blackberry fading away make smart phone users losers? No. They’ve already won, with Androids and iPhones serving them much better.

Such lifting of all consumer boats isn’t the only choice benefit Garland brushes aside. Were markets allowed to work, the heavily demanded, law-themed magnet program that Dionne Hopson, a main subject of Garland’s book, was blocked from entering would likely have been replicated, as providers saw excess demand and a chance to profit. There’s a reason there are lots of Starbucks drinkers and Starbucks stores: in free markets, supply rises to meet demand.

A real market would also likely enable African Americans who so desired to go to a majority black school, and without compelling anyone else to attend such an institution. Blacks interested in such schools could freely choose them if educators freely chose to offer them.

Finally, Garland is too quick to credit compelled integration for academic improvements. African-American scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have certainly improved since the early 1970s, but that doesn’t tell us whether forced school integration did it. Just as likely is that the demise of Jim Crow, and evolving social attitudes, have fueled all sorts of improvements. Indeed, appreciable research suggests black students in coercively integrated schools did not see marked improvements as a result.

Garland’s book is a welcome illustration of why many African Americans may dislike forced integration. But it doesn’t give a fair chance to the system arguably best suited to empower black families: school choice.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.

Image by Wreford Miller.