Reconciling Baltimore and the Desire for Diverse Schools


Over the past few years, socioeconomic integration has been gaining support as a key method of school improvement.

I’m very supportive of this vision, but I think it’s important to recognize its current limits.

Recently, I had a conversation with Chris Gibbons where he raised an important point on this issue. He noted that, in cities with deep concentrations of poverty, socioeconomic diverse schools will generally require students to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods.

Chris is right: there are not a lot of wealthy families that will bus their children into economically depressed neighborhoods.

Additionally, there may also be a limited supply of families who will voluntarily send their children to diverse schools, regardless of the location. This will make it difficult to achieve socioeconomic diversity at scale.

The events in Baltimore, for me, served as a stark reminder of the real limits of the integration strategy. Unfortunately, I do not think that large numbers of middle and upper income families will send their children to schools into the most economically depressed neighborhoods of the city, nor do I suspect that enough Baltimore families will voluntarily (by school choice or via enacting enrollment policies) integrate all the public schools in the city, regardless of school location.

Of course, I might be wrong. But the lack of integration in most urban cities offers at least some evidence that achieving integration at scale will be difficult to accomplish in the near term.

This is why I think we need to maintain a strong focus on opening excellent schools in neighborhoods with high poverty rates.

Even if the schools are not diverse, they can still be excellent.

Additionally, we should significantly expand choice so that, to the extent the government fails to provide excellent schools in any given neighborhood, families can still access the schools that they deserve.

Hopefully, over time, integration will increase.

But we can’t stop opening up great schools in high-poverty neighborhoods while we wait for this integration to occur.

As it happens, most leaders of diverse schools that I talk to agree with the above. The most vocal integrationists, however, insinuate that the effort to build more high-poverty schools is off the mark.

This, I think, is a mistake.

I don’t in any way mean to argue that excellent high-poverty schools will solve all of the complex issues that lead to severe social injustice. Rather, I just think that, done right, they can be a part of the solution.

Lastly, for a powerful read on Baltimore that touches on some of these themes, see Derrell Bradford’s essay.

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