The ‘Class’ Factor in Classrooms

Mary Sanchez reflects on Class paradigm in the racist American public school system.

Class — not just race — is to blame for separate and unequal schools

Now that the Roberts Supreme Court has essentially taken race off the table in the public schools debate, how will reformers go about addressing the inequities that persist in American education? Despite all the glorious reforms sparked by Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, today many schools are still segregated by race and remain unequal. In fact, the very idea that the famous case hung on — that racially segregated schools are “inherently unequal” — remains, with a little tweaking, just as true today.

But today class trumps race. And the sooner America fully admits it, the better. Racial discrimination certainly still exists. But given the progress of middle-class African-Americans and Latinos, being left behind and mired in a lack of opportunity is due more often to a person’s economic status, not their race. Racially segregated schools are still inferior, but now it is due largely to the income levels of the families whose children attend. True, no one is forcing those families to stay in isolated neighborhoods, not by law anyway. Nothing is stopping them from moving to new school districts with higher-achieving classrooms — except their inability to afford it. But an inferior education is the next best thing to legal segregation for keeping people stuck where they are, unable to rise to a higher living standard and, therefore, a more integrated neighborhood if they choose to do so. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on two school cases means that nearly all uses of race to achieve or maintain integration will not be allowed. The ruling was based on the idea that such measures violate the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. The strong reactions that followed are understandable. Many saw the decision as a slap at the framers of Brown. But a more prudent approach would be to accept the ruling and set about the task at hand — offering all children an equal chance at success through a good education. The Roberts court is in place. The likelihood of gaining a reversal is nil. Besides, courts have been slowly chipping away at race-based policies in education for years. In modern capitalist nations like ours, the economy will continue to thrive only if opportunity continues to expand for all to join the solid middle class. We need our free public education system to live up to its history as a wellspring of native talent and enterprise. We are slipping here. The very terms “urban school district” and “city schools” evoke attitudes of inadequacy and substandard expectations. Oh sure, we make inspirational movies chronicling the lives of saintly teachers who manage to uplift children out of the dilemmas of poverty. But a larger truth is that standards are very different. A child who graduates from a “gifted” program in some urban school district might be merely on par with average graduates of suburban schools in the same metropolitan area. What a horrible way to set a child up for disappointment — especially given that many poor city children are capable of the highest standards of achievement, if only expectations were set higher for them. There will always be differences. The children of wealthier and better-educated parents will travel more widely, have tutors, attend private schools, benefit from the larger vocabularies and professional work experiences of their families, and adopt similar attitudes of entitlement. But affluent children do not deserve to receive such a huge jump toward success they are gaining now simply by how our school systems are arranged.