Tuesday, June 3, 2014

De Facto Discrimination in Hamilton: Does race really matter?

There is an invidious problem of segregation taking hold in the Hamilton Township School District; a problem that raises many issues regarding education, race, and income inequality. How the District addresses these issues will have a profound effect on their decision making, and they need to get it right or risk many more years of continued poor service to a vast number of the District’s students.

Superintendent Parla’s observation of de facto segregation invariably focused on the issue of race, and the high concentration of minority students in several schools such as Greenwood Elementary, which the Trenton Times pointed to in its editorial imploring swift action. But raising the issue of race itself raises issues which many people may find uncomfortable addressing.
Is it appropriate for students to be taught in a school that is overwhelmingly of one race, or, more to the point, a school that is either all white, or absent white people? The assumption is that somehow students that aren’t exposed to students of another color are being deprived of a “multicultural education” in a multicultural society. This of course presumes that students of color somehow think differently, or have a different perspective on life, simply due to their skin color; that students “ think with their blood.” How could we possibly have a thorough reading of a book or a discussion about discrimination unless there is a minority present to represent a minority perspective? This thinking also implies that all learning takes place inside schools, and that students don’t learn life lessons on their “free time.” I find this a very troubling attitude, especially when tied to the second implicit concern of those who decry “one color schools.”

The Superintendent also observed that test scores in these “high concentration minority schools” were markedly less than the scores in schools with a high white population. Taking this concern to its logical conclusion suggests that white students need be present in schools if you want scores to go up. So are white students in general smarter than minority students? What other direction could this go? Are we really going to argue that separate is always unequal?
Since arguments about the relative intelligence of races, specifically the argument that blacks and Latinos are generally less intelligent than whites, is specious, we need to look at other variables to explain the lower test scores. Is it the quality of the teachers being hired at those schools, or of the clinical supervision they are receiving? Is it the quality of resources available at the schools? Is it the curricula, or the number of students in “special services?”

All of these aforementioned variables may be impactful, but I believe the answer is far more obvious. As the Times noted; at Greenwood Elementary 80 percent of students “come from families with low incomes.” So rather than race, maybe the real issue isn’t race but income inequality. These schools don’t need more “whites,” they need more middle and upper class students. Is it that students don’t think “with their blood,” but “with their wallets?”  This is an admittedly trite way of framing the argument, but there is at least empirical evidence that does show clear correlations between income and education. You need look no further than our State’s own District Factor Groups, where the connection between  a DFG and test scores is pretty stark. Ninety nine of the State’s 100 worst performing high schools are in urban areas- and in the lowest two DFGs- where incomes are relatively low, the focus on income seems a much more productive approach to take than an approach whose goal is to reach a greater racial balance among the schools.
Fortunately for Hamilton, unlike, let’s say Trenton, where there really is no recourse to take in redistricting with an eye towards greater income balance, Hamilton has that power. Let’s be frank, something akin to “busing” must be undertaken. I think it is still worth investigating the quality of the teaching staff, namely the mix of veteran and novice teachers and the quality of their supervision, but the bottom line is that the only way we are going to achieve greater balance in academic performance in the Hamilton School District is through policies that achieve greater economic balance. Of course any effort to do so will meet stiff resistance. Superintendent Parla certainly has his hands full. His is a worthy goal, and I hope he is able to enlist stakeholders with the will to stand with him.

This debate on education, raising issues of opportunity and equality, is very similar to the discussion being played out regarding affirmative action. For decades the focus has been on race, and unfortunately the one group of people who have been most forgotten are low income whites; a group every bit as deserving of “affirmative action” as poor minorities.
Discrimination based on income may not be as evocative as that based on race, but it is every bit as destructive as discrimination based on some immutable characteristic. If he succeeds, it will be instructive to the greater picture of academic imbalance throughout the State. For the next few years, all eyes should be on Hamilton.





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