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A scholar revives the argument for racial integration in schools

A conversation with Berkeley's Rucker Johnson about unintended consequences, charter schools and the data debate

Photo of Jill Barshay

Proof Points

Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson, center, spoke at a May 2019 conference of the Education Writers Association in Baltimore.

Rucker Johnson, an economist, sees himself as a poster child for school integration.

His grandfather was denied admission to the University of West Virginia, still an all white school after World War II. Johnson’s father was among the first generation of children to attend desegregated schools in Minneapolis. (“People think of segregation as a Southern story,” Johnson said. “That’s a misconception.”)  Johnson was educated in Minneapolis’s suburban schools, which he describes as “overwhelmingly white.” In 2011, he became the first black economist to earn tenure at the University of California, Berkeley, and as of May 2019, at age 46, he’s a full professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at Berkeley. His new book, “Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works,” (April 2019) recounts the history of school desegregation and presents his research on how black children benefited from the nation’s all-too-brief effort to integrate schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Improvements in academic achievement and college attendance, he found, extended even to the next generation, just as they did for Johnson after his father attended desegregated schools.

The main argument of Johnson’s book is much bigger than racial integration. He says three things are essential for schools to give poor kids a chance to break out of poverty: money, preschool and desegregation. Johnson finds that black children make much larger academic gains when integration is accompanied by more funding for low-income schools. Similarly, the benefits of early child education endure when they’re followed by well-resourced schools.  All three — money, preschool and desegregation — are a powerful combination in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  “Synergy has the power to take two policies that in isolation seem flat and transform them into one package of policies with profound promise,” Johnson wrote in his book.

(This interview with Johnson has been condensed and edited.)

school integration

When I first saw your book, I thought it was going to be all about desegregation. The cover shows a school bus, an image of integrating schools through busing, which ignited protests in many cities. But so much of your book is actually about school funding and preschool.

Actually, I’m doing a play on words where people think that they’re coming into a book that’s about a singular policy called integration and I’m trying to reshape what integration means when done in a way that is comprehensive.

There’s a long running debate about whether money matters. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos points to charts highlighting how putting more money into education hasn’t boosted student achievement. Other scholars also point out that more spending isn’t closing achievement gaps.

Money alone isn’t a magic bullet. How you spend the money matters greatly. If there’s a major increase in school funding and it all goes to teacher pensions, I’m not surprised if we don’t see a huge increase in student learning. But when the money makes it into the classroom and leads to reductions in class sizes or increases teacher salaries and gives kids access to high quality teachers, that makes a difference.

But I would offer that we can’t just look at trends in test scores and then correlate that with trends in school spending.  The longer term outcomes I document [graduation rates, adult earnings] are missed in the short-run focus on test scores.

You make the case that desegregation worked. But how are we supposed to do it now? The courts have said you can’t bus kids across district lines and you can’t use race to assign kids to schools.

Race can’t be used as a sole factor. But we could design school desegregation plans that account for both race and socioeconomic status.

We also need more mixed-income housing. My hometown, Minneapolis, was the first city to change zoning laws and outlaw single-family zoning. That’s addressing the housing affordability crisis but it can also help diversify school districts.

Why isn’t it enough to give low-income schools with students of color more funds? 

If you just try to throw money at it and accept concentrated poverty, that doesn’t affect the quality of the educational opportunity.  High-quality teachers tend to sort out of those high-poverty schools once they get a certain degree of experience. They get burned out, quite frankly, of the systems that aren’t really able to support their efforts in the schools. If we just focus on redistributing money but in very segregated classrooms, then we don’t really see impacts.

You argue that we’ve re-segregated since the high point of integration in 1988, when 45 percent of black children were attending majority white schools. But not all scholars agree that we’ve re-segregated along racial lines. Federal data show that black students are less likely to be in all black schools. White students are less likely to be in all white schools. What we’ve had is a giant increase in Latino immigration and everyone is going to school with more Latinos.

What I want you to consider is the way that race and poverty interact. Think about the difference between black students and white students and their exposure to other students who are from families in poverty. The concentration of poverty is disproportionately affecting minority students. In the earlier era, we could just talk about black-white because we didn’t have as many Latinos; we didn’t have as much immigration. The socioeconomic diversity was less of the central component. But that kind of defines what segregation means and why it has the impact that it does.

Do you think schools that educate low-income blacks separately are harmful? What about no-excuses charter schools that produce great results for low-income kids of color?

I am a product of Morehouse College, all black and all male. There’s a lot of evidence that does show when black students have black teachers who are very nurturing, their long-term impacts are significant. But it should be a choice. The problem is when an all-minority school is the only option.

And the great high-quality charter schools, there’s a reason they have to conduct a lottery. It’s not a reform that’s scalable in its current form. So, yeah, if you win the lottery and get access to the Harlem Children’s Zone, that’s great. They’re doing great work and I admire people like Geoffrey Canada and his visionary work to expand opportunity. There are other great charter schools like it. But in general, it’s not a scalable solution to what’s ailing our school systems.

What are you researching now?

One thing I’m looking at is the growth of charter schools. I think we need to recognize the unintended consequences of innovation without evaluation. So many charters are unregulated. What they’re implementing is not always expanding high quality options particularly for lower income and minority families. Instead it’s actually undermining the fiscal support for traditional public schools.

I’m also looking at how health interventions outside of school, like reductions in lead exposure, are boosting learning.

What kind of school do you send your kids to?

My kids are in first and fifth grades. We chose to send them to the Montclair Elementary School in Oakland, a public school. It’s white, black, Latino, and Asian. We’re middle class and so we were able to move to a school system that is both excellent and diverse. If we were a low-income family in poverty, I would not have the luxury to move to this school environment.

This story about school integration was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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