Public Education in America: Still Separate and Unequal

Something that I read recently in William Galston’s Frontline article on public education in America gave me pause. He posed the following question:

“Is the U.S. system of public education as a whole in crisis?”

As I spent the past couple of days reading articles upon articles regarding the waves of state and private corporation takeovers of public schools in urban areas across the nation, I already knew the answer to this question; or so I thought. He said no; I said yes. We were both right. The truth is, there are really two public school systems in America, and only one is flatlining.

As I write this piece in a crowded airport in Las Vegas, I’m reading about a shocking recent decision handed down by the appellate court of the state of Michigan which affirms that the state has no constitutional requirement to ensure school children actually learn fundamental skills such as reading — “but rather is obligated only to establish and finance a public education system, regardless of quality.” Remember Plessy vs. Ferguson anyone?

When you look at what’s happening with the starvation of the Philadelphia and York City school districts in Pennsylvania, the legal battles for appropriate funding for struggling schools that have already been taken over by charter school companies in Indiana, and the impending takeovers of 12 chronically underperforming schools in Memphis, Tennessee, it’s not hard to see who the real victims are. Poor children of color are disproportionately affected by school takeovers (it’s important to note that each of the examples provided above are all districts situated in economically-depressed communities). In their peer-reviewed article, “State Takeovers of School Districts: Race and the Equal Protection Clause”, education and law professors Joseph O. Oluwole and Preston C. Green III asserted in their research that in 2004, over 50% of students in 74% of the districts taken over in the U.S. were minorities. Additionally, 63% of the schools taken over as of 2004 were “in central cities (large and midsize) or in the urban fringe of a large city. All but three of these districts had high minority populations, ranging from 51% to 96%.”

In order to begin to understand the complexities of the implications of a “state takeover”, it’s necessary to describe the types of conditions in which it would arise. Each state sets its own legislation on when a state takeover is deemed appropriate. Typically there are academic standards or benchmarks that have not been met or funding/mismanagement issues that have become pervasive that put the district at risk.

Supporters of state takeovers often cite increased accessibility to alternative education options such as charter schools, as a positive step in the direction of empowering parents to take advantage of a wider range of educational options for their kids. In some cases, this can be a good thing. However, not all “takeovers” are created equal. Some schools or entire districts have found themselves at the mercy of the state’s plans as they’ve seen their schools sold to the highest bidder and completely refurbished by private charter companies that are often disconnected from the communities and lack a clear understanding of the unique needs of the students. Insert arrangements like the takeover of two local Memphis, Tennessee schools by Los Angeles-based charter school company Green Dot Public Schools.

And although this may not seem to matter in the grand scheme of things as long as the schools that are taken over start to perform better, the truth of the matter is, there is no consistent evidence that shows this. Take for instance the case of the schools that were taken over in Nashville, Tennessee by Achievement School District. According to reports from the ASD, while some of the schools made modest gains under their leadership, there were a large number of schools that performed significantly worse than when they were run by the traditional public schools. And if you have a state government like Michigan that will close schools that continue to underperform even after a private company takes over, this leaves communities in an even bigger quagmire.

The biggest issue with government takeovers is that in many cases, what transpires is a disenfranchisement of the people as it pertains to making decisions about the education opportunities in their communities. Since school district funding is largely distributed through local property taxes, we should take great issue with the idea of draining money from a community while simultaneously taking away their say in how it’s spent on the education of their own children. It has become blatantly obvious, as evidenced in the recent Michigan decision, that the education of poor children of color in this country continues to be marginalized. While we may think we made gains in 1954 with the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision which declared “separate but equal” institutions unconstitutional, suddenly we look up and realize that our schools are just as segregated as they ever were, as redistricting, imbalanced K-12 funding systems, and brash educational policies that drastically shift decision-making responsibilities continue to penalize our poorest communities.

“Taxation without representation” is no longer a slogan only for the license plates of the residents of the District of Columbia. It is now the rallying cry of the masses.



Christina holds degrees in higher education management and English from the University of Pennsylvania and Millersville University respectively. A passionate education advocate, she currently works in higher education and is one of the founding members of the Central Pennsylvania Educational Collaborative advocacy group. In addition to freelance writing and consulting, she writes for her blog, The Post-It Professional, a resource space for up and coming community movers and shakers.