School Choice and Self-Selected Segregation In 1957, nine black students made history when they enrolled at a previously all-white high school in Little Rock, Ark. Now, 50 years later, some parents — both black and white — are choosing schools for their children that are segregated not by law, but by practice.
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School Choice and Self-Selected Segregation

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Fifty years ago, federal troops escorted nine black students into Little Rock Central High School. That historic day was the result of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling Brown versus the Board of Education, which was supposed to end the era of separate and unequal education.

Now, a half century later, segregation in schools is alive and well. But instead of segregation as governors blocking schoolhouse doors, its parents, whites and blacks, choosing segregated schools for their children. And rather than overt racism, it's an effort to seek the best school with the most books, the richest curriculum and the biggest advantages for their children. But, of course, more often than not, the schools with the best resources are in the more affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods.

Later in the hour, a Latino cartoonist, who feels Ken Burns didn't do his homework, tells the stories of Latinos in World War II.

But first, choosing segregation. Do you consider diversity when choosing your child's school? Do you want your children to go to schools where most of the kids look like your kids? Or is there a benefit to sending them to a school where there is a real diversity?

If you're a parent, an educator or a student, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also make comments on our blog, it's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We begin with Ellen Brantlinger, she's a retired professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington. And she joins us from member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Ellen Brantlinger.

Ms. ELLEN BRANTLINGER (Retired Professor of Education, Indiana University; Author, "Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Justifies School Advantage"): Thank you.

BROOKS: So do parents really choose segregated schools? Is that what you found?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Yes. In my studies of high-income parents, they choose both segregated schools in terms of neighborhood schools. And then they also choose to have their children in - segregated by tracks and ability groups when they're in mixed schools.

BROOKS: Now, what does that mean, segregated by tracks?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Tracking is a common practice in the United States. It's where you make various levels of classes from advanced to regular to remedial. And one of the things we know is that high-income kids are much more often in the higher tracks, and oftentimes, they're misplaced in the higher tracks. In other words, maybe their tests weren't that high, but the parents have negotiated for them to be in those class based on their sense of the kids' futures and importance of an advanced education.

BROOKS: Let me ask you specifically about the research you did. You did a series of surveys on parents in Bloomington, Indiana, correct?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Right.

BROOKS: And you - first of all, tell us how many people you interviewed and what you found.

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Well, over the years, I first started out interviewing low-income people, and that was when our town closed some schools and many of my high-income neighbors were vehement that their kids be redistricted to only the high-income schools and not the mixed schools - not the low-income schools where it would have been mixed.

So after those interviews, and I learned that low-income people really did want their kids in high-quality schools mixed with other children, I then interviewed about 40 low-income adolescents, 36 high-income adolescents, about 35 school personnel. And the last study - and my book is mainly based on that - is 20 high-income mothers. But high-income - we're basically talking middle-class educated people, many of whom had doctoral degrees and master's degrees. So it's not the elite, it's really educated middle-class.

BROOKS: Hmm. But people who you would expect, perhaps, to have liberal progressive views…

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Right.

BROOKS: …about diversity and about the need and the benefits of integration, for example.

Ms. BRANTLINGER: In fact, they talked about that on the theoretical level, but when it came down their own child, they worried about a downward trajectory and the importance of their children being in what they called good schools or class-pure schools or high-tracks or ability groups. So they pushed for this.

Now, the implications of that always are that other who aren't doing this negotiation, their kids end up in lesser circumstances and lesser schools. So in spite of their rhetoric about the importance of integration and, you know, the social values of interaction, they choose to push for privilege for their own children.

BROOKS: Hmm. And were they aware of - I mean, I guess you could call it a contradiction. In other words, they weren't saying, I'm for segregated schools, but were they aware that in effect that's what they were saying?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Yes. And they would start out - these are interviews, so - long interviews, lasted a couple hours each, but they start out by talking about benefits of integrated schools, but the necessity of segregated schools for their kids.

So - and when you pushed them on - and I had some questions that were very specific. For example, if the school board said no more tracking in this district, what would - how would you react?

And they'd first say, well, that would be good idea and they'd say, but it wouldn't work, our kids have to be separated from those kids. They saw the other kids - and I'm talking about social class here, we're about - we were about 95 percent white, we're probably a little more diverse now in Bloomington, but we're talking about segregation from low-income children, whom they saw as contaminated. They feel sorry for them. They'd say, well, their parents just aren't doing a good parenting job. And so they blame that on the reasons their kids had to be separated from the contaminating influence of bringing their kids' education down.

BROOKS: So this is a sort of the idea of the peer effect? The idea…

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Yeah.

BROOKS: …the idea that a student is going to stand a much better chance of academic success in a school field with privileged kids, whose parents probably value education, push them more with their homework. And so that's why they're thinking this way, correct?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Yes.

BROOKS: Yeah. And do you think this is sort of a covert racism at work or is this just parental devotion and concern about getting kids the best education possible?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Well, the parents saw negotiating for privilege for their kids as being good parenting. But on the other hand, it's based on racism.

In our town, there's a little contact between people of different social classes, very segregated by neighborhood, by church, by schools. And because of that lack of contact, there's lots of stereotypes on the part of both classes.

So the wealthier people believe that the other parents don't care about their kids or don't care about education or are not as bright as they are, and the lower income people tend to go along with that same interpretation, although they resist it and are angry that they're put into that kind of a box.

BROOKS: We're talking about why some parents choose to send their kids to segregated school.

You can join the conversation here. Our number in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK.

And let's go to Janice(ph) who's calling from Covler(ph), South Carolina.

Janice, you're on the air.

JANICE (Caller): Good afternoon. It's Clover, South Carolina.

BROOK: Sorry.

JANICE: The sound of love in the middle. I am a Chicagoan. And I was living in Evanston, Illinois when my daughter enrolled in preschool in a Montessori school. And there were a lot of professors from Northwestern University who put their children in the Montessori. And Evanston is just a cool town. When I moved back into Chicago and put her in a small German Lutheran Church school, my dear sweet 6-year-old daughter said to me, but, Mommy, all the kids here are beige.

BROOKS: All the kids here are what?

JANICE: Beige.

BROOKS: Beige, I see. And how did you react to that?

JANICE: Well, I said, you know, we're flexible. Everyone is different. Get to know them all. You'll like them just as much as you liked the variety in Evanston.

BROOKS: Hmm. And how does it…

JANICE: It worked.

BROOKS: And it worked.

JANICE: To my displeasure, my next-door neighbors were Chicago public school educators and strongly urged me to put her in the local neighborhood public school. And being concerned, I went ahead and put her in the little German Lutheran school. And I do believe she would come out well either way, because that just happened to be the kind of neighborhood I was living in. Everyone there worked very hard to keep their kids academically thriving.

BROOKS: Hmm. Ellen Brantlinger, what do you hear in Janice's story about her daughter?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Well, I think it's interesting that her daughter, very early on, observes kind of the nature of the differences between those schools. I'm also pleased that she talks about the value of diversity. Although she did - I'm a little puzzled why she did choose then to go with the beige when she could've gone public school diverse.

JANICE: The answer to that is that her dad, who I was divorced from, was skeptical of the Chicago public schools and I wasn't, and I conceded.

BROOKS: Hmm.

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Yup.

BROOKS: Well, Janice, thanks so much for the call.

JANICE: Thank you. Bye.

BROOKS: Thank you. Let's go to Lisa(ph) who's calling from Wichita. Hi there…

LISA (Caller): Hi there.

BROOKS: Hi, Lisa. How are you? You're on the air.

LISA: Oh, fine. Great. I have - we have two daughters who've been through - in public school all their lives. I don't live in - well, I live in Wichita now but my younger daughter went to high school in Wilmington, North Carolina, very diverse, every kind of person. When she was a sophomore we moved to The Woodlands, Texas, which is a plain community north of Houston. And she came home from school the first day, from the Woodlands High School and just was astonished at how non-diverse that school was. And she really did not like it. It was not the kind of experience that I think (unintelligible) any of the kids in school.

BROOKS: Hmm.

LISA: It was really just not diverse at all. There were very few students of color.

BROOKS: Did she - did she talk particularly about what she missed and what she didn't like about it? Was it just the fact that there were few kids of color or were there - were there qualities that went beyond that in the school?

LISA: Well, no, because it was a very high-achieving high school, it was just that everybody looked the same. There was the not the diversity of groups, of activities. It just wasn't - and it's a very different atmosphere, she was not used to being in such a group where everybody was almost the same. And through that - and communities - the number of schools in that community are predominantly white. And I think the children in those schools are growing up with a disadvantage, because I really don't think they're seeing the real world through much of their lives.

BROOKS: Hmm. Ellen Brantlinger, does the fact that - I mean, listening to Lisa, which raises this question, does the fact that parents - some parents will do whatever it takes to get their kids into the best schools and in many cases, into schools where the kids look like their kids. Does that undermine the whole idea of public education as the great equalizer?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: I think it does. And I think it undermines our sense of what a democracy needs in terms of understanding people that are different from yourself, so there's always a minority and majority. And in various ways, we - democracy does depend on incorporating the views of diverse individuals. I…

LISA: We didn't, you know, choose that area because it was predominantly white. I mean, it was - that was the area we wanted to live in and it just so happened that, you know, without our knowledge, really paying attention, you know, it turned out that, you know, the high school was predominantly white. But it was a disappointment.

BROOKS: Lisa, thank you for your call. We're talking about parents who choose to send their kids to segregated schools.

Up next, the teacher from Marcus Garvey, a predominantly black school in Los Angeles, tells why some parents prefer same-race schools, and more of your calls. 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

I'm Anthony Brooks. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BROOKS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington.

In a few minutes, the Opinion Page and a Latino cartoonist who drew what he felt Ken Burns should has filmed for his series, "The War." But first, choosing segregation.

One recent report shows that the average white student attends schools where 77 percent of the students are white. For black students, on average, 52 percent of the other students are also black. If you're a parent, an educator, or a student, do you consider diversity when choosing your child's school? Do you want your children to go to schools where most of the kids look like your kids? Or is there a real benefit to sending them to a school where there is real diversity? 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Ellen Brantlinger is with us. She's a retired professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington and she's author of "Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage."

And we're now joined by Kingsley Jones. He's an instructor at the Marcus Garvey School in South Central, Los Angeles, he joins us from NPR studios in Culver City, California. Welcome to the show, Kingsley Jones.

Mr. KINGSLEY JONES (Instructor, Marcus Garvey School): Thank you so very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

BROOKS: Well, we're glad to have you. Marcus Garvey School is predominantly black. We understand with an Afrocentric curriculum. Why do parents send their kids to your school?

Mr. JONES: Well, parents send their kids to our school for several reason. The primary reason is that they will receive a quality education. They send their kids to the school for several other reasons, too. One is that they feel that it's a much safer environment than many of the public school systems, but the perspective that the kids learn from is critically important. See, I believe that perspective is almost as important as the information that is taught itself. My father used to say that life is like a theater and your perspective depends on the seat from which you sit. And I believe that just like in a theater, front row has a perspective, backstage has a perspective. It's critically important that we understand the perspective that we teach our children from.

BROOKS: Now, say more about that, because by perspective, I assume, you're talking about the curriculum. I described it a moment ago as Afrocentric. What specifically does that mean?

Mr. JONES: Well, it just means that we do - we focus in and we concentrate on the significant contributions of African-Americans in America and in our world today. That's not typically focused on in many of the traditional institutions. We also make sure that our kids are aware of the fact we're not just training to become employees or great employees, but we also want to become employers. It's about the change in the dynamic of the direction of our thinking.

BROOKS: Can you give me, though, a specific example when we talk about an Afrocentric curriculum? I mean, compared to an average public school, for example, in Bloomington, where Ellen Brantlinger is from. How is the curriculum going to be different? How is a particular class for - a specific example of a particular class going to be different?

Mr. JONES: Well, specific examples of classes would be of the - we spend - we dwell and we spend a lot of time on contributions of many different African-Americans. We concentrate on different periods where African-Americans had significant contributions. The Harlem Renaissance period is - we teach quite a bit about the Harlem Renaissance period. We teach quite a bit about slavery. We also teach about Africa, and Africa itself and the - that blacks and our history is not just from slavery, that we come from great African civilizations. And that's not typically covered in the basic curriculums in most schools.

BROOKS: Hmm. Is it fair to refer to your school as a segregated school?

Mr. JONES: When you say it's predominantly black, I would say that is without a doubt, predominantly black. Yes, it is.

BROOKS: So, how would you distinguish, I guess, between what segregation in the south was, for example, versus the kind of segregation that exists in your school?

Mr. JONES: Its simply choice. People have an ability to choose to send their kids to the Marcus Garvey School to receive a quality education, and it is a matter of choice. Parents are paying, you know, very significant tuitions in order to have their children in this environment that is cultivating future leadership, or future leaders.

BROOKS: If you want to join the conversation, our number here in Washington is 80-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. You can also e-mail us at talk@npr.org.

Let's go to Matthew(ph) who's calling from Baton Rouge. Hello, Matthew. You're on the air.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hello guys. Yeah, I attend Southern University. And here in this town, in Baton Rouge, you know, I'm from Dallas, and I came from a predominantly white school, a white high school in - well, Mesquite. And when I came out here, my dad had told me that choosing a black school would broaden your horizons, you learn more about yourself, and I wanted to go to what you considered to be a white school. But he said I wouldn't have much more of a chance. And I think lots of the kids down here don't - they feel they don't have a choice, you know, in terms of going to black school or a white school, because they feel that they're going to get what they need at the white school and at the black school, they will.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

MATTHEW: And I think if the mentality of - we don't have a choice, therefore we wont have a chance. And I think it's not necessarily the schools in terms of college, but it's the system in which we live. And it's also the mentality that's been indoctrinated into our minds since birth from our parents.

BROOKS: Hmm.

MATTHEW: And, you know, my parents put me to integrated schools all my life, but I have never experienced anything like this in terms of going into a black school system. It's a totally different experience for me.

BROOKS: Well, Matthew, thanks so much for the call. I appreciate your call. Ellen Brantlinger, I'd like to just get you to talk about what you heard Kingsley Jones talking about.

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Mm-hmm.

BROOKS: The Afrocentric curriculum in a school that pretty much is open to predominantly students of color. What's your reaction to that?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Well, there are two things. One is the curriculum. And I think that most American schools now, both in white and unfortunately, also in predominantly black neighborhoods are European American-centered. They have not incorporated a broader range of issues - other continents besides Europe. And the other thing is - we're watching the Jena, Louisiana situation…

BROOKS: Indeed.

Ms. BRANTLINGER: …where we see the blatant racism that exists in mixed schools or predominantly white schools. It's not obvious to whites. So, we've watched the whites down there, they say, well, we're in an integrated town and we're not racist. And yet, looked at from another perspective, many of us watching from the outside would gasp at some of the racist things that were occurring, the differential penalty systems. We don't get a good look at that school, but I've been to many schools and - going back to Jonathan Kozol's work, the schools in low-income neighborhoods get only about a third of the resources of schools in high-income neighborhoods.

So sometimes, you have to choose in a defensive way to protect your own child if you are a person who has generally been prejudiced against or discriminated against in terms of quality schooling. To me, the best schools are integrated schools with comprehensive curriculum. Because I think then we all learn about each other together. But I could see why African-American parents in schools that there is a lot of discrimination and not much mention people of people of their own race and history, or whatever. I can see why they'd make that choice, as a defensive move against a racist and European American-centered system.

BROOKS: Well, let's take another call. Let's hear from Chris(ph) who's calling Petaluma, California. Hi, Chris, you're on the air.

CHRIS (Caller): Hello there. We had our daughter in a really cute, lovely country school by our house and we had to transfer her out. And one reason we picked that school was because it was where California - that it was diverse and small and had a lot of mixed - you know, different people in there, you know. But she was coming home with work she did in preschool and, you know, was very bored and stuff like that. And the school was really trying and we had to make the hard decision. Believe me, it was really hard. We lost sleep, too. Moved her to different school. So I wondered what the comment on how to handle that kind of a situation might be.

BROOKS: Well, it a great question. Ellen Brantlinger, do you want to respond to that question from Chris?

Ms. BRANTLINGER: I think all kids thrive when there's academic push, and sometimes - I remember being very bored in school, but so were the kids that weren't as advanced as I happen to be. I think you can really develop a very rich curriculum that reaches a broad range of learners. And everything I'd say is I think kids from different income levels or different races are really more alike than different.

So, if we could encourage teachers to provide academic push for all children and rich curriculum so that everybody is challenged and excited about school. I think the biggest word in school when people do research in boredom, and boredom for teacher and kids. And so, how can we enrich, enliven, and advance the curriculum to reach the broad range of learners? And I think it's possible. It's very difficult, but it's possible.

BROOKS: And, Kingsley Jones at the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles, I'd be curious to hear what you have to say to Chris as well about her question. What's your advice?

Mr. JONES: Well, you have to take into consideration the education - the level of performance. And that's one of the things that we do. Each student - well, we teach them to their - they have IEPs, they have individual educational programs. So a child that is, in fact, advanced, we keep pushing them and allow them to continue to achieve. The size of the classes are significantly smaller than the classes in the typical school system, so we're able to give a child a lot more of the one-on-one type of assistance that children need.

But the thing that we concentrate on most, we're a believer in the power of words. We really believe that the - that our words - we teach the words are like food. Verbs are like vegetables and nouns are like nuts. So we are careful the kind of nutritional speak. We make sure that our children are getting the RDA, the recommended daily allowance of nutritional speak in their lives. And if food - if words are like food, then thought must be seed. So we protect what the children think and what they watch and what they process. And we - our computers have - there's a term called GOGI - garbage in, garbage out.

And more times than not, our children are processing the wrong kinds of information. So we get the wrong kinds of results. If we could prepare and we could process the right kinds of information, then the end result would be different.

BROOKS: Hmm. Very interesting. We're talking about why parents choose segregated schools. You can join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can also comment on our blog, it's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's take another call. We're going to go to Catherine(ph) who's calling from Jacksonville. Hi, Catherine.

CATHERINE (Caller): Hey. Can you hear me?

BROOKS: Yes. You are on the air, Catherine.

CATHERINE: Okay. What's on your mind?

CATHERINE: Well, I have a child who is now going into the fourth grade. And post-divorce, I had to put him in a public school system. And I did all my homework because he'd been in private schools the whole time. And in Jacksonville, at least, the way to do that - the best way to get your kid an education is to get through the magnet program. Well, to get him into the magnet program, the only class that would work was by somewhat neighborhood schools. And we got him in. First day of school, he's the only white child in his class. And it's…

BROOKS: How is that working?

CATHERINE: It was a rough three weeks. And it wasn't a black-white thing. It was a cultural thing. And all of the teachers, except for one, are also black. And he just don't like an alias(ph).

BROOKS: Hmm. And so what's - what are you planning to do?

CATHERINE: Well, at this point, the way our magnet system works - the fourth and fifth grade is the last two years in elementary and then they go into middle school. He is - because I sent him to this school, he is able to go to the gifted and educational gifted programs in middle school. So if I moved him, he may lose his spot. So at this point, I think he's going to stay.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Well, Catherine, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.

CATHERINE: Sure thing.

BROOKS: Let's go to Chris(ph) who's calling from St. Louis. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS: Hi. Well, I was actually a student that went through a city school.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: And I chose to go to a city school because my parents let me have the option of either staying in the city school or going away out into another area. And I wanted to stay with my friends. But I do feel cheated because once I got to college, you know, in high school, college was never a stress, grade point average was never a stress. So I was behind and I had to take a lot of remedial courses. And I do have a masters now in chemistry, but it was extremely hard and it has taken me much longer than I thought it would have taken.

BROOKS: Hmm. And so do you attribute that to the fact - to the quality of instruction at the urban school you went to?

CHRIS: Yes.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Well, let me get Kingsley Jones to respond to that. Kingsley, what do you say to Chris in St. Louis who has concerns about the quality of the education that he had there - and I'm not implying that the kids at Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles have these problems, but I'd like to hear from you on that.

Mr. JONES: Well, absolutely, the kids at Marcus Garvey they compete nationally on science and math, et cetera. We have a very, very high performance at the -academic performance at the school. But you do receive a substandard education in many instances in our inner city schools for a number of reasons. You know -in society, you know, we say that we are for education first or for children first, but your money tells you where your heart is. And we have athletes and entertainers' salaries are skyrocketing while teachers and public servants' salaries are dwindling fast. That's part of the issue - part of the problem. In your selection pool, you're not getting the same level of selection, that you don't attract the same level of competent people in those positions.

And I'm not saying all teachers, but many come there because it's a job. They don't have the passion. They don't have the love to send our kids - these are our tomorrow's entrepreneurs today and we really have to take and cultivate their knowledge.

BROOKS: Hmm.

Mr. JONES: I was educated in a predominantly - in a public school in a predominantly black area. And I do believe that I received a substandard education. But I was also educated at a small black college in Nashville, Tennessee called Fisk University. We had one white student while I was there. And I received an education from two different perspectives. I received one from an academic perspective, but I also received a social education that was invaluable. So there are incredible benefits that come with being in a private environment where you can control the information that's being processed.

BROOKS: Well, Kingsley Jones, I want to thank you for joining us today on TALK OF THE NATION. Appreciate it.

Mr. JONES: Thank you very much for having me.

BROOKS: That's Kingsley Jones. He's an instructor at the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles. He joined us from NPR Studios in Culver City, California. And, Ellen Brantlinger, thanks to you.

Ms. BRANTLINGER: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

BROOKS: It was a pleasure. Ellen Brantlinger. She's the author of "Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage."

Coming up, TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page and the stories of Latino veterans. Many groups there felt they were left out of Ken Burns' series, "The War."

I'm Anthony Brooks. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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