Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Yesterday, in a talk entitled “The Color of Money: Critical Race Theory and Urban Educational Policy”, Sabina Vaught presented an ethnography that is the basis for her upcoming doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Vaught drew upon a year of research in Seattle public schools to conclude that traditional methods of equalizing the quality of education for all students are not doing the job.
Vaught started off with the unusual gesture of greeting each guest personally. She began with a brief overview of her work in Seattle public schools, finishing with a jarring quote from a high official in the Jericho public schools of Seattle. “The schools here are racist…and we don’t care enough to break the mold.” The stage set, Vaught then explained the “critical race theory” that is so important to her work. Critical race theorists believe that racism is pervasive and permanent, adapting its expression to changing sociocultural attitudes. We must directly challenge racism to have any chance at destroying its evil. The political nature of these arguments lends a political air to Vaught’s work.
Next, Vaught presented a compelling story of a school district gone horribly wrong. Jericho’s high schools are ostensibly open to all students, but this “openness” does not turn into racially balanced schools. Preference for enrollment is given for people with siblings already attending a school, people who live in the same neighborhood as a school, and for people who have gained admission to a special program that is based out of a particular school. As white people tend to be richer and live in better neighborhoods (with better schools), it is easy to see how racial imbalance is self-propagating.
The debate over whether or not these racial divisions are acceptable centers a disagreement on the meaning of “equality”. Advocates of “expansive equality” oppose situations such as the one in Jericho, saying that administrative control is necessary for the creation of racially balanced schools. Others say that such central planning would reduce equality by destroying the rights of individuals. Jericho’s compromise is the Differential Student Funding plan, “DSF” for short. DSF fights the “achievement gap”, the district’s euphemism for the huge difference in performance between whites and blacks, by allotting more money for the education of students deemed to be in greater need. It all sounds very nice; low-performing blacks (and whites) get the extra funding they need until a reasonable level of expansive equality is reached. But, as Vaught explained, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
One problem with DSF is that it doesn’t begin to address the differences caused by the inherent structural differences between schools. One traditionally white school has such features as a pool, a strong band program, and a nationally renowned golf team. “Black” schools are not nearly as well-equipped. Also, since under DSF money is allotted to schools on a per-pupil basis to be spent as the schools wish, schools compete to draw low-performing (but high-revenue) students. This allows the already-successful schools to get even farther ahead. At Medgar Evers High School, students in an “Accelerated Student Program” (ASP) share space with black students. The school’s principal, faced with a budget shortfall, made the very reasonable choice to cut the school’s Calculus II class. Very few high schools offer Calculus II and it should not be kept when a huge percentage of the student body cannot do math at even a basic high school level. But the plan came under the fire of the local PTSA and the principal ended up having to also cut a remedial math course to “balance things out”. Of course, the calculus course was being paid for with money that had been given to the school because it “educated” so many poor students.
Vaught noted that she does diverge from the critical race theorists on some issues–she is more focused on understanding “the system” as it is and fixing it rather than proposing radical but unlikely reforms. Overall, though, her data and presentation were a powerful argument in favor of changing the way urban schools are run. A question and answer period followed the presentation, with Vaught sharing her thoughts on how we cannot rely upon parents who can and must advocate for the well-being of their own children but must instead fix the underlying institutional deficiencies that cause inequality.