Baltimore's segregated school system

Op-ed: Deep racial and economic segregation in Baltimore schools rob children of opportunities.

The viral video showing an officer slapping and kicking a student at the Reach Partnership School where I teach has once again brought national attention to Baltimore and the role police play in the lives of our residents. But the incident, and the misguided perception that some schools should be run like prisons, are merely symptoms of a larger offense against students across the city: deep racial and economic segregation.

The Civil Rights Project at UCLA calls schools where whites make up 1 percent or less of the enrollment "apartheid schools." Freddie Gray's Carver Vocational-Technical High School was an apartheid school. And Reach is an apartheid school. My students come of age in a separate and inferior system, surrounded by other disadvantaged kids. This is where they learn their place in the world. So much for the American dream, democracy and desegregation.

Since the reluctant integration of Polytechnic High School in 1952, Baltimore's leaders have used the language of "free choice" to foster selective placement in schools, allowing certain students to attend the best schools and abandoning any statutory or programmatic attempt at meaningful integration, despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of education ruling. The city continues to maintain a subset of public middle and high schools that use entrance criteria to select the most talented students and exclude undesirable children.

Similarly Baltimore has created a large portfolio of charter schools that in many ways increases racial separateness in the district. "Charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation," the CRP says in the report Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights. Baltimore has no desegregation requirement for its charter schools, nor does the city have many "diverse" charters. My students at Reach are the ones the criteria schools won't teach and most charters don't want. They have no "free choice."

Thus the broader and deeper violation of students in a place like Reach is hard to capture in a 4-second video clip of a police beat down. The 2014 book "The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood" by Johns Hopkins sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson, showed that only 4 percent of kids from poverty in Baltimore made it to college. More importantly, the authors' 25-year study in Baltimore showed that even when kids put in hard work, went to school and played by the rules, they rarely made it out. There is simply little to no social mobility for the kids I teach at Reach. The kids know this. They are locked down and locked out, and policing them vigorously is not part of the program — it is central to it.

What can be done?

First our elected leaders, and those vying to win office in this election season, must name this reality. We are not "one Baltimore." We are a city divided into separate and unequal opportunities, particularly when it comes to our children's education.

At the local level, students, families and communities must be given more meaningful options than to be trapped in dysfunctional, test-driven, culturally hostile apartheid schools. My kids at Reach, sitting in the deteriorating shell of the old Lake Clifton building, need options, not segregation.

At the state level, Maryland can legislate school district student assignment policies that foster desegregated schools and produce inter-district programs like city-suburban transfers and regional magnet schools. Inter-district programs in St. Louis and Minneapolis have created more diverse schools and higher achievement. And in Hartford, Conn., scores of magnet schools "contribute to both lowering segregation and improving education and … produce schooling opportunities that were not previously available and are in demand from families of all races," according to the CRP. As with the attempt to reform racist policing, racist schooling must be actively confronted through policy and statute.

At the federal level, the Obama administration and Congress could follow the recommendations of the National Coalition on School Diversity to expand the 2009 Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plan (TASAP) grant program and the 10 Equity Assistance Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education under Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, both of which provide help to states and school districts to actively promote desegregation. Similarly the Justice Department and the Office of Civil Rights could make educational apartheid a focus of their work as they once did in that long-ago civil rights era.

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced," American essayist James Baldwin once wrote. We have yet to face our segregated educational system in Baltimore, much less try to change it. Now is the time, before another Baltimore child is treated more like an inmate than student.

Michael Corbin teaches at the Reach Partnership School. His email is mrcx05@gmail.com.

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