Last week, a group of Washington, D.C., parents and teachers stopped Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, from entering a D.C. middle school. Several conservative pundits compared DeVos, an outspoken school choice advocate, to Vivian Malone and James Hood, the black students blocked from entering the University of Alabama by segregationists in 1963. The parallel, however, is somewhat problematic, since one of the things the D.C. parents were rallying against was segregation: Protester Betsy Wolf told NBC Washington she was there to ensure that DeVos “not do things to further the inequity and school segregation that already exists.”
As a new report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project suggests, the protesters may have cause for concern. D.C.’s school district, despite being a darling of the school choice movement, is intensely divided by both race and class, and report authors Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee conclude that charter schools and vouchers may only be exacerbating the issue.
The researchers found that D.C. charter schools, which serve over 40 percent of the school district’s students, are more segregated than D.C.’s other public schools. In 2012, over two-thirds of charter schools, Orfield and Ee note, were “apartheid schools” (defined as having less than 1 percent white enrollment), whereas only 50 percent of public schools had such completely segregated populations. Voucher schools, another model that DeVos favors, often heightened this problem, according to the report, concentrating in affluent, white communities and underserving black families, who could often not afford to pay fees required beyond the vouchers themselves.
D.C.’s embrace of school choice began in earnest in the 1990s, but the city’s schools were segregated long before that. Underlying this is extreme housing segregation (and the hyper-racialized wealth inequality that feeds it). To better understand the scope of the issue, CityLab talked to report author Gary Orfield about how educational policies can help tackle the twin problems of housing and school segregation.