The Big Idea: Money–The Great Equalizer

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Stacey D. Heyward is a black American single mother of three children who works as a day care paraprofessional and attends college. She and her family live in the South Bronx. Hers is a neighborhood beset by crime, poverty and every imaginable index of social collapse. The area’s best-performing high school, Jane Addams, boasts a paltry graduation rate of 58 percent, while at Morris High School, on the low end, a mere 27 percent of students graduate.

So Heyward, 30, sends Euqoun, her oldest son, to St. Aloysius, a Catholic grade school in Harlem. Kiara, her middle child, is a third-grader at P.S. 21 in Brooklyn, where she excels in a program for gifted students. Her youngest, Keith-Nicquan, is a third-grader, who is also enrolled in a program for gifted students, at P.S. 31 in the Bronx.

Dogged involvement in the education of her children is Heyward’s ethos. If she were middle-class, she’d probably be among the ranks of the seemingly neurotic parents who compulsively prepare their 2-year-old children for an Ivy League education. But as is, she doubts many of the children in the South Bronx will ever see college of any sort. “The curriculum within the community we live,” Heyward explains, “sets the children up for failure.” So she ships hers off to far-flung corners of the city’s educational system in search of the sort of education she knows they’ll never find at home.

One year before the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, the New York City public school system (like most urban school systems) remains a stark case study in the national failure to provide poor children of color equal access to a quality education. Since the Brown decision, courts, policymakers and education advocates have largely tried to implement it by focusing on integration. This integration has always meant transporting children of color to white neighborhoods. Ironically, it has mainly served to reinforce the concentration of high-performance schools and formidable educational resources in the neighborhoods where white middle-class children live–leaving Heyward, like other “responsible” parents who live in failing school districts, to engage in educational triage.

But two recent legal battles growing out of New York’s schools are vying to become the new guiding light in America’s struggle for educational equality–and they seek to navigate decidedly different courses.


The first of these lawsuits grows out of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires school systems to allow a student who attends a failing school (defined as a school that doesn’t meet newly set accountability standards for two consecutive years) to transfer to a high-performance school. This provision is “busing” by another name, but a group of black parents–Eunice Staton and Latasha Gibbs, who both have children at P.S. 30 in Harlem, and Charlene Wilson, whose child is enrolled in Albany’s Arbor Hill Elementary School–are suing the city and state education departments for the right to exercise it. In January, they filed a class action lawsuit in state court alleging that their school districts did not notify them that their children’s schools were failing, thus denying them their transfer rights–a cornerstone of the new federal law.

The Staton case will establish the nation’s first case law on whether parents can sue school systems over their right to transfer, and the plaintiffs’ success would thus mark a significant milestone for the school choice movement. But while transfers provide poor parents with immediate educational options for their children, they offer only more educational policy-as-triage. The Bronx has nearly 200 elementary and middle schools; the state education department has designated 80 of them as failing. How many of these schools’ students can realistically transfer to high-performance schools? “The No Child Left Behind Act is not correcting the problem of low-performing schools,” Heyward complains. “It is simply applying a Band-Aid to a gunshot wound.”

Nevertheless, black and Latino parents are increasingly embracing this and other versions of school choice–more out of necessity than ideology. Courageous parents like Heyward live in neighborhoods where they must negotiate what sociologist Orlando Patterson calls “social death”: a community where many residents accept their degraded and socially irrelevant status. According to a 2002 Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies poll, 57.4 percent of black Americans support vouchers. For Heyward, this is problematic–even if she’s chosen to excercise exactly the sort of right those parents are seeking. “When a parent takes a low-performing child that has issues and places that child into a school that is performing well,” she sighs, “that demeans the child, the school and those that attend.”

Nonetheless, school choice offers parents an immediate solution. The Washington, D.C.-based Black Alliance for Educational Options is spearheading a campaign to promote a menu of educational options based in choice. Those options range from experimental efforts such as charter schools to tax-supported scholarships–vouchers by another, less politically charged, name. All of these solutions focus, in reality if not in explicit intent, on integrating black and Latino children into white schools. And that, argues Dr. Gail Fisher, founder of the Toussaint Institute, a New York City organization that educates parents about school reform, ignores a lesson the last 50 years should have taught us.

“One of the lessons learned from integration,” Dr. Fisher says, “was that sharing a school building with white children did not guarantee access to quality education.” In fact, Fisher adds, race isn’t that relevant at all. “The color of the school administration, or even classroom teachers, did not give African-American communities control over critical policy decisions that directly impact the quality of education their children receive,” she says. “The power to influence is at the level of financing.”


Public school financing is the focus of the second New York legal battle vying to define the future of education reform: Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York. In 1991, Robert Jackson, now a City Council member but then a member of Community School Board 6, founded the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) along with Michael Rebell, a Yale-educated attorney for the board. In 1993, with Jackson acting as the lead plaintiff, CFE sued the state for inadequately funding New York City public schools. In a remarkable 2001 ruling, Justice Leland DeGrasse declared the state’s formula for allocating education funds unconstitutional. He gave the state until September 2001 to come up with a new system to determine the actual cost of providing a “sound basic education”–or the amount of money required to provide every child an opportunity to meet applicable state education standards.

The state appealed, and in June 2002 Justice Alfred D. Lerner, writing for the majority, reversed DeGrasse’s ruling. Breathtakingly, Lerner declared: “A ‘sound basic education’ consists only of those skills necessary to enable children to ‘eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury,’ not to qualify them for advanced college courses or even attendance at a higher educational institution.” Lerner went on to conclude, “Society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may very well be low level.” The state, he said, was obliged to provide only an eighth-grade education.

Jonathan Kozol, whose books Amazing Grace and Savage Inequalities have been touted as among journalism’s most insightful looks at problems in public education, summed up the reaction of CFE supporters best: “The recent appeals court ruling seems to speak too clearly of the low esteem in which the state now holds black and Latino children in the poorest neighborhoods.” The case has been appealed to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State.

CFE implicitly addresses the central shortcoming of post-Brown education reform efforts: Almost 50 years after the fact, Americans are still engaged in a deeply dishonest discussion about race and integration. Rather than accepting the realities of America’s segregated neighborhoods and figuring out how to equalize the schools in all of them, advocates and policymakers concerned about poor children of color have remained obsessed with integration. In January, researchers at the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University released a report bemoaning the retrenchment of segregation in our nation’s public school system. “A measure of these trends in school segregation is the exposure of minority students to whites,” the authors write. “Just over 10 percent of white students attend schools that have a predominantly minority population.”
But so what? If a black neighborhood has a superb educational system, does its segregation matter? And is it reasonable in a pluralistic society to compel Irish, Italian or Jewish parents to link the educational fate of their children to their proximity to children of color?

Even if it were, scholars such as Jean Anyon, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York Graduate Center, don’t believe racial desegregation would bring any relief to students in poor neighborhoods. “Integration should be about mixing poor kids with more affluent kids,” she says bluntly. “Middle-class and affluent schools typically do better than poor schools.” But since not every poor black and Latino child can be bused to more affluent, white neighborhoods or transferred to charter schools, the only option is the one CFE brings forth: bus the money into poor black and Latino schools.

For now, Euquon Heyward travels from the Bronx to Harlem every day. “I used to worry a lot about him traveling,” Stacey Heyward confesses, “but I just say a daily prayer that he will be safe throughout the day.” Her efforts are paying off: Kiara just received the Honor Society Award.

Heyward’s plight is the inadvertent legacy of the Brown decision. With the CFE case and the Staton suit, we set down the next path of education reform in America-and will ultimately create a legacy that Heyward’s grandchildren will have to live with. We all must wait to learn whether these cases will result in a society where educational resources are fairly distributed in poor neighborhoods, or if parents like Heyward will have to develop still more savvy strategies for their educational triage.

Hakim Hasan is the director of the Metropolitan Institute at Metropolitan College of New York. E-mail:

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