Desegregating Our Schools

PeterVickery.jpgGreens in the Pioneer Valley have to acknowledge and address a shameful fact: Our communities and our schools are segregated. In 2010, the Harvard School of Public Health issued a report that identified the levels of segregation in schools across the United States. For Hispanic students, Springfield, Massachusetts, ranked second, meaning it had the second-most segregated schools in the country. For African-American students, the city ranked ninth. Quite simply, some of the most racially segregated schools in the United States of America are here in the Pioneer Valley. As a political party founded on the principles of social justice and equal opportunity, we have a duty to tackle this unconscionable state of affairs.

Segregation is unjust, unconstitutional, and morally wrong. It is also unsustainable. If we are sincere about building a society that is truly sustainable, we have to move quickly to integrate our communities and schools and undo generations of inequity. Here in the Pioneer Valley, that will mean developing an approach to land use, transportation, and education that is regional rather than local.

Segregation in the Pioneer Valley

Our commonwealth has a policy, embodied in Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 76, Section 5, of basing school assignment on residence.  As a result, where there is residential segregation, there will be racially segregated schools. One example of this phenomenon is Springfield, the largest city in the Pioneer Valley, a racially segregated city within a racially segregated region.
In the United States as a whole, “residential segregation that exists in metropolitan areas does not typically occur within the same towns, but rather occurs between municipalities” James E. Ryan, “Schools, Race, and Money,” 109 Yale L.J. 249, 277 (1999).  The pattern of residential segregation between Springfield and the surrounding communities is consistent with this trend.  The city is 51.8% White and 22.3% African-American, with 38.8% of the total population identifying as Hispanic/Latino.  In 2000, the US Census Bureau’s Housing and Household Economics Statistics Division ascribed Springfield a Gini index value of 0.816 for African-American residents and 0.813 for Hispanic residents, with 1.0 indicating maximum segregation.
In contrast, the eight communities that abut Springfield are overwhelmingly White, with only two of them having populations that are less than 90% White.  For example, East Longmeadow is 94.5% White with African Americans making up 1.4% of the town’s population, and only 2.3% identifying as Hispanic/Latino.
As a result of residential segregation, the public schools in and around Springfield are also segregated.  In the Springfield school district, 13.7% of the students are White, 20.7% are African-American, and 59.8% are Hispanic.  In Springfield Central High School, only 18% of the students are White, while 25.1% are African-American, and 46.1% are Hispanic. In East Longmeadow, by way of contrast, 89.9% of the students are White, 3.1% are African-American, and 3.1% are Hispanic.  Similarly, in Longmeadow, 86.3% of the students are White, 2.8% are African-American, and 2.7% are Hispanic.
In short, in the heart of the Pioneer Valley we have some schools for Whites and other schools for non-Whites. Although litigation – McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, 415 Mass. 545, 615 N.E.2d 516 (1993) and Hancock v. Commissioner of Education, 443 Mass. 428 (2005) – and so-called education reform did much to remedy the inequity of school funding, the last real effort to tackle educational segregation was in the 1960s and 70s.

METCO and the Racial Imbalance Act

Back in 1966, in order to reduce racial isolation Massachusetts created the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or METCO program, which covers Springfield as well as Boston. Students travel by bus from their homes in Springfield to predominantly White schools in neighboring towns, called receiving or host communities. Approximately 75% of METCO students are African-American and about 17% are Hispanic.
At present, only four school districts around Springfield receive METCO students, namely East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Hampden-Wilbraham, and Southwick-Tolland. According to the director of the Springfield public schools this is because of “limitations of the transportation provided by the host communities.”  There are approximately 25,000 students in the Springfield school district. But in 2010-11 the number of students from Springfield attending schools in neighboring communities via the METCO program was just 141, or 0.5% of the total number of the city’s students. Clearly, METCO alone is not going to integrate our schools.
Without question the situation in and around Springfield violates the state constitution as well as the applicable state statute. Where more than fifty percent of the pupils attending a public school are non-White, Massachusetts law defines the situation as one of “racial imbalance” (M.G.L. c. 71, §37D, the Racial Imbalance Act).  Like METCO, this statute dates from the mid-1960s and its purpose is clear:
“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the commonwealth to encourage all school committees to adopt as educational objectives the promotion of racial balance and the correction of existing racial imbalance in the public schools. The prevention or elimination of racial imbalance shall be an objective in all decisions involving the drawing or altering of school attendance lines, establishing of grade levels, and the selection of new school sites.”
Despite having been on the statute books for 47 years, the Racial Imbalance Act has not produced racially balanced schools. Because Springfield and the surrounding communities are residentially segregated according to race, Chapter 76, Section 5, has the effect of assigning students of color in Springfield to segregated schools. This is an outrage. It is also a violation of our state constitution.
Article 1 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights provides that “[e]quality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin.”  The Supreme Judicial Court considered this provision in the context of efforts to desegregate the public schools in Boston and Springfield during the early 1970s.  As a result of those decisions, there is no doubt that in Massachusetts it unconstitutional to use “[s]tate power to promote and entrench racial separation in all those schools whose communities have segregated residential patterns,” Opinion of the Justices, 363 Mass. 899, 906 (1973).  
By continuing to operate an education system that both reflects and perpetuates residential segregation, the Commonwealth is violating Article 1. Enforcing the local-schools policy but not the Racial Imbalance Act means that we are denying students of color in and around Springfield their right to equality under the law.
The Commonwealth’s practice of confining students of color to schools in their racially segregated neighborhoods – unless those students successfully opt en masse into the inter-district school choice program – entrenches both educational and residential segregation.  The fact that Springfield Central High School, for example, remains racially imbalanced demonstrates that the Racial Imbalance Act, METCO, and the school choice program are inadequate responses to the ongoing violation of constitutional rights.

Regional Approach

Segregation becomes self-perpetuating. As the Supreme Court of the United States observed in a landmark desegregation case: “People gravitate toward school facilities, just as schools are located in response to the needs of people. The location of schools may thus influence the patterns of residential development of a metropolitan area and have important impact on composition of inner-city neighborhood,” Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1, 20-21 (1971). The Pioneer Valley’s experience demonstrates how, over the years, patterns of residential and educational segregation in and around metropolitan Springfield have become mutually reinforcing.
How do we open the padlock of segregation? I believe that the key is identifying those decisions that have a regional impact, and putting power over those decisions into the hands of a democratic, accountable regional body. Ceding power upward from the municipal to regional level may strike some Greens as counter-intuitive, to say the least, and inconsistent with our goal of greater decentralization. But I believe that it is completely consistent with our commitment to grassroots democracy, the first of our party’s Ten Key Values, ensuring that people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives and creating political forms that directly include people in the decision-making process.
Here in Massachusetts, where “local” has often served as codeword for White, local control and local schools have worked together to perpetuate racial inequality. We need to break with the past, and design policies that promote regional equity. Here is a link to a video featuring Professor john a. powell (he uses lower-case only in his name) of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University. Professor powell explains that racial and economic segregation segregates people of color not just from White people but from opportunity. He argues that we need to address the “opportunity structure at the regional level” rather than trying to tackle segregation at the local level.
If we are to follow this advice and ensure that the opportunity structure in the Pioneer Valley is accessible, inclusive, and equitable, we will have to design a new governmental structure with the authority to make decisions about fair and affordable housing, public transportation, commercial development, and school assignments. In a state that effectively abolished county government, relishes local control over zoning, and amended its constitution to prevent "forced busing" there will be plenty of resistance. 
On the other hand, Massachusetts also created the Cape Cod Commission, a regional authority which manages growth and promotes environmental protection on Cape Cod. Fifteen towns in Barnstable County ceded zoning power to the commission in order to protect the scenic value, water supply, and quality of life on the Cape. Clearly, Bay Staters are quite capable of surrendering some local control to a supra-municipal body when we realize that the stakes are high. 


Although policymakers in Massachusetts have devised a variety of programs over the past 50 years, our society remains a segregated one. Programs such as METCO and school choice are still alive and produce positive results for the participants, but do little to bring about genuine integration. The Racial Imbalance Act and the law enshrining local assignment work against each other, and display the inadequacy of an exclusively local – as opposed to regional – approach to building social cohesion. 
As the site of some of the most racially segregated schools in the country we have to change the way we distribute decision-making power and other resources, and we have to do so urgently and effectively. In order to achieve an increasingly just, equal, sustainable, and democratic society, Greens in the Pioneer Valley should put regional equity at the top of our list of policy priorities

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