Not quite post-racial at the Chicago public schools

Has Chicago, the city that gave us Obama, arrived at a post-racial era in its public school system?  Last week, the New York Times reported that the city’s public schools have decided to use student socio-economic profiles rather than race to assign students to schools.

Those who believe that race is merely a clumsy and inaccurate proxy for socio-economic status will surely welcome the change as long overdue.  For them, removing race as a factor would allow Chicago schools to deal directly with the true underlying concerns of school integration — combating the devastating effect poverty has on the education of our children.  It would be a welcomed first step toward moving beyond our fixation on race.  The result would be more equitable and accurate, as well.

The reality in Chicago, however, is far more complicated.  For one thing, the Times article makes it clear that the Chicago officials are implementing the reform reluctantly.  They are doing so only in response to the Supreme Court decision in 2007 that prohibited Seattle and Kentucky school districts from using race as a factor in school assignments.

More importantly, the objective of using these types of criteria to sort and assign students remain peculiarly fixated on race.  The goal that the school officials say they hope to achieve, and the standard by which they evaluate their success, is racial integration, not socio-economic parity.  As a result, socio-economic profiling is perceived and spoken of as a second-best solution, a crude proxy for race.

Unfortunately, if racial integration is the objective, then the Chicago policy is likely to fail.  San Francisco, which has been using socio-economic factors instead of race in school assignment for the past few years, has seen less racial integration in its schools since adopting the new policy.  Denver and Charlotte had reported similar trends.

Part of the problem may be technical.  Defining and measuring socio-economic status turns out to be a bit more elusive than defining race.  According to the New York Times, Chicago will be using a variety of factors that evaluates the student’s neighborhood — “income, education levels, single-parent households, owner-occupied homes and the use of language other than English as the primary tongue” — in placing students in selective-enrollment schools.

Using neighborhood characteristics as a proxy for socio-economic status may be just as inaccurate as using race as a proxy.  The system is also more easily gamed, since the calculus depends on assumptions about people’s living preferences and the fact that they are reporting their actual addresses.  San Francisco, which uses a similar system, is reevaluating the effectiveness of using those factors and considering using additional factors such as whether the student has attended pre-school.

In short, if Chicago’s true objective is more racial integration, it is likely to be sorely disappointed.  None of these criticisms, however, address the largest problems that both of these methods for school integration fails to address: a paucity of middle- or upper-middle class white students.  Students who attend urban, inner-city schools are overwhelmingly minorities and poor.  In Chicago, only 9% of students are white, while 45% are African-American and 41% Latino.  According to the school district website, 85% of the public school students are from a “low-income family.”

And Chicago is not unique.  70% of Denver’s students are Latino or African-American, and roughly the same percentage are low-income students eligible for the federal free lunch program.  In San Francisco’s school district, nearly 1/3 of the students are immigrant “English language learners”, and white students only make up 10% of the student population.  More than half of the students are eligible for the free lunch program.

Integration is only meaningful and sensible when there are diverse groups to integrate.  The Chicago officials themselves acknowledge the absurdities of trying to “integrate” a district where the vast majority of students are quite uniformly low-income and non-white.  Short of busing these students to wealthy suburbs, who are Chicago integrating these children with?

Rather than achieving the ideal of running schools where race does not matter, Chicago’s new policy shows us that race is still an issue that is very much front and center in people’s minds — and at the same time, it is an issue that is beside the point.