Title in black text, subtitle in red text. A sliced apple at the bottom of the page, with green slices and red slices interspersed.

Why are urban school systems so bad? It’s the segregation, stupid. Wealthy white people left the city, or put their kids in private schools, leaving only poor black children in inner-city schools. Merge city and suburban school districts like Raleigh did, says Gerald Grant, and — after a lot of hard work — you’ll see a million flowers bloom. Education for the wealthier, whiter kids will not get worse, while education for the poorer kids will get better. More specifically, the poor kids will learn the middle-class habits of the wealthier kids around them — habits that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home; they’ll learn the bourgeois virtues; they’ll learn the “soft skills” whose importance James Heckman has so prominently endorsed. Meanwhile the white schools will gain from diversity — from having multiple diverse points of view when making any decision.

Grant heartbreakingly contrasts Raleigh’s experience with that of the town where Grant has worked for decades, namely Syracuse. A combination of factors led Syracuse to be almost perfectly segregated, with predictably disastrous consequences. By no means was this segregation accidental, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect people’s individual, uncoordinated, uncoerced choices: 20th-century redlining discouraged banks from funding black homeownership; probably well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous policies from the War On Poverty confined black people to large urban high-rises, rather than spreading them out throughout white neighborhoods. Segregation stopped being officially supported in the 1960s, but it has continued in official and devastating ways up to the present day.

Here Grant asks a very important question: does it matter, as far as enforcing the laws goes, whether segregation was the intent or whether it was just the result? The answer seems pretty clear to me: even if the laws weren’t explicitly intended to segregate, they need to be overturned if segregation was the more or less predictable outcome. The present alignment of the Supreme Court means that we’re not likely to see laws overturned when they [foreign: de facto] segregate their communities. And the country moving en masse to a Raleigh-style union of urban and suburban school districts, while a noble goal that we should aim toward strategically, is probably some ways off. So Grant proposes some pragmatic, achievable, short-term fixes, among them something very much like Boston’s METCO: a purely voluntary program to bus kids from poor urban schools to wealthy suburban schools. [1] I can’t think of any sensible argument against Grant’s position, particularly when it’s purely voluntary.

This dovetails with some of now-senator Elizabeth Warren’s ideas in her 2003 book [book: The Two-Income Trap]. One of the most fundamental forces driving middle-class life to be so unaffordable for so many Americans, says Warren, is that the good schools and the expensive places to live are synonymous: you can only send your kids to a good public school in a town if you live in that town. The inevitable outcome, in places like the Brookline suburb of Boston, is that housing prices are through the roof, and middle-income people are forced to live where the schools aren’t as good. Let’s sunder the link between good schools and good places to live, says Warren; people who live in Roxbury should be able to send their kids to school in Brookline or Weston. (Apologies for the local dialect in this paragraph. I imagine that Warren, who lives a short walk from me in Cambridge, had much the same example in her mind as she wrote her book.) A good life for your kids won’t only be available to the wealthiest parents. I wonder whether Warren would stand by these ideas now that she’s Senator Warren.

Slavery and Jim Crow are baked as deeply into American society as they could be; they infect politics, culture, and economics. Blacks didn’t have the effective right to vote until a century after Emancipation; we shouldn’t expect that America’s original sin has magically stopped corrupting us after two centuries of official and semi-official racism. Moreover, we shouldn’t treat ending Jim Crow as something that will help only black people; white people also benefit from frequent contact with those who are different from them. No one wants to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do; the challenge is just to open up the same opportunities to rich as to poor, and to black as to white. Gerald Grant reminds us equal opportunity can and should start with the schools.

[1] – Apparently there’s a book on this topic called [book: The Other Boston Busing Story] which immediately goes to the top of the list. You should also read about the main Boston busing story — the one that people think of when they think “Boston busing”. You should, in particular, read J. Anthony Lukas’s [book: Common Ground], which remains one of the few books that I believe every American ought to read. Other books in that category include [book: The Making of the Atomic Bomb] (among the few best works of nonfiction I’ve ever read, and without doubt the best work of science writing), and Robert Caro’s [book: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York].