On Segregation, Sacrifice and Scolding Both Sides

Rachel M. Cohen has written a piece in The American Prospect titled “Under Trump, Liberals Rediscover School Segregation” that almost seems designed to rile both sides of the education policy debate.

These kinds of articles always get my attention, because it’s the easiest thing in the world to tell people exactly what they want to hear. The next easiest thing is to tell your opponents what they don’t want to hear.

Telling your allies what they don’t want to hear gets really awkward, at best.

Cohen applauds the newfound focus on school segregation, but thinks “the timing sometimes seems politically convenient.” She notes a previous lack of liberal interest in the segregation found not only in traditional schools, but in charters when supported by a charter-friendly Obama Administration.

Charter advocates aren’t going to love the notion that they, as well as voucher advocates, are contributing to segregation. But unions aren’t going to love Cohen’s implication that they tend to fight segregation only when they don’t have to sacrifice anything:

But while unions backed efforts to integrate and equalize public schools, they generally opposed initiatives that would have required transferring educators into schools they didn’t want to work in. Focused on the unequal work environments between black and white schools, unions argued that to transfer teachers against their will would represent yet another example of teachers’ lack of agency over their professional lives.

Put differently, the AFT and its affiliates played an important role pushing for integration, but when teachers were asked to make the same sacrifices as bused students, unions pushed back, firmly asserting that working conditions in black schools would have to be improved first.

I tried – less effectively – to address this very issue back when NEA decided to mount its crusade against institutional racism:

It’s easy to oppose institutional racism as long as it doesn’t require individual sacrifice. Hire more minority teachers? I’m in favor – until they get the job I applied for. Highly qualified and performing staff in low-income schools? Great – just as long as they aren’t placed higher on the district salary scale or interfere with my transfer or bumping rights. Better teachers in high-minority schools? Hear, hear! – but if they are lower on the seniority list than a so-so teacher, they have to be laid off first.

This applies to all of us, not just schools or unions. Economics has the concept of opportunity cost – that is, a benefit a person could have received, but gave up, in order to take another course of action. Ending segregation isn’t a matter of workshops, rallies or even political lobbying. It’s deciding to value integration enough to pay its opportunity cost.

We all fall short of opening our figurative wallets, so using segregation to advance other political goals is a bad investment for everyone.


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