Book explores the business of school segregation
School segregation is big business – and it’s been that way throughout American history, according to Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education by Noliwe Rooks, director of American Studies and associate professor of Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University.
For Rooks, educational inequality cannot be explained outside of a framework that brings together segregation, economics, and politics. Inspired by conversations with her own privileged Ivy League students who sought to make a career of “fixing” educational inequality, Rooks explores the long history of U.S. elites, the vast majority of whom are white, devising policies that allow some to profit from racial segregation while upholding deep inequalities. She gives this arrangement a name: segrenomics.
The story of segrenomics opens in the American South after Reconstruction, where northern industrialists offered black communities assistance to build schools – on the condition that the impoverished workers raise significant sums of money and hew to limited curricula. Southern leaders were explicit that these schools be limited in order to guarantee a continued supply of cheap black labor.
In late 19th-century Alabama coal country, Rooks identifies one of the few examples of a small school system that came close to “separate but equal” – company town schools that provided high quality, if segregated, schools to incentivize staying in the state.
In the wake of 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ended legal segregation in public schools, Virginia’s all-white academies helped build the model of a publicly funded, privately operated school that could generate profits while maintaining segregation.
Rooks’ frame is broad, and she gives significant attention to the economics of school segregation in the North as well.
Philadelphia and Pennsylvania receive special attention, and she sees them as important education reform laboratories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Edison Schools pioneered the idea that private entities could supplant and improve upon publicly run schools while making a profit. The first K-12 education business to be publicly traded, Edison targeted cities where segregation, poverty, and beleaguered school systems made their promises for rapid change especially attractive. Philadelphia, Rooks shows, was the first major district to take this effort mainstream. The initiative failed, but not before the company successfully captured the imagination of local and state politicians and diverted many millions of public dollars to private uses.
Rooks cites the more recent virtual charter schools as clear examples of how educational profit-making flourishes in a state that has overwhelmingly segregated schools. In Pennsylvania, “cyber” schools have led the nation in extracting enormous sums of money from public coffers while shamefully under-educating a student body largely comprising students of color and those who are poor. These schools – such as Agora, one of the largest cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania – are, she argues, “yet another trickle in the stream of apartheid forms of public education flowing down from the wealthy and politically well-connected to communities that are poor, of color, or both.”
Corporate profiteering off public schools isn’t Rooks’ only focus. The chapter “Stealing School” traces the intensifying criminalization of crossing school district boundaries – parents who use alternative addresses to enroll their children in “better” school districts – and details the extreme lengths to which other parents and students go to catch and punish those who do so. This gut-wrenching chapter tells the stories of families who are tracked down by specialized surveillance firms, turned in by neighbors who receive finders’ fees, and aggressively prosecuted by states. In examples from suburban Philadelphia to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to southern California, Rooks pushes readers to recognize how the idea of profit extends to the level of individual schools and parents who jealously treat the schools as private assets in need of protection.
Despite the persistence of segrenomics, Rooks is not entirely pessimistic. She devotes significant attention to black educators who have bucked the system and established alternative schools, such as the now-defunct Ivy Leaf School in Philadelphia. Lack of funds and cooptation by the larger reform movement might have blunted the systemic reach of such strategies, but Rooks is hopeful that they hold promise for what a truly equitable system would achieve. Rooks ends her study with reflections on student-led resistance – in which the Philadelphia Student Union plays a starring role – as well as the visions of young teachers of color who are challenging the system from the inside.
Cutting School widens the framework for thinking about segregation and inequality. It joins a small wave of new work on segregation and integration by journalists, academics, and regular people who are bringing the issue back to the center of education policy conversations. This powerful book starts from the premise that integration has been the only proven systemwide strategy for closing racial and class-based gaps and explores the ways that policy-makers throughout U.S. history have devised strategies that instead intensify segregation and inequality. Cutting Schools is a well-researched and tightly argued study that makes clear the urgent need to approach public schooling through a lens that is attuned to equity inside, between, and outside of schools.
What follows is a transcription of a Q&A with the author, Noliwe Rooks (edited for length):
Ian Gavigan: Professor Rooks, thank you for taking the time to speak with the Notebook. How did you arrive at this project, how does it build on your prior work, and what do you hope readers will take from it?
Noliwe Rooks: My work uses the past to contextualize the present. When I first wanted to write about education, I wanted to write about the moment I was in. A lot of undergraduates were discovering “urban education,” and they had a narrative of fixing inequality as the “civil rights movement of our time.” I found that really compelling. At some point, I had to grapple with the disconnect between the privileged white students who were telling me about this and the basic lack of understanding they had of communities that were poor and of color. So many had never spent any time in those communities.
The project really started as me trying to understand how we arrived at this moment with all these well-intentioned young people working so diligently for black freedom, so they said. I went back to find a moment where business and economics weren’t so tightly tied to social justice, democracy, and education. I thought there was a time before this. I kept backing up farther and farther and could never find it.
IG: You call this intersection of business, education, and segregation segrenomics. What does it mean to you? Was there a gap in the way you saw people talking about segregation and reform?
NR: It was a term my husband and I used with each other to refer to a business model that doesn’t work without high levels of economic and racial segregation. As I was backing up through history, finding out about the economics of segregation and ideas around integration, white supremacy, and black inferiority, I kept finding educational experiments that were only tried out in poor communities and communities of color. In some periods it looks different from others, but it ended up being a thread that pulled through the history of education and race from the 19th century through the present.
You can see that there are groups that consistently profit from certain forms of segregation. Sometimes it’s white communities across the states of the former Confederacy, like after Brown, who stood up and said “you don’t speak for us, Supreme Court,” such as the White Citizens Councils (WCCs). The WCCs set up what we’d call charter schools today. They were “segregation academies” for white families that needed an education but didn’t want desegregation. The financing of these academies mirrors how we talk about charter schools: they were privately owned but publicly financed. We’re seeing here the backbone of a whole new education system that is enriching people while doing the work of white supremacy. It wasn’t just the separation that folks were fighting for, some people were profiting from that segregation. When looking at various periods of American education, I kept finding these relationships again and again.
IG: Your book begins in the South and ends with a deeply critical, but also hopeful, look at segrenomics in the North – especially in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. How have people in the North also benefited from segrenomics?
NR: Philadelphia was one of the first places where people were having overt conversations about dismantling traditional public educational institutions. Your governor at the time [Republican Tom Ridge] was extremely open – and he was really successful in turning Philadelphia into a kind of lab, rivaled only by Florida and Ohio. These states provide us the best lens at a statewide level for what segrenomic practices lead to.
Philadelphia’s Edison Schools experiment was the first major use of publicly traded education industry. This was an industry that came into struggling areas, offering desperate politicians to do all of the work and provide higher test scores, higher graduation rates. Edison set themselves up as a kind of silver bullet. Philly was one of the largest school districts to turn schools over to these folks – many of whom were not educators or [had] any specific practices that were different from what existing teachers and schools could do. And yet, in Philadelphia, and across the country, you had mayors and governors simply giving away the schools.
The biggest excitement about Edison was that they were publicly traded on Wall Street. And so they were the first kind of public-private partnership when we were really trying out the idea of extracting profit for shareholders from the education of poor children, of black and Latino children. In the past you had individual businesses that might be doing it but not trying to spawn a whole sector – and so Philadelphia is a key part of that story, both for a willingness of people not from these communities, but also in the pushback. The Philadelphia Student Union is a leader with other groups who took it upon themselves as young people to raise the alarm and push a new narrative and engage in action that would push back against these private-public partnerships that were taking apart schools.
At the state level of defunding traditional public schools, the governor was particularly aggressive. You could see the cycle of defunding schools and not being clear that the schools were broke in part because of the extraction of hundreds of millions of dollars from the public system while at the same time investing in these private entities. Philadelphia was one of the first places – and that has caught the attention of me and many academics who got to see these forces working out in real time.
All this is happening at the same time you really started to hear Silicon Valley talk of disrupting taxpayer-supported pillars of American democracy. Philadelphia is ground zero for this story. People talk about New Orleans, but there was a natural disaster there. In Philadelphia, you had a man-made disaster, you can observe the disaster being created.
IG: You’ve spoken about the limits on the public conversations on segregation. In another interview you gave, you mentioned that Nikole Hannah-Jones seems to be one of the few voices consistently pushing the topic at the national level. I think in the last few years, we’ve started to see a shift. The [Philadelphia] Inquirer even ran an editorial recently advocating for regional charter schools as one solution for segregation. How do you want your book to push this conversation?
NR: If you’re talking about wholesale systemic change, there are people across the country taking this on. Integration is important because we know it works. A lot of what we’re doing in so-called ed reform – innovation and disruption being the language of the day – are really educational experiments. But we do have strong research that makes clear that racial and economic integration closes the achievement gap.
The issue is, how do you do it given the fact of housing segregation and the reluctance of wealthy and middle-class parents? Parents are as attuned to the markers of poverty as they are race. Poor schools tend to be segregated schools. Given the decades we’ve spent trying to fix schools, I don’t necessarily believe integration is the only solution – and I want to mark that white people seem aggressively opposed to having integration. One of the reasons for that is simply because it’s too profitable, the “edu-business” sector is a growth sector, and much of that growth is tied to segregation. You need to figure out where you’re going to get the white people who are not going to block integration.
One of the things I call for in the book is to look at a period in the 1970s where, because of the same kind of disenchantment with public schools, you had black, Latino, Native American parents and communities starting independent schools. You have stunning educational achievement taking place where traditional schools said they couldn’t do it. One of the parts of the Black Panther story that gets overlooked is the success that Ericka Huggins [director of Oakland Community School, 1973-1981] had – so much so that the Oakland School Board was offering her commendations regularly. Or Marva Collins, who started Westside Prep in Chicago. She was so successful she was asked twice to become the secretary of education. Or Ivy Leaf Academy in Philadelphia. Their success was not just about getting kids through high school or how great their test scores were. Their success was measured by getting students to and through college. But it was not separate but equal. They were functioning on a shoestring. They were started by working-class black people in black communities serving poor people.
What I point out is that integration is the only systemic solution we’ve ever seen that closes the gap so much reform claims it’s going to close. Even within segregated schools, there’s all manner of strategies for educating poor kids that have nothing to do with many of the strategies that our politicians and educational thinkers embrace.
IG: Do you see any tension between the idea of integration as a strategy for achieving broad-based equity vs. integration as a social and political ideal of a multicultural democracy?
NR: I don’t see that as a tension – I see that as going back to John Dewey, and when you talk about progressive and inclusive education and democracy, generally academics can go back to Dewey and his lovely ideas of public education as a common good that would foster the tools we need to be citizens. He was talking more about white immigrants more than anybody else. He didn’t get into the ways race complicates our ideas of citizenship in the United States in particular. But we need similar forms of education for the wealthy and the rising. That’s an ideal of democracy in relation to education. We have all manner of examples of education as a driver for bootstrapping. Even in black communities, democratizing education and higher education did a whole lot to lead to a black middle class.
Where the problems come in is between those ideals and the reality on the ground. Whenever given a choice, white communities and people in power have consistently pulled away from integration. By the ’70s and ’80s, the language is reverse discrimination, which goes back at least to the ’50s and conversations about Supreme Court social engineering that disenfranchises whites. From that period on, you see a language about what happens when you allow black students in classrooms with the wealthy and middle class. You hear the language of: “Our housing values will go down. Our test scores will go down. We’ll have to spend more money for specialized education.” In seeking educational quality for the least of these, you have wealthy whites saying “You are disadvantaging us.” That’s the tension.
Even amongst whites or wealthy people who espouse an embrace of democracy, integration, and equality, they will never say that poor people and black people equal a debased kind of education. You will rarely hear white parents give voice to their worry about integrated education disadvantaging them. As a result, what we generally now mean when whites talk about integration, they imagine a situation where there is a 15 percent non-white student body. But for people of color, it means 50/50. It’s there that you get into the issues of what you mean by integration.
In D.C., there’s the argument that the public schools are ending segregation. But what we’re really seeing there is the effects of gentrification – white students displacing black students. But this isn’t truly integration. Integration is about stable schools that are not in flux, not in transition, that incorporate people of all economic levels and perform at a high level. Even what we mean when we say integration in this day and age requires more unpacking.
IG: This book is not easy on Democrats, especially on Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Could you say a bit about how you think people today should approach their legacies?
NR: The way I talk about Clinton and Obama is as part of a lineage that begins with Nixon and Friedman, the talk of deregulation and joining together ideas of capitalism and freedom. It’s no longer about Republicans or Democrats – it’s about people with interests in cultivating relationships with business and enabling educational businesses to get more of the 600 billion in educational dollars. One of the things Clinton is known for is his business-friendly stance, his willingness to upset the traditional Democratic constituencies. He opened the door to having businesses lobby on behalf of their clients to allow them to get a bigger foothold in schools.
Then you have the Bush years. There’s a striking similarity among Clinton, Bush, and Obama around wanting more privatization. Obama didn’t represent a break – there wasn’t something magical or transformative happening on education policy. There was real continuity with the ideas of the Bush White House. We went from NCLB [No Child Left Behind] to Race to the Top.
Obama said that once you’re rolling in circles with rich people, increasingly you take on the ideas of the rich people, beyond the party loyalty. I’m not talking about extreme ideas. But if you’re just chillin’ at Harvard or other elite schools, if you’re lunching with folks who have gone to those schools, there’s a collapsing of what you think makes sense and what works.
Take Jared Kushner. It wasn’t until he campaigned for his father-in-law that he knew there was opposition to Common Core.
Part of why I want to put economics on the table is because there is a class of individuals who can be black, white, Asian, Latino – it’s not about the background they came from, but their social access they’re in and around – that shares similar ideas about education. It’s not about needing to have a Democrat or Republican. We need to start asking questions about the role of traditional public schools in stabilizing communities. We need to parse answers to those kinds of questions instead of assuming the parties are a world apart in terms of what they think.
IG: Could you talk about this phenomenon of “stealing school” and what it means for educational equality and integration?
NR: It’s my view that the history of race, integration, and funding tracks with the rise of privatization and working-class parents of color enrolling kids in school districts outside of where they reside. In some cases, they’re live-in housekeepers. One instance in the book is in the Philadelphia area where a family having marital problems enrolling the kids in the father’s school district. Another was a homeless parent splitting time between the car and a friend’s house who enrolled her kid in a high-wealth school district. In all of these cases, parents are threatened with legal action. Conviction means in some states losing the right to vote, being barred from various kinds of employment. In some places, parents served jail time. All of this was keeping poor kids out of wealthy schools.
At the micro level, parents in schools are pushing the districts to make sure their tax dollars were going to educate their kids and kids like their kids. If you were not from within the district, those parents were going to great lengths to make sure you were caught and punished. In some districts, you can get up to $200 bounty. There are all these businesses that come into being to do this tracking. It’s segrenomics – they don’t have a purpose outside of a segregated school system. They are taping people going to and from school, creating an entire surveillance record to kick these kids out. People are getting money for reporting students. All this involves huge amounts of money to keep kids out of school.
The amount of money charter schools have been charged with stealing by the FBI and state agencies is in the hundreds of millions. When you compare the societal harm of these two things, and compare the responses to what happens when the wealthy are caught stealing public funds, it shows a double standard.
I’m not actually someone who is anti-charter schools – the idea makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve studied the kinds of black-led schools that succeed and were kept from getting charters. But the way the large management organizations are working arguably benefits them and their bottom line far more than the children they’re getting money to educate. I’m trying to have a conversation that can lead to an acknowledgment that all things privatization are not the path toward stability and democracy when you’re talking about poor people and people of color.
IG: Is there one last thought you’d like to share with the readers of the Notebook?
NR: One of the things that I learned is about the grassroots nature of the resistance, and there’s something poignant about young people leading it. They’re organizing themselves city by city, school by school. They’re advocating for their safety; they’re advocating around the ways they needed to be treated and speaking to people in power. This work is so impactful. We need to look at what the young folks are saying and we need to stand with them. There needs to be more support for the agendas of people who are being impacted.
By Noliwe Rooks
Published in 2017 by New Press. $26.95.
Ian Gavigan is a graduate student at Rutgers University studying segregation. He is a former communications director for City Councilwoman Helen Gym.