Why Your Child’s School Isn’t More Diverse

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Episode 68│Why Your Child’s School Isn’t More Diverse

Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2022

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Stefan Lallinger

While segregation may seem like a thing of the past, it’s still a major issue affecting our schools today. We spoke with Stefan Lallinger, executive director of Next100, to explore why schools aren’t more diverse and how we can advocate for systemic change. He also shares his insight on the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action and its implications for the future of K-12 education.

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Transcript

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.

Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, and we are your co-host. You know, on this show we have talked a lot about the importance of teacher diversity, but what about student diversity in schools? I think a lot of folks might wonder since Brown versus Board of Education, if our schools are truly integrated, and what efforts should schools be allowed to take to diversify their student population?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah, definitely Helen. And there's been a lot of talk recently about a potential Supreme Court decision that could significantly change or remove affirmative action and other related policies. This would deeply impact high school students who are applying for college and could have implications on K through 12 schools.

Helen Westmoreland: That's right Kisha, this is such an important issue and I'm looking forward to learning more about it, with our great guest. Today, we have Dr. Stefan Lallinger joining us. Stefan is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the Executive Director of Next 100, a policy think tank that works on education, immigration, climate change, and other issues. He is a former teacher, principal, and school district leader, and he is also the father of a one and three year old. Welcome to the show Stefan. Thank you for joining us.

Stefan Lallinger: Thanks so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here to talk about my favorite topic.

Helen Westmoreland: Well, so on that note, we like to start our episodes off learning more about what actually motivated you to get into this topic in this line of work. So could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your own educational journey that brought you to the Century Foundation and Next 100?

Stefan Lallinger: Absolutely happy to. I answer that in a couple of different ways. I mean, first I call education the family business. I have teachers on both sides of my family and going back many generations. I actually often start the conversation about how I got into this line of work by talking about my grandfather who's a person who's very special to me. He passed when I was, when I was much younger, but my grandfather was a man who was born in 1901. He was two generations removed from slavery and found himself in the 1920s attending an Ivy League University. He went to Brown University. Ah, he moved to the south to teach in an all-black school that originally had been built for the children of emancipated slaves. And then went to Harvard Law School. He is one of the first African American graduates of Harvard Law School, he graduated in the late 1920s.

So he's always been my inspiration and he has a very specific connection to this topic, because he was one of the lawyers in Brown vs. Board. In 1954, he was part of the legal team. And he had brought two cases against municipalities in Delaware. Essentially suing them because he was representing black clients who had to travel great distances to attend school, even though there were white schools that were much closer. And those two cases became part of Brown versus Board. So my interest in this particular topic, in an education started at a very young age as I got to know my grandfather and not just by knowing him as a person, but as I mentioned he passed when I was pretty young, but through the stories that my family told.

And so that got me interested in this topic, got me interested in education. I became a teacher right out of college. I moved to New Orleans after college in the years after Hurricane Katrina and started teaching. I spent about a decade in New Orleans as a teacher and assistant principal and a principal. And in it was the years of New Orleans that really have impacted my views on education most just because they were just such meaningful years. And I got to develop such extensive relationships with the students and the families and the parents at the school where I worked called Langston Hughes Academy. I pursued my graduate education for a few years. I ended up working at the New York City Department of Education in the Chancellor's office and then have been at the Century Foundation for a few years working on education policy and now the Executive Director of Next 100.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I just love that because your backstory, in a social setting it's like, oh, why do you do what you do? It's like, oh, I really love this, or whatever. But you have a really amazing backstory. That makes me excited to talk to you today.

Stefan Lallinger: I often tell people I didn't do anything to deserve the amazing grandfather and parents that I had, but but you know, try and do everything I can to, to live up to the legacy.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's great.

Helen Westmoreland: So Stefan, could you tell us about the Century Foundation and Next 100?

Stefan Lallinger: Let me start with the Century Foundation. The Century Foundation is a nonpartisan think tank that focuses in a couple issue areas. And again, think tanks tend to focus on policy. How? Make better policy to improve people's lives, essentially, the Century Foundation does just that. We  try and think about and propose policy at local, state, and federal levels to improve people's lives.

And we focus in a couple of areas. And one of the areas that we focus on for decades is K-12 education, specifically this issue of segregation. How do we address it? Separately from that, about six months ago I started as the executive director of the Next 100, which is sort of a spinoff of the Century Foundation.

It's a think tank with the proposition of putting those closest to the problems that we want to solve at the center of the solutions. And so we are, we are a two year fellowship model where we bring in, early career folks who are really passionate about education or climate change or criminal justice or immigration and have some sort of lived experience in those areas. And so that is my second hat that I wear.

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you. I appreciate you explaining that.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Why don't you give us some background on affirmative action. Why is affirmative action an important part of education?

Stefan Lallinger: That's a really huge question.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Break it down for us.

Stefan Lallinger: I'll break it down as simply as I can, you know just to sort of like go all the way back there. There's been a legacy of exclusion, in higher education since, the beginnings of higher education in this country. I mean, higher education started at a time in this country where we still had slavery, right? So so, people of color, black folks in particular, women entire, segments of our population have historically been excluded from higher education by law and or by custom for many, many years. And because of that legacy of exclusion for many years up until the present there has been a severe underrepresentation of certain populations in our nation's colleges and universities. And you just have to look at the numbers, the statistics, to see how that plays out. And we all know there are no inherent differences among the many different kinds of people we have in this country that would lead to different academic outcomes.

The reasons that we have people who aren't as represented in our nation's colleges and universities are the historical reasons, these legacies of excluding folks. And it's not just a legacy of exclusion, it really permeates all aspects of our lives. And so folks who are from a lower socioeconomic status are much less likely to be represented in institutions of higher education because of all of the factors, right, at play. So affirmative action which, has existed in many different forms. We're talking specifically today mostly about race, but affirmative action has existed to, to benefit many different types of people over time.

But the general idea is twofold. One is, in order to address these legacies of exclusion and discrimination, colleges and universities should take actions to ensure that they have diverse student bodies. One, to remediate and address the historical discrimination, but two, because there's a whole body of research that demonstrates that everybody in that institution, will be better served if they are attending those institutions with people who may look different than they do, may practice a different religion than they do. Have grown up in a different neighborhood, speak a different language and everything we know about education bears that out. And so I'd say the roots of what we are thinking about in terms of affirmative action today are rooted in, in those two things that communities are richer when they're more diverse and that our nations colleges and universities have a specific debt to pay in terms of addressing what has been a legacy of discrimination. I'll add one more thing. And this is, specifically for Black Americans who are descendants of slaves. There are countless universities in our country who benefited very directly from the slave trade, whether that was materially whether they were invested in companies that were slave trading companies, or whether the physical infrastructure was actually built by enslaved people. And there are examples. Georgetown University has, yes, sort of undertaken a path towards reparations.

Brown University where I attended launched a, a, a historic initiative to sort of uncover all of its connections to the slave trade. So, that's worth mentioning. Mm-hmm. . Because it's, it's an underappreciated fact that so many of these colleges and universities wouldn't be as wealthy as they are and certainly wouldn't have all of the resources that they do, were it not for, for them benefiting from the institution of slavery.

Helen Westmoreland: I know we wanna talk about some of the K-12 issues too, but I wonder if just as a follow up to that, while we're sort of talking about higher education. I think a lot of people have seen the headlines like Supreme Court deciding on this. What is really at stake here and, and could you describe sort of positions Right. That are, are being taken?

Stefan Lallinger: So first I'll back up and just say there have been a number of challenges to affirmative action over the years that have made it to the Supreme Court. This is the latest iteration this case, the UNC and Harvard case as it's sort of colloquially known, is the latest iteration of challenges to affirmative action. Specifically challenges to race-based affirmative action. And this latest case is essentially, a group of students arguing very specifically that the ways in which Harvard and UNC do their admissions, the way they assign points to different applicants based on a whole set of criteria, which for both of these institutions includes race. Okay, so race is a factor among many for these two institutions. And you have a group of folks who have alleged that specifically Asian Americans are being discriminated against in the ways in which Harvard and UNC specifically decide who they admit to their classes. So that's what's before the Supreme Court right now.

There have been, the lead up to the Supreme Court deciding on a case means that, this has gone through the lower courts, first of all. It means that there are oral arguments that have happened before the Supreme Court. And then we will find out in the summer of 2023, how the Supreme Court has decided. I think many people have guessed what the Supreme Court will decide based on the current makeup of the Supreme Court. And interpreting some of the questions that Supreme Court justices asked during the oral arguments. There's no universal consensus on this is absolutely what the court will do, but what many people think will happen in the summer when they decide make public their decision is that the Supreme Court is likely to outlaw the use of race as a factor at all in admissions at the university level colleges and universities.

So nothing that the Supreme Court decides would directly impact K-12 education. These types of decisions always have consequences and ramifications. Right. And, and there is actually another case at the K-12 level involving a selective school, a magnet school in Northern Virginia called Thomas Jefferson, that is at the appellate level. That some people are calling the K-12 version of the UNC case. It's a little different, but the point is, while what the Supreme Court decides in Harvard and UNC won't have direct implications for what happens in K-12, people are really interested in it because it could portend what might be coming down the line for K-12, although there are some specific differences.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I think that's really good with all that's going on and there's just the news cycles go so quickly, it's really hard for parents to understand, what does that mean? So thank you for explaining that.

Stefan Lallinger: Sure. Mm-hmm..

Kisha DeSandies Lester: So Stefan, can you tell us a bit about school integration more broadly? What is the state of our education system when it comes to diversity in schools, especially since a lot of what's happening at the Supreme Court level doesn't have a direct impact on K-12?

Stefan Lallinger: Thank you for that question. I think it's a really good one and I, it's one that I wish people would pay more attention to, quite frankly, Kisha, because I think, we have a tendency in this country when someone talks about school segregation or just segregation generally to harken back to the 1940s and fifties and not think that it's an issue that is actually with us today. Mm-hmm. And so to answer your question, the state of school segregation, there are a large number of schools in our country, that are segregated today, that are functionally segregated by race by increasingly by class, class and often by race and by class and this varies widely across the country, but it would be hard for you to go to any urban area in the United States and not find schools that are functionally segregated by race, where the student body is greater than 90% Black or, or greater than 90% white or greater than 90% Latino. In, in 2023, and it's not an issue that a lot of people talk about. For a number of different reasons. One is again, people assume it's just not a thing anymore, because it's not enshrined in law, that it doesn't happen. But people don't see all of the hidden forces that recreate patterns of segregation in where we live and often therefore, in where we attend.

And there are a lot of consequences for this. And, and the biggest consequence is that, for black and Latino students who are in segregated schools, on average they receive way less resources than schools that are segregated, that are predominantly white to the tune of billions of dollars.

We had a think tank a couple of years ago, tally up all of the resource deficit essentially between predominantly non-white districts and predominantly white districts. And it was 39 billion. Wow. Which is an astonishing figure, yeah. So it matters tremendously for resources, number one. And number two, if you are black and Latino in this country and you attend a segregated school, you are way likelier to attend a high poverty school. This overlap between race and socioeconomic status. And again, that matters because there's so much research out there that says that there are so many negative externalities that are attached to attending a high poverty school that are out of the control of a kid or a parent. High poverty schools on average tend to have teachers who are less qualified and less experienced. They tend to have less resources. They tend to have less access to advanced coursework they tend to have parent teacher associations with fewer resources available to them. And this Kisha, I think is like a really, really important point, that people conflate all the time, which is, that's not an indictment on a child who comes from difficult circumstances. It's an indictment on our system Yes. That enables these conditions to persist. One more point I would add which is all of the things I said about higher education and the benefits of diversity in higher education that are true for higher education are also true at the K-12 level.

Helen Westmoreland: That's right.

Stefan Lallinger: Your experience is so much richer if you have a diverse set of classmates whom you can learn from you. Almost as much from your peers in school, if not more, than from the person standing in front of the classroom. So for your white student who attends a school that is 90% or more white students and you never see people of color that's also not a great outcome for you. And you are also being stunted in your growth and your development, and you're not being prepared for the world if that's the type of school environment you attend to. So I don't wanna act like these are negative consequences only for students of color who attend segregated schools.These are also negative consequences for white, middle class, upper class students who only go to school with kids who look like them or come from the same background that they do.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Stefan, I'm so glad you mentioned things in that way.I am a product of being in a school where I was the only one, but it was the reverse. I moved to, a more upper middle class area. And so I was one of the only students of color, or often the only black girl of color. And yes, a lot of students and even teachers had not had an experience with a student of color. And I wouldn't say that I had , you know, what you see on TV necessarily, but watching how that plays out, being afraid of sharing your culture and being your full self. I will say also, without getting to in the weeds about it, I do think that the hard thing is you become a parent and then you become aware of so many things you just didn't know, so many things you weren't aware of. And I think it could be really overwhelming for parents, because they don't have the knowledge that you have, that you're sharing today, to understand the history and the how systemic things are, but also where there's hope. So can you offer some hope in how parents can advocate for their child and for their school and district on this issue?

Stefan Lallinger: Absolutely. I'm so glad you said that. I mean, so many of these issues that I'm talking about are systemic in nature and there are invisible forces, if you will, that perpetuate the status quo, whether it's, zoning for schools, whether it's the way district boundaries and lines have been drawn whether it is things related to residential zoning who can and can't live in certain places. That's not to say that individuals don't have any agency over this. I think the first thing that I would tell a student or a parent to do who's as you mentioned, you become a parent. I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old, and let me tell you, there's so many things that I that I never even contemplate children before.

Helen Westmoreland: We’re all so humbled by our children.

Stefan Lallinger: Yes. Absolutely.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: And it's the second child that helps you realize how much you really don't know.

Stefan Lallinger: That's exactly right, that's exactly right. I couldn't agree with you more on that one. So I think the first thing I would say is, as you acquire new knowledge, be curious about these things. What do you know about the school district where your, children attend school? What do you know about the ways in which the zones and the boundaries are drawn? Are there, significant differences demographically in terms of socioeconomic status, in terms of race to the adjacent school zone and or the adjacent school district?

The Urban Institute put out a really incredible report recently for those who were interested in this, where they essentially went across the United States and found, school zones, schools that were adjacent to each other. So they were right next to each other that had dramatically different student body demographics.

So like, these are schools that are separated by a mile or so and yet the ways in which the zones were drawn have made one a functionally high poverty school and the other an extremely low poverty school. So the first thing is gather some information, inform yourself and see what the options are. I think we all should be striving to give our kids the opportunity and the privilege of attending a school where they get to learn from all different kinds of people, both in terms of the adults in their lives and the kids in their lives. And so the first thing is I think just seek information and try and figure out.

I also want to emphasize, there are a lot of things that happen within schools that serve to segregate children. Within schools, whether that is tracking At the middle school level, we've got this advanced track.

And then we've got the track for everybody else, whether it's gifted and talented programs. There are ways to do gifted and talented serve to, to segregate entire student bodies. So the first is just like gather some information and figure out what's going on in your own backyard.

And the second is endeavor to spread the gospel and the message of, we all should be trying to make sure our kids have the best possible educational experience. And one of the biggest factors is, do they get the privilege of going to school with folks who look different than they do, who come from a different background, maybe practice a different religion or speak a different language?

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you.  I so appreciate that. Cause I think the spirit of curiosity sometimes gets lost. My neighborhood school where my daughter can go is known as like a, quote unquote good school. And not too long ago, I. was getting a little curious. And I live in a neighborhood, not unlike many neighborhoods in America that up until a few decades ago, had covenants preventing people of color from living in this neighborhood.

So it can't be serendipity, right that we have these  long-standing systemic issues in how schools are funded. Based on where people were even allowed to live. I think the hard part, and I'm curious your thoughts on this, Stefan, is how do we solve for that at the systemic level? Like what are some of those positions after a parent, as you said, maybe gets curious and asks about, what's going on and why are some kids here and other kids aren't? What do you see as some solutions that either have worked well, hopefully there are a few places that have figured it out, or that could work well to better integrate our schools?

Stefan Lallinger: Sure. Helen, that's a great question and it's a complicated answer and for this reason The things that contribute to segregation on the K-12 level vary tremendously from district to district, state to state. So the first thing that I would say is identify the sources of the segregation.

And a quick plug for some work that my colleague Halley Potter has done at the Century Foundation. She put out a dashboard that basically is a fancy way of just saying there's a map of the United States with all the metropolitan statistical areas, and you can click on each one and it will tell you what the main sources of segregation are.

Wow, that's cool. In those places. And so to give some examples of what that could be, right? One major source of segregation could just be the way the school district lines have been drawn. So I'll give you a perfect example. I live in Baltimore City. Baltimore City is its own district, and then there's the county, Baltimore County, which surrounds Baltimore City, and that is its own district.

And the biggest contribution to segregation where I live is that boundary, the school district boundary between Baltimore City and Baltimore County. That is not the case in many places across the country. In Florida, for example, you've got these huge countywide districts and within most of the counties in a large part of Florida, the districts themselves are actually pretty diverse.

It's the way they've drawn the zones within each county, within each school district for who attends school where that have made schools there segregated. So that's a fundamentally different problems to solve. And so there are different solutions you might attempt based on what the actual root of  the issue is now to talk about some solutions.  So one solution to this issue is, to, to not only rethink about the school boundaries within a district, but also to think about innovative ways of assigning students to schools. So there are districts around this country that have instituted weighted lotteries to assign students to schools instead of traditional school zones. There are districts around this country that have started magnet schools for the purpose of bringing students from different parts of their district all to one school. And again, these are all ideas that can work really well. If you pay attention to the details, they can also backfire. Right? There are magnet schools around this country that were started ostensibly to bring people from different backgrounds together, but then they instituted tests that you had to pass to get in. They didn't offer transportation, and so certain kids were excluded. So all of these ideas that I'm giving, can work under the right conditions, but you have to pay very, very careful attention to how they're executed.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's really powerful.

Helen Westmoreland:. I think you've shed so much light on this topic. It can be a heady one. Like you said, it's systemic. It's policy focused. If there's one thing you really want parents to walk away from today's conversation, front of mind what is the one takeaway you wanna leave with our audience?

Stefan Lallinger: I think it would be that we all have an active role to play in making sure that our classrooms and our schools are, these wonderfully representative communities of our broader society and that, it's good for our individual kids, so we can do it out of self-interest, but it's also good for our society and for our country. If you think about how divided people are and how far apart they are on so many issues, what if we did something different for the next generation and allowed them to build relationships with one another and work to solve problems with one another? And we all have a role to play in that because there are so many historical and in invisible to the naked eye forces that conspire to not make that a reality for too many students. But if we all play a role in making that a commitment for our next generation, we'll be better off. Our kids will be better off. But more importantly, our whole society and country will be better off.

 Helen Westmoreland: I appreciate you leaving us with an optimistic note. Thank you so much for joining us

Stefan Lallinger: My pleasure.

Helen Westmoreland: And to our audience listening in, thank you for tuning in. For more resources related to today's episode, you can check out notesfromthebackpack.com. Thanks for tuning in and join us next.



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