The Unstated Assumption in Richmond’s School Rezoning Proposal

Sen. Glen Sturtevant

by James A. Bacon

Which position is more objectionable? Opposing a rezoning of Richmond schools to achieve greater racial balance on the grounds that it would eliminate neighborhood schools… or the unstated assumption that black kids need more white kids around them to perform better academically?

We can be assured that the the “neighborhood schools” argument will be tagged as retrograde. Indeed, for all practical purposes, it already has. But how about the black-kids-need-white-kids assumption? Isn’t that offensive, too?

Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, facing a tough re-election campaign, has made “Save Our Neighborhood Schools” a campaign issue. His district includes two white-majority elementary schools that would be merged with black-majority schools in a plan under consideration by the Richmond school system. Siblings would be split between schools, creating scheduling conflicts for parents, and fewer students would be able to walk and bike to school, he has argued.

Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams has likened the neighborhood-schools rallying cry to the rhetoric of whites resisting de-segregation in the 1970s. “Save Our Neighborhood Schools was to the 1970s,” he writes today, “what Massive Resistance was to the 1950s.”

Mary Munford and William Fox elementary schools, which are located in predominantly white neighborhoods in Richmond, are integrated. Fox has 36% minority students, according to the Schooldigger website, while Mary Munford has 27% minority students. But combining those two schools with two majority-black schools would bring all four institutions closer to a 50/50 balance.

In a post last week, I asked what was the ideal ratio of white kids in a school. No one seems interested in answering that question. The logic seems to be simply that segregated schools are bad. Calls for protecting “neighborhood” schools — assigning students to schools based upon which residentially segregated neighborhood they live in — has the effect of perpetuating school segregation. Segregation is bad, and integration is a moral imperative. That is a defensible perspective.

But the argument against neighborhood schools in Richmond goes beyond that. School Superintendent Jason Kamras says that “diverse” schools improve academic performance. The unstated converse of that argument is that segregated schools hurt academic performance. The question arises: What difference does the presence of white kids make? Do white students project an aura that benefits the black students around them? Does white-kid knowledge rub off on black kids? Alternatively, is Kamras suggesting that kids from more affluent families rub off positively on kids from poor families (even though he has cast the issue in terms of race, not socio-economic status)?

Sharif El-Mekki

Whatever the truth of such speculations, doesn’t anyone deem it racist to insinuate that black kids need to be around white kids in order to learn? Dunbar High School in segregated Washington, D.C., was famous for producing academically brilliant black graduates. Many observers have pointed to the superior performance of all-black student bodies in some charter schools. To quote Sharif El-Mekki, principal of one such school, “If you think excellence can’t exist in all-Black spaces, you are suffering from the internalization of white supremacy—whether you’re Black or White.”

To be totally clear, I am not advocating segregated schools! I am arguing that (1) black students don’t need whites around to succeed academically, and (2) it is wishful thinking to expect magical results from moving from a 65/35 white/minority ratio to a 50/50 white/minority ratio.

Rezoning is a distraction from what really ails Richmond schools. The fixation on racial balance stems from the recognition that the system is failing coupled with an unwillingness to grapple with the causes of that failure. Educators need to radically change their thinking on everything from pedagogy (whole-word reading? new math?) to school discipline (tolerating disruptive behavior) to creating the expectation that every student should pursue a college-preparatory curriculum. Not only is tinkering with racial ratios intellectually lazy, it is self-defeating if middle-class parents (white, black, or otherwise) relocate to Henrico or Chesterfield.

Misdiagnose the problem and then misdiagnose the cure. Apply the wrong cure and aggravate the problem. That seems to be the operational formula of the Richmond Public School system. And, so, the schools go from bad to worse.

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25 responses to “The Unstated Assumption in Richmond’s School Rezoning Proposal

  1. Jim,
    You keep raising this canard that it may be offensive to put white kids in mostly black school because it is somehow insulting. Look at the performance of mostly black schools and how they have been deprived for years. Michael Paul WIlliams is read right that this neighborhood schools crap stinks of old racism. (There, Reed, I said racism!)

  2. It’s been 50 years since separate-but-equal and Massive Resistance. Richmond spends significantly more money per student than either Henrico or Chesterfield, yet educational outcomes are demonstrably inferior — even when adjusted for the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. You are defending an indefensible status quo that will consign another generation of black children to failure. The silver lining, I guess, is that you can continue to feel morally superior.

  3. Woah! Morally superior? That’s a low blow

  4. Well put, Jim.
    In any event, to me the real question is: what is the critical mass of disruption in the proposed schools, having nothing to do with race per se. What does a student by student analysis of prior disruption in the classroom yield? Will any of the proposed schools cross into the critical mass of disruption that make any supposed rub- off effect irrelevant because no one is learning anything due to the disruption. If you compare New Trier high school in Winnetka with Harlan high school on the south side of Chicago, you will probably find that the critical mass of disruption at Harlan is much lower than at New Trier. Without knowing precise figures, I would guess that New Trier’s critical mass exceeds 50% while Harlan’s is closer to 5%. So what would be the critical mass for the proposed schools in Richmond. If you exceed this, I submit the school will fail.

    • No, NOT well put. The more kids you essentially abandon over discipline issues – the more these kids grow up to become wards of taxapayers or worse.

      Most schools these days DO HAVE ways to separated the distruptive student from the general student body despite the implications here in BR that they don’t and “disruptive” kids adversely affect the other kids academically.

      That’s a bunch of hogwash.

      Yes.. you can find schools that have problems – no question – but is this a problem across all schools – say in places like Fairfax or other districts.

      the phrase “restorative justice” has become one of those right wing narratives that they like to chew on these days but the reality is that the schools have a responsibility to do what they can to keep as many as they can in school and educating them despite those who want to denigrate and condemn the public school system. No private school is going to take these disruptive kids so what would you do with them ? Just put them on the street?

      • Virginia’s prisons are full of people abandoned by society. I’d like you to take two violent offenders into your home to help ease the pangs of pain caused by their abandonment. Sound good to you? Oh, they may be disruptive to your tranquil home? Oh …

        The idea that habitually disruptive kids don’t cause problems for non-disruptive kids is pretty absurd.

  5. And the traffic in pick up and drop off lines at the burgeoning private school beside our condo building goes up another notch next year…..maybe next semester.

    “The logic seems to be simply that segregated schools are bad.” In general, Jim, I deeply believe they are. But I don’t believe today’s RPS has segregated schools, not as you and I remember. It merely has a few remaining schools that are majority white (horrors!), and that will not be allowed henceforth. When ending that fails to improve outcomes, some other external excuse will be sought. The real solutions are too hard, too inwardly-focused.

    Sturtevant getting pounded by Williams is an easy prediction. Let’s see what his opponent does, however….I predict a more measured response there. The city precincts are less than 40 percent of the district. And Peter? I know you live in Chesterfield now, as I did when my children were in school. Shall I assume that when it mattered, you did have them in city schools?

  6. Once again, Richmond reinvents the wheel. There is a city a couple of hours north that has brought its urban, racially-divided school system back from the brink of disaster over several painful decades. Has Richmond even looked at the lessons learned, positive and negative, in that parallel universe?

  7. “If you think excellence can’t exist in all-Black spaces, you are suffering from the internalization of white supremacy—whether you’re Black or White.” A pretty profound statement, if you ask me.

    • Sounds like the Richmond School District administrators need to take a road trip to Walterboro, SC. That’s where they can find the Tuskegee Airman Memorial. Segregation is wrong but so is the belief that African-Americans need a good shot of whitey before they can succeed.

  8. Acbar. Of course not.

    • If you are speaking of DC, isn’t that where Kamras came from?

      • DC public school students: 15% non-hispanic white
        DC overall: 36.8% non-hispanic white

        Ballou High School (DC): 98% African American, 2% Latino
        Woodrow Wilson High School (DC): 34% white, 32% black, 22% hispanic / latino, 11% other

        Whatever progress DC public schools might have made it wasn’t through busing.

  9. It’s not really about race despite Jim’s continuing focus on it.

    It’s more about class, education and incomes in terms of how folks “group” into neighborhoods and the “better” schools in those higher income neighborhoods reflect those demographics.

    And those schools are resourced and configured to suit the parents wants for their kids and those schools tend to have wider scope instruction and programs – for instance well staffed and resources gifted child programs that poorer neighborhood school often do not have. The higher income parents lobby successfully for “more” .. for their neighborhood schools. Those parents also are willing to fund programs they want the schools say they cannot get funding for.

    https://edbuild.org/content/23-billion

    Jim keeps making this about race and “bad” government and school adminsitrations but across the country including in places like Henrico and Chesterfield – you can find this problem of poor verses richer neighborhoods and the schools that serve those neighborhoods.

    In North Carolina, one of the largest combined school systems in the country – Raleigh/Wade county has also been trying to doing this:

    https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/08/12/a-losing-fight-to-keep-schools-desegregated.html

    It doesn’t seem to do any good to highlight these things because Jim seems fixated on his racial , “bad school” perspective but the simple reality is that people tend to group into neighborhoods that fit their income levels – and the schools mirror the neigborhood demographics and the schools are not resourced the same. The lower income schools simply do not have the width and breadth of competent teachers nor the programs that the higher income neighborhood schools have.

    • Jim isn’t fixated on the racial aspects, the Richmond School System administrators are fixated on race. When they talk about de-segregation what do you think they mean?

  10. It’s not really about race despite Jim’s continuing focus on it.

    It’s more about class, education and incomes in terms of how folks “group” into neighborhoods and the “better” schools in those higher income neighborhoods reflect those demographics.

    And those schools are resourced and configured to suit the parents wants for their kids and those schools tend to have wider scope instruction and programs – for instance well staffed and resources gifted child programs that poorer neighborhood school often do not have. The higher income parents lobby successfully for “more” .. for their neighborhood schools. Those parents also are willing to fund programs they want the schools say they cannot get funding for.

    https://edbuild.org/content/23-billion

  11. Jim keeps making this about race and “bad” government and school adminsitrations but across the country including in places like Henrico and Chesterfield – you can find this problem of poor verses richer neighborhoods and the schools that serve those neighborhoods.

    In North Carolina, one of the largest combined school systems in the country – Raleigh/Wade county has also been trying to doing this:

    https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/08/12/a-losing-fight-to-keep-schools-desegregated.html

    It doesn’t seem to do any good to highlight these things because Jim seems fixated on his racial , “bad school” perspective but the simple reality is that people tend to group into neighborhoods that fit their income levels – and the schools mirror the neigborhood demographics and the schools are not resourced the same. The lower income schools simply do not have the width and breadth of competent teachers nor the programs that the higher income neighborhood schools have.

  12. As Jim mentioned, the core problem long identified, proven again and again, and raised here many times too, was first explained by Thomas Sowell in his essay found at https://www.tsowell.com/speducat.html

    This makes clear solutions lie in how students (any and all students) are taught, disciplined, and inspired in school. Fix this problem and success follows in its trained, no matter the make-up and mix of the kids in the class room.

    As Jim also says above: “Many observers have pointed to the superior performance of all-black student bodies in some charter schools. To quote Sharif El-Mekki, principal of one such school, “If you think excellence can’t exist in all-Black spaces, you are suffering from the internalization of white supremacy—whether you’re Black or White.”

    The key problem does not lie in the mix of kids in the classroom, it lies in how they are taught and supported in the classroom, and outside of it too.

    • I fear that, in this case of Richmond the idea of reintegrating schools, and breaking up neighborhood schools will do far more damage than good to all involved, for many reasons, chief among them is that it gives public school educators and administrators, and their politicians yet another excuse and opportunity to scapegoat their own failings, casting them onto the innocent, and thus allows the guilty to yet again avoid fixing the real problems that they have themselves caused, while at the same time harming yet more and more kids who all deserve real public education but are not getting it for political reasons, including loss of will, and for reasons of private self interests on the part of those who are failing to do their job.

  13. Thomas Sowell is not a legitimate voice on neither economics nor race. Sorry. Conservatives love him because he’s a black man speaking white guys views.

    The basic problem – the truth – the reality – is that people live in neighborhoods that more or less match their incomes and most with better incomes have higher level educations – and they are strong advocates for their kids (as they should be).

    They WANT a neighborhood school that they can effectively participate in how it operates – what kinds of teachers, what kinds of programs, etc AND they are willing (and able) to pay MORE for it and the school systems tend to do what those parents want rather than be the focus of their ire.

    There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with parents who want the best for their kids. It’s a good thing.

    Even parents at the lower end of the economic strata often care deeply for their kids also but those with poor education and lower-rung employment simply lack the resources to advocate as strongly for their kids and so those neighborhood schools typically are not staffed with top level teachers nor do they have as wide an assortment of programs and services – that’s the simple truth – and reflected in various studies about school funding.

    EVEN IF they get funding – they cannot attract higher quality teachers, guidance counselors, etc because they are not “assigned” – they basically decide WHERE they want to work – and most simply do not want to work at a school which has a lopsided population of at-risk kids because administrators who get heat – invariably need to find scapegoats and most teachers want no part of that (understandably).

    This is a problem. The original solution was integration – busing – on racial grounds – but people are opposed to that – they want their kids to go to a local school – and as long as we have neighborhoods bifurcated on income (and education levels) – this problem will not only not get fixed – it’s going to get worse and we’re going to be right back at separate – and in theory – equal schools (which we know are not).

    These at-risk kids in the sub-standard schools – grow up to be adults – who do not have good educations and do not have good jobs – and they end up living in the same lower-income neighborhoods sending their kids to the same sub-standard neighborhood school… and the cycle continues.

    I’m OKAY with BLAME – as long as it is accompanied by advocacy for changes – real changes – not just blaming people for being uneducated and poor or school systems who cannot find good teachers willing to go teach at “bad” schools.

    What do we do?

    Some of us just engage in endless blame games or even talk about how some kids just don’t have good genes and IQs… etc..

    If the “idea” of “mixing” kids from upper and lower income is not good and busing is not good – what’s the next thing to try? Walking away and blaming is not a solution.

    • You clearly don’t know what you are talking about regarding Thomas Sowell.

      Born dirt poor in Gastonia, NC Sowell was a trouble maker before he was drafted into the Marines. From there …

      Harvard (BA)
      Columbia University (MA)
      University of Chicago (PhD)

      Conservatives love him because he is conservative. Racist liberals disparage the man because he thinks for himself.

  14. Agreed. The blame and finger pointing is worthless. Analysis is useful only if it leads to efforts toward change. Jim’s “don’t blame us white guys” meme is getting old, but he is responding to an equally tiresome “yes, blame the white folks” theme from the other side. This rezoning proposal is a doomed to fail and likely to add to private school rolls.

    Somehow there needs to be a cultural shift, a deeper appreciation in homes, in the minds of students, that education does lead to a better life, it is worth the effort. And a recognition it takes effort. You don’t go to school and “get it” like a free lunch – you must do the work. The program I’m familiar with gets into challenged households when the children are infants, recognizing that parents are the first and best teachers. Frankly, by pre-school age 3, some bad patterns are set. But that “Parents As Teachers” effort is small, too small.

    This semi-permanent under-educated underclass is the single biggest economic and social challenge we face. Too many students are not prepared for skilled jobs with good salaries, let alone college. The real crime problems are highly concentrated in these high-poverty neighborhoods (ask Bolt). It’s a slow motion disaster, as the kids failing today were born 15-20 years ago, and we really need to concentrate our efforts at the youngest ages.

    • Good comment. This is backed up by Thomas Sowell research on achieving real results irrespective of skin color and integration, or lack thereof. Another big key is empowering kids to achieve on their own cultural literacy. Without that empowerment kids are doomed. Right now there is far far too little cultural literacy being learned in public schools because kids are not inspired to read and write, constantly, and prove results.

  15. Good LORD Steve – we are pretty much on the same page!

    re: ” This rezoning proposal is a doomed to fail and likely to add to private school rolls.”

    well it will for those that can afford it – and that will not be the middle class for most.

    re: “.. we really need to concentrate our efforts at the youngest ages.”

    totally agree – and THAT is the elementary schools – those neighborhood elementary schools… as long as we have low-income neighborhoods and send those kids to majority low-income neighborhood schools – we are continuing to operate the grinder that chews up kids and continues the generation cycles of poverty and Jim and his white guy legions will continue to “blame” and say it’s not their fault…

    We talk a lot about Richmond – I’d like to hear about Fairfax and their SOL scores – are they just like Richmond with the same terrible results?

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