Our therapy dog, and addressing resegregation of schools

by Rob Tiller

Sally and Mowgli at graduation. Photo by Susan Foote.

This week Sally and Mowgli (Gabe’s dog, and our granddog, a/k/a Mo) completed their  therapy dog training. They’re now qualified to visit various kinds of institutions (like assisted living facilities, hospitals, and schools) and offer residents the comfort of doing some petting.  Getting qualified as a therapy dog team has taken a full year and many hours of individual training. They passed the final exam with flying colors! I can personally attest that petting Mo is very comforting, and I’m glad he and Sally can now share that gift with others.

This week there was a big protest in downtown Raleigh by North Carolina public school teachers, and I got to see them from our offices as they marched up Fayetteville Street towards the legislature.  I read later that there were over 20,000. The march had a festive air, but of course, they’ve got some serious issues.

As a product myself of N.C. public schools, I’m forever grateful to several teachers who took a particular interest in me and helped me along the way.  It’s been painful, and also puzzling, to see teachers caught in the crossfire as our legislature here has significantly cut funding for our public schools.  See some of the background here and here.  

Teachers here and also in other states have been doing poorly in terms of pay and working conditions.  A lot of them who started with an ideal of public service leave the profession in frustration, and potential teachers choose better paid and respected professions.  It’s a vicious cycle that’s been worsening our schools. What is going on?

I’ve long assumed that Republicans and Democrats, and others, by and large agree  on the fundamental importance of public education and the moral imperative to provide a decent education to every child.  This seems foundational — a primary purpose of our democracy, and a primary force in sustaining a fair and prosperous society.  

It’s becoming clear, however, that that’s not as well settled as I thought.  The anti-public-education movement has no publicly declared objective. But there is a movement that has worked quietly for decades to undermine public schools.  It has manifested itself in various relatively benign-sounding programs– vouchers, charter schools, tax subsidies for private schools, promoting religious schools, promoting home-schooling — as well as school budget cuts at the federal, state, and local level.

One can come up with innocent-sounding explanations for some of these measures, but viewed in the context of U.S. history — that is, of hundreds of years of discrimination against blacks — there’s an unmistakable pattern.  A lot of it has to do with race. Our schools are being resegregated, with programs that encourage whites to leave the public schools and fewer and fewer resources for students left in the public schools.

Nationwide, public schools have become substantially more segregated in the last 20 years, and that pattern holds in North Carolina.     This has puzzled many, since segregation is illegal, and there have been many successful efforts at school desegregation.  We’ve largely quit using references to race in the context of education, which might have suggested we’d overcome the worst of our racial prejudices.

Recent scholarship and recent politics shows that stopping the conversation about race was premature.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, makes a convincing demonstration of official anti-black discrimination in housing policy.  Through most of the 20th century, not only was it legal to discriminate against black people, but there were laws that effectively required it. Mortgage lending to blacks and building integrated neighborhoods was effectively prohibited.  As part of this system, white people were encouraged by financial incentives and fear mongering to move out of racially mixed inner cities and into whites-only suburbs.

The civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties was successful in stopping this legalized discrimination, but it did not eliminate the conditions it created, including segregated neighborhoods and racist ideologies.  The emergence of the Alt Right and other unapologetic proponents of white supremacy demonstrates that racist views were not defeated, and are still salient for some people. The election of a President who expresses sympathy for “some very fine people” in the Neo-Nazi ranks suggests a fairly large iceberg of latent white supremacist aspirations and racial fears.

Something has happened in our schools that resembles what happened in our housing.  By defunding public schools, governmental policies have worsened the conditions of those schools and lowered the quality of the education provided.  Parents who want the best quality education for their children may try to support the public schools, but at a certain point most will decide that the education of their own children is for them the most important thing.  So they put their kids in private schools or charter schools. Increasingly, the kids who are left in public schools are those whose parents have no other options.

This dynamic has been mostly under the radar.  It’s hard to see from up close, and even from a distance it’s complicated, with multiple elements.  Those most affected are those with the least political power. Those most in favor of it, whether because of beliefs in white supremacy, fear and hatred of blacks, or designs to profit directly or indirectly from private schools, are canny enough to keep quiet about their true objectives.   

There are very interesting parallels between what is happening today and the immediate aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision.  In 1956, North Carolina opposed desegregation with the Pearsall Plan, which allowed local districts to close schools that became integrated and provided for vouchers for white students to leave the public schools.    The Pearsall Plan was declared unconstitutional — but not until 1969.  Our current Republican-led anti-public-schools program looks like a slow motion version of the Pearsall Plan.  We may need to fight that same battle again, in much the way the victors of the Civil War had to fight another hundred years for basic civil rights.  

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, and the Republican anti-public-schools programs has nothing to do with getting white kids separated from black kids and providing the worst services to the black kids. There’s an easy way to test that: ask your Republican representative what programs he or she favors to promote integrated schools, and what measures he or she is taking to improve program support and funding for majority black schools.  

I still think we’ve made progress toward racial equality, and I still believe we’ll eventually put white supremacy behind us.  And of course, the resegregationist project has not been completely successful — there are still good public school teachers and successful integrated schools.  But we need to stop this heartless, racist project and start moving in the right direction. Kudos for the public school teachers in N.C. and elsewhere who are marching.  More of us should be joining the parade.