Battle of the Romney Plans

Consider the Detroit area, including suburbs like Sterling Heights, Grosse Pointe, and Warren, whose segregation presented such challenges to George when he was governor and then housing and urban development secretary.

Thirty percent of students in the Detroit area are now African American and 39 percent are “economically disadvantaged”—that is, eligible for free or subsidized lunches. In Detroit, 88 percent are African American and 85 percent lunch-eligible. Virtually all are from households with income of less than $22,000 a year for a family of four.

If by the Mitt method (school choice) or the George method (residential integration), students now living in Detroit were to attend schools where concentrated disadvantage did not overwhelm school capacity, each school in the area, including those in Detroit, might have about 30 percent African American and 39 percent lunch-eligible enrollment. Of course, no policy should aim for such a mechanically even distribution; these numbers suggest only how far we must go to desegregate Detroit schools.

On the north, Detroit is bordered by Warren; it, in turn, is bordered on the north by Sterling Heights. Detroit’s Pulaski Elementary-Middle School is just five blocks south of Detroit’s northern border; its attendance boundary runs along the Detroit–Warren line. Pulaski is now 98 percent African American and 79 percent economically disadvantaged. With low math and reading test scores, it is a school that politicians like Mitt Romney term “failing.”

If Mitt’s plan were enacted and Pulaski students could transfer outside Detroit, the closest school of choice would be McKinley Elementary in Warren, only a mile away. But as Detroit’s ghetto has expanded, the southern edge of Warren is now also heavily African American. McKinley is now 53 percent black and 91 percent lunch-eligible, with test scores not much better than Pulaski’s.

Transferring even more low-income black students from Pulaski to McKinley will not give those students integrated educations; rather, it will overwhelm McKinley’s faculty, already burdened with too many disadvantaged students, with more demands to compensate for low home literacy levels, more necessity to slow the curriculum, and more resources devoted to organizing social services, not instruction.

For integrated education, Pulaski students would have to transfer to schools in Warren’s north—to Wilkerson Elementary, for example, where just 6 percent of students are black and 35 percent economically disadvantaged. Test scores are at or above the state average in math, reading, writing, and science, and the state terms Wilkerson a “Blue Ribbon School.” Wilkerson’s enrollment could reach an area average of 30 percent African American if approximately 130 of Pulaski’s 450 elementary--level students were to transfer there. But Wilkerson is nearly 8 miles from Pulaski, involving one-way travel time of about 45 minutes, with students occasionally late in rush-hour traffic.

What if Pulaski students wished to transfer to the next suburb north, Sterling Heights? The closest option would be Margaret Black Elementary, more middle class than Pulaski, McKinley, or Wilkerson, with 13 percent of its students African American, only 22 percent lunch-eligible, and test scores above the state average. To increase black enrollment to 30 percent would require transfers of about 65 of Pulaski’s 450 students. Like Wilkerson, Margaret Black is about 8 miles from Pulaski and would also involve about 45 minutes’ travel time.

Even if students and parents were willing to endure these commutes, half of Pulaski’s students would remain segregated at Pulaski with even greater challenges than before. George’s commitment to integrate families, not only their children, was more reasonable.

Read more about Mitt Romney's education platform here.

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