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Final Report to the Long Island Index


If ever there were any doubt that Long Island, New York, is home to some of the most fragmented, segregated and unequal school districts in the United States, the January 2009 Long Island Index Report, provides ample evidence that this is indeed the case. The quantifiable inequities across the 125 school districts on Long Island in terms of funding, demographics, and student outcomes highlighted in that report portray how important district boundary lines are, even within relatively small geographic spaces. Building on the Index’s presentation of quantitative data, this report offers a more in‐depth examination of district‐level disparities and what they mean in the lives of students, educators and parents across these boundary lines. Although the spatial separation of students across district boundaries has not been the central ‐‐ or even peripheral –focusof education policymakers for the last three decades, we argue that the social science evidence on the consequences of such separation warrants a renewed consideration of these issues. Indeed, in the current era of education reform, with its strong emphasis on standards, accountabilityandmarket‐based policies, little attention has been paid to the relationship between place and opportunity or the way in which “place” is circumscribed by race/ethnicity and poverty to profoundly affect students’ educational experiences. Furthermore, even as the policy gaze has drifted away from these issues, research evidence is mounting that separate can never be equal in public education because of the tight connection between public schools and their larger contexts. This is particularly the case when those larger contexts are restricted by boundaries that demarcate different property values, tax rates, public revenues, private resources, working conditions, family income and wealth, parental educational levels and political clout. All of these factors, which are both internal and external to the schools themselves, profoundly affect the day‐to‐day experiences of children. As a result, we cannot lose sight of why we care about issues of segregation by race/ethnicity or socio‐economic status, particularly as the school‐age population in this country becomes increasingly diverse and as more African American, Latino and immigrant families migrate from cities to the suburbs. Arguments for turning our backs on the problems of segregation and the inequality it perpetuates and focusing instead on how to educate children to high standards “where they are” – be that in all‐black and Latino schools with high levels of poverty or in predominantly white and/or Asian schools with high concentrations of wealth – resonate with current conceptions of what is “wrong” with public education and how we can fix it. This report attempts to build a bridge between the plethora of data documenting the high degree of segregation and inequality in places like Long Island and our nation’s collective understanding of the “problems” facing public education today. We do this by bringing the voices of more than 75 Long Islanders into the discussion and dialogue about public education and what it looks and feels like across school district dividing lines of race, ethnicity, and class. What we hear in these voices – whether they are privileged, affluent white students in a low‐needs district or educators struggling to provide an “adequate” education for the poorest students of color in a high‐needs district – is how the separateness defines them and their educational opportunities. We have learned that school district boundaries in places like Long Island matter a great deal to the students and educators who toil within them each day and to the parents and other property owners who purchase homes in a housing market that is partly defined by their existence. The strong relationship between the disparate educational experiences of children whose schools and opportunities are divided by these boundaries and the unequal values of the property their parents purchase is perhaps the single most important challenge to the so‐called American Dream that we can document. The fact that these disparities are so starkly defined by race/ethnicity and social class should give us pause in a country that likes to think of itself as “post‐racial” and “colorblind.” This report documents the multiple ways in which place and race/ethnicity matter in terms of students’ educational opportunities, and how the two combined and intertwined as they are today in districts, schools and classrooms, define students’ and educators’ sense of possibility and self‐worth in a manner unlikely to ever be undone. These deep‐seated messages become ingrained in the students’ identities and in the reputations of their schools, districts and communities – allowing a self‐fulfilling prophecy to play itself out as students matriculate through the educational system with starkly different opportunities, outcomes and connections to higher education. These ingrained differences in identities and reputations, then, become part of the everyday common sense that legitimizes the current fragmented and segregated system. In a vicious cycle, the resulting inequality becomes, for those on the more affluent and privileged side of the divide, the ammunition for their resistance to change the boundaries or even to allow students to cross them. These complex issues are only understood through the kind of qualitative data that this research brings to bear on the subject of school district fragmentation and segregation. Through the eyes of Long Islanders in five disparate school districts we can see these connections and relationships. This analysis, therefore, helps us understand why ‐‐ despite survey data from Long Island showing members of all racial/ethnic groups state that something should be done to break down the barriers across district boundaries ‐‐ those with the most power and privilege preserve the boundaries around their school districts and thus around other districts as well (The Long Island Index, 2009). This form of double consciousness ‐‐ bemoaning inequality while perpetuating the insidious system that maintains it – represents the 21st Century’s version of the American Dilemma (see DuBois, 2003; Myrdal, 1946).

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