A wide performance gap between white students and black students has persisted in D.C. public schools for generations. Lawmakers can help close this gap today, and at the same time, erase any remaining vestiges of a problem created by their brethren decades ago.
The gap should also be called an “opportunity” gap, not just a performance gap, and federal officials must be part of the solution in the District.
The nation’s capital is one of many urban areas for which federal bureaucrats drew “red lines” on maps in the early 20th century, denoting less desirable places to live.
The federal Home Owners Loan Corporation and Federal Housing Administration based these decisions on poverty levels and, yes, racial makeup. (This was during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, an era when racial segregation still plagued American life.) Real estate developers, bankers and HOLC would not build in redlined areas or lend to families who moved there.
Americans have resoundingly rejected segregation both legally and culturally since then, and America is not systemically racist today. But the effects of redlining still affect families’ education opportunities.
At the FHA, it was more than an article of faith; it was a policy that neighborhoods would be undesirable destinations for homebuyers if their schools drew students from disadvantaged backgrounds, a concept that contained more than a hint of racial prejudice. The FHA’s underwriting manual from 1938 explicitly stated that if students from low-income homes are concentrated in certain schools, “the neighborhood under consideration will prove far less stable and desirable.”
Jude Schwalbach’s report for The Heritage Foundation explains that the similarity between the FHA’s map from the 1930s that ranked District neighborhoods and the boundaries of failing public schools is unmistakable — and sad.
Public schools do not become low-performing overnight. The system of school assignment according to ZIP code siphons children from poor areas and disadvantaged backgrounds, descriptors that, “thanks” to redlining, often overlap with racial minorities, into assigned schools that can produce poor outcomes for years with no consequences for school officials.
What can Congress do about this? Lawmakers should continue a process begun many years ago in Washington to separate housing and education. District leaders allow students to enter a lottery to choose a public school, but not every child will find a seat in a high-performing school.
Some of the most valuable learning options that would disconnect housing and education have been stifled — by politically powerful special-interest groups and political headwinds for years.
Just 1,800 students have access to K-12 private school scholarships through the District’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, and these students’ families must routinely fight for the scholarships’ very existence.
Left-leaning lawmakers, supported by teachers unions, routinely try to defund the scholarships. And even though nearly half of District public-school students attend charter schools, city officials have blocked charter operators from using facilities that traditional schools have left vacant.
To undo the lingering problems from “education redlining,” federal lawmakers and city leaders should make D.C. an all-choice district. Every family should be empowered to apply for private school scholarships, and these scholarships should allow students to choose from different learning options such as personal tutors and even transportation expenses for going to and from school.
Charter school operators should be able to bid on empty public buildings — and city officials should expedite this process. The District’s open enrollment law that allows students to apply for public schools across school boundaries is a good start, but more public and private options are necessary for those students who cannot find a seat in high-performing traditional schools.
With or without the remaining effects from education redlining, lawmakers must stop assigning students to persistently failing schools. By disconnecting housing and education, lawmakers can unleash the potential of the next generation of District children.
• Jonathan Butcher is the Will Skillman fellow in education policy at The Heritage Foundation and the author of “Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth.”