Integration, Choice, and Power: An Interview with Mohammed Choudhury

School integration is making headlines again. On one extreme is Jefferson County, Alabama, where white parents sought to secede from the racially diverse district and create a new, segregated one. On the other, New York City sought to redesign the admissions criteria for selective schools to be more inclusive.

Some of the most exciting school integration work is taking place in San Antonio, Texas. While integration and choice are often pitted against one another, as we wrote recently, the San Antonio model is based on a blend of intentional integration and school choice. The 74 Million recently profiled the effort, and we sat down with Mohammed Choudhury, the effort’s chief architect, to better understand his approach.

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kaitlin Pennington: The conventional wisdom is that the integration efforts of the 1980s and early ‘90s were failed experiments. How do you respond to this common perception?

Photo courtesy of Mohammed Choudhury

Mohammed Choudhury: Right off the bat, it’s not true that integration did not work. Integration did work and was working. Were there problems with implementation? Sure. However, in the aggregate, it was working at scale and we gave it up to maintain the power structures of this country.

I would encourage folks to read and study that era more closely. You can pick up “Why Busing Failed” by Matthew Delmont. He did a fantastic job of outlining the narrative that was crafted about integration not working or it turning into busing problems, when the reality is that kids have been bused for a long time. When it became about kids with different skin colors coming to schools with better resources and access to opportunities, all of a sudden busing became a problem. It was a manufactured crisis of sorts to placate racism.

The period of meaningful integration was the only time in our country when we’ve significantly narrowed the achievement gap based on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. But then the courts backed away from integration enforcement and the gap widened again. So integration not working is a funny statement in my opinion. It seems to me that folks are just trying to be comfortable with rationalizing and maintaining the legacy of “separate but equal” in our country.

Max Marchitello: The problem of generating sufficient political will and courage seems central to addressing segregation. How have you succeeded in building that political will in San Antonio, not just within the school board, but in the community?

Choudhury: Political will-wise, I always say you have to talk about it. You have to confront it. I start talking about the data and why socioeconomic diversity and integration is a powerful academic strategy that has benefits for all kids. I always start with the fact that segregation is bad. It is unhealthy, economically and in the literal sense. It does not work and it has not worked. I lean forward with that; I don’t try to sneak it in or anything.

From there, you assess your conditions and the initiatives that you’re running in order to make decisions. Are you running school choice efforts? Do you have the power to reimagine and draw attendance boundaries? Are you entrusted to review and uphold them? And then ultimately you design and control for integration. For example, one way we are pursuing integration in San Antonio is by creating “diverse by design” school models. These allocate 50 percent of the seats for Title I students and the other 50 percent for non-Title I kids while also ensuring that our most historically disadvantaged communities receive priority access by looking beyond the Title I measure to assess need and the persistent effects of poverty. Through this approach, you can achieve meaningful levels of racial integration as well.

Pennington: In the past, court rulings forced districts to integrate, and now most of those have lapsed. So how does this work evolve? How does it scale? What’s the next phase?

Choudhury: There still is an important role for legal remedies to play in undoing government-sponsored segregation, which has lasted for decades and is well documented. Richard Rothstein perfectly outlines this in “The Color of Law.” People should continue to tackle and pursue comprehensive desegregation efforts in housing, and across other sectors, but especially around education. There are examples of this happening right now in Minnesota and New Jersey.

But we can’t wait for court cases or better housing policies to take root. We have to give our families who believe in the power of integration opportunities to enter willingly into desegregated learning environments. We have to create spaces in education where folks can put into practice their self-proclaimed progressive values.

That means building voluntary models of integration through school choice initiatives and making bold decisions to disrupt the artificial lines that have been drawn, such as attendance zones and school district boundaries that continue to mirror 1930s redlining and perpetuate segregated communities and hoarded opportunities. And the benefits go beyond student experiences in schools. We also create integrated relationships at the parent and adult level in which opportunities and power can be shared equitably. There is a major, unrealized community aspect to this work that has yet to be fulfilled in our country.

By expanding choice with equity guardrails in place, and offering options to families, we can find avenues to build integrated school models for those who want them — and scale them. I think at a certain point, you do reach a critical mass, and that ultimately has an important ripple effect.

At the same time, in San Antonio and Dallas, we are committed to doing education in high-poverty schools well. It is damn hard, but we are determined to pull it off and we are. For example, we’re showing that Dallas’s Accelerating Campus Excellence Initiative (ACE) is an amazing turnaround initiative in high-poverty, segregated communities where schools are beginning to outperform elementary schools in Highland Park, which is a very affluent school district right in the middle of Dallas. And in San Antonio, our master teachers are leading classrooms that are beginning to narrow the gap between historically marginalized subgroups and their affluent peers. While that is happening, we’re also disrupting the legacy of segregation by building socioeconomically and racially integrated learning environments and demonstrating what’s possible through them. We’re seeing kids that are in our integrated schools who come from segregated communities reaching proficiency levels at higher rates. They’re also demonstrating high levels of socioemotional learning competencies.

Marchitello: Kate and I are particularly interested in this tension around choice. At the national level, at least, we’ve seen a lot of folks discussing that integration is in opposition to choice, or that choice is in opposition to integration. And it is our view — and I think in San Antonio you have evidence — that choice can work towards the goal of increased integration. That these two efforts can be complementary rather than in competition. How would you argue against the idea that they are competing goals or competing strategies?

Choudhury: I’m going to give an answer that bothers both sides. I do not believe in unregulated choice. I believe in choice with guardrails. I believe in choice with equity conditions and frameworks in place, what some folks call “controlled choice.” For example, if you want to do private school vouchers, then provide enough money for a historically marginalized student stuck in a segregated, persistently failing school to cover the full cost of tuition at a high-quality private school. Let’s also have standards at those schools for assessments just like public schools so we know that all students are being served well. Let’s make sure kids who are living in block three or block four neighborhoods [a classification of disadvantage in San Antonio] can go into these so-called amazing private institutions that collect about $30,000 per pupil. Unregulated choice systems will exacerbate problems we are already facing.

We need to promote and create a kind of choice where schools choose all students and schools are worth being chosen by all. We have many schools with majority Title I students in gentrifying cities with dwindling enrollment across the country. We have them here in San Antonio. It is important that affluent families moving into these neighborhoods also opt into such schools. We need parents who have bought a house across the street from a high-poverty neighborhood school in San Antonio to put aside false stereotypes and choose these schools. I know it’s hard when it comes to their own children, but their students will be just fine. And this also involves the district working hard to bring in programmatic offerings that serve all students well.

For example, while I was in Dallas, we put in the International Baccalaureate program in one of our schools with a historically high Title I student population (in the high 70s). Since then, the Title percentage has dropped towards the low 60s. We had to decide if we let gentrification take over and watch the school makeup become more affluent because of housing policies that contribute to segregation; or if we freeze it to allow the disadvantaged families who are being displaced from their neighborhood maintain access to that opportunity now that it has become high quality – in part due to the resources of affluent families. We chose to freeze it to ensure that our schools, at minimum, would continually serve at least 50 percent or more Title 1 students.

And so my question then becomes, is the version of choice you are promoting just enabling privileged parents to opt out of a traditional, segregated-by-design public enterprise and leading to islands of affluence and furthering segregation? Too often the answer is yes. Controlled choice, thoughtful choice, sophisticated choice with guardrails — these are not the norm.

Marchitello: How might you institutionalize some of these structures or systems such that integration doesn’t depend upon pioneering parents opting in?

Choudhury: It’s a great question, but I don’t know if there can be any solution that does not rely on “pioneering” parents opting in and sharing their power and privileges. Unless we are willing to undertake a comprehensive set of progressive reforms in housing, healthcare, wealth accumulation, and such to radically disrupt the persistent, negative effects segregation has had in our country for historically marginalized groups, it will be quite dependent on the middle and upper classes and, frankly, white parents. Power, privilege, and resources have laid and continue to lay with them.

Let me be clear: the way to equalize education has nothing to do with a black kid sitting next to a white kid. Let’s stop getting that logic twisted. The Brown v. Board case was never about that. It has everything to do with a kid entering a school that holds the power and resources to serve them well and hold me, a district administrator, accountable for results. I understand that it can be hard to get people to understand that, because at the end of the day, they’re thinking about their own kids. But this cannot be the reason to give up on desegregation and fail to pursue the promises of Brown.

Our system is designed to produce and reproduce the outcomes we keep seeing. Segregation is by design. We either create the conditions to disrupt the outcomes we keep seeing or choose to uphold the status quo for our historically disadvantaged students.