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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? Continue reading