Matt Barnum: The racist idea that changed American education
Matt Barnum is one of Chalkbeat’s top education reporters. In this long-form piece for Vix, he takes a look at the landmark SCOTUS decision in San Antonio ISD v. Rodriguez, influenced, Barnum argues, by a racist idea of the times and marking its 50th anniversary this week.
Maybe — most insidiously — poor children of color weren’t likely to succeed in school no matter how well-funded their schools. This idea was spreading, appearing in academic journals and publications like the Atlantic and the Washington Post. A New York Times news article from 1970 included this startling line: “In the case of a slum child,” it read, citing supposedly cutting-edge research, “his chances of learning to read were quite limited, even though large amounts of money might be devoted to his education.”
Fifty years ago this year, the Supreme Court cited some of that same research to rule against the Rodriguez family. The racist notion that children in poverty could not benefit from additional or even equal resources may well have influenced the court’s decision.
“The poor people have lost again, not only in Texas but in the United States, because we definitely need changes in the educational system,” Demetrio Rodriguez told one of the reporters that Alex recalls descending on their home. The media soon left, and Alex went back to the same underfunded school. “It was famous for a day or two — then that was it,” he says now.
Admittedly, the legal and practical merits of the Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez are complex and up for legitimate debate. In the long run, the ruling was not the devastating blow to funding equality efforts that many advocates feared. Funding gaps due to property taxes have narrowed or fully closed, in part because state courts stepped in after the Supreme Court stepped aside.
But that often took decades, and the decision had a lasting impact. It left multiple generations of low-income children, like Alex Rodriguez, in schools with lesser funding. This is particularly troubling because more recent evidence has found a meaningful link between spending and student success.
The notion that money wasn’t enough to educate Those Peoples’ Children was famously enshrined in a report headed by lead researcher James Coleman.
The study “produced the astounding proposition that the quality of the schools has only a trifling relation to achievement,” wrote politician and Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who evangelized the Coleman report, as it came to be known, in speeches and articles.
Coleman’s data set was unprecedented, but his methods for teasing out the impacts of funding on student outcomes were crude. He couldn’t follow individual students’ progress over time or isolate the effect of an infusion of funding. “Coleman’s analysis was not only wrong but generated misunderstandings that remain sadly pervasive today,” wrote Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby in a 2016 retrospective.
Nevertheless, the report soon picked up widespread attention: discussed at congressional hearings, written about in newspapers and magazines, and pored over by academics. It also drew notice because it came soon after the 1965 passage of Title I, the first major federal education funding stream and a key piece of Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.”
Coleman’s conclusion that families mattered more than schools seemed to bolster another high-profile report of the era: “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” written by Moynihan and published in 1965. This controversial analysis claimed that a rise in single parenthood was at the heart of a “tangle of pathology” among Black families. Moynihan said the point of the report was to spur government action to support low-income Black households. But some civil rights leaders condemned the report as shifting the blame for racial inequality onto Black people.
In 1969, this implication became explicit in an academic article published by University of California Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen. He claimed that IQ is nearly fixed at birth and that, therefore, extra funding for poor and Black children was doomed to fail because of what he viewed as their genetically low intelligence. This flagrantly racist argument was a sensation, garnering widespread press coverage. “Can Negroes learn the way Whites do?” was the headline in US News. “Born Dumb?” followed Newsweek. “Intelligence: Is there a racial difference?” asked Time magazine. The New York Times Magazine sympathetically profiled Jensen, describing his “severely trying moments” of being accused of racism.
There’s a lot to unpack in this article that Barnum has researched and laid out. You can read the whole piece here.