I am privileged to live in a district with superb public schools. But, despite its proximity to some of the most affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and access to significant tax revenues,  this is also a school system, like so many others in the nation,  with a documented achievement gap between African American students and those of other backgrounds.  A group of parents who find that gap unacceptable and believe it to be a product of systematic discrimination have brought a lawsuit against the district.  (A request for a class action lawsuit ended with a judge’s denial in 2009, but a suit brought by eight families now moves ahead.)  These families and their supporters joined to form the non-profit Concerned Black Parents (CBP).

Things have improved in recent years, but the gap persists, according to CBP. Troubling patterns  remain:  Some African American students in the middle- and high schools of Lower Merion School District (LMSD) are finding themselves tracked into special education classes when they don’t need those interventions,  while too few black students are being enrolled in the advanced classes that would serve them well.  Disproportionately low percentages of black students in LMSD attend college.   Among those black LMSD students who do pursue post-secondary education, disproportionately high numbers head towards community colleges rather than four-year programs.  CBP also points out in a recent statement that:

…African Americans graduate from Lower Merion (too many through social promotions and special education) and go onto college only to face the prerequisite condition that they pass remediation courses for which they do not accumulate college credit.
* African American students also have a huge SAT score gap and a Grade Point Average gap, which stunts their acceptance to the schools their peers gain admission to.
* African American girls are outperforming African American boys. Ask why!

–Concerned Black Parents, Sept. 6,2011

Folks on both sides of the debate agree that a number of tireless and inventive LMSD teachers and administrators have worked hard to redress racial and other forms of discrimination in the district. Nearly everyone acknowledges welcome results of that work. Yet, those who support the discrimination lawsuit see a public school system that nonetheless regularly consigns minority students to “substandard education.”  Meanwhile, some other people in our township detect no such pattern. That group sees the lawsuit as unfounded and as a burden on taxpayers.   The term “resegregation” has empirical value for the first contingent, but in the eyes of the second it is uncalled for and inflammatory.  I have seen defenders of LMSD policies recoil from that word at more than one neighborhood gathering on the issue.

The legal complexities of this case are many and I am in no way qualified to parse those. But as a historian of race in American education, I want to talk about the multiple meanings that “equity” has lately assumed in our township. Mapping these meanings has helped me see why CBP pursues its suit, and why lawsuits around matters of race are still needed in our country.

Clearly,  those who defend the district don’t aim to promote racial discrimination. Yet,  I’m not sure we should assume that everyone involved in the dispute really does have the same endpoint in mind. I want to suggest that for some who speak for LMSD, some basic features of the system are working just fine;  they would say those aspects of the status quo require no reform.

Here’s what I’m thinking of:

Representatives of the district, not surprisingly, routinely offer counterarguments to the charges of discrimination.  Last week, as counsel for the plaintiffs made new documents available for public viewing, Doug Young,  Lower Merion School District’s  Information  Director, spoke to media outlets about the case.  Speaking to NBC Philadelphia, as reported by David Chang, Mr. Young suggested first that there is no systemic phenomenon to discuss:

The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.

To bolster that point, Mr. Young added that the district “utilize[s] multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.”  But we could ask: If discrepancies still exist in African American achievement within LMSD schools (which nobody involved in the matter denies), by what measure has the district determined these “criteria and methods” to be working? [My STS colleagues will now be nodding and saying to themselves: “The experimenter’s regress!”]

Next Mr. Young says:

Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District.

That claim proceeds from a deeply flawed premise: That critiques of  current racial discrimination constitute a denigration of  previous minority attainments. But in what way is a search for justice a denigration of others’ attainments? How are the purported “cause” and “effect” here even connected? One might just as easily say that the CBP parents’ lawsuit adds lustre to the attainments of successful African American students because it emphasizes the inequitable conditions those kids have overcome. (Though that too would be a facile and misleading claim.)

With that last quote, Mr. Young characterizes the motives of CBP and he does so with selective logic. In turn, he characterizes LMSD, also using selective logic. He indicates that test scores for black students in the district have risen in recent years, along with enrollment by African American students in the district’s AP and Honors classes.  Those are very welcome changes. But we learn, too, that “LMSD African American graduates are attending college at nearly twice the national rate (83% in 2011).”  I would ask: Why even measure the district’s inclusivity relative to national standards?  Why not against the goal of complete parity between minority and majority students in our district? Is our goal to end discrimination, or to deflect criticism?

Remember, too, that CBP specifies that among students who constitute that 83% we have black students attending community colleges in far higher proportions than do white college-going LMSD graduates. Perhaps Mr. Young wishes to highlight progress made by the district towards racial inclusion. But he sounds a self-congratulatory note in his assertion that, “the District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits.”

The impression given by Mr. Young here is that the district has understood the problem, and done enough to address discriminationin fact, done MORE than enough,  to the point where awards are deserved.  I can see how such apparent self-assurance could undermine CBP’s  faith in the district’s commitment to eliminating further educational inequities.  Can the district’s leaders and spokespeople instead persuade us that  they see the lingering achievement gap as entirely unacceptable, every last vestige of it?  Then we may be more confident that lawsuits are not needed because educational equity, not merely a relative lack of inequity,  is LMSD’s goal.