A theme that comes up a lot in my book is the way powerful interests stoke fear around integration. It has happened over and over again in the last 200 years in Rochester. Many times it is transparently a matter of bigotry. Other times it’s an expedient means to a political end, including simply maintaining the status quo.
And then there are times like this week, when it’s not at all clear what the point of the fear-mongering is even supposed to be.
In Tuesday’s primary elections, Democrats in the Monroe County Legislature’s 17 District, encompassing parts of Irondequoit and northeast Rochester, had to choose between two candidates. Rachel Barnhart is an incumbent (though not in the 17th) with a reputation as an outspoken progressive. Allan Richards is more centrist and a longtime aide to state Assemblyman Harry Bronson. That proximity to power made it unsurprising, if not uncontroversial, that he received the endorsement of the Monroe County Democratic Committee (MCDC).
It was a pretty heated race; you could learn a lot about Democratic politics in the Rochester area by examining the different factors in play there. I’d like to focus on just one small bit of it: a late (arriving Wednesday) mailer the MCDC sent out urging people not to support Barnhart.
Halfway down the bulleted list of reasons not to vote for Barnhart, it says: “Supports a countywide school district, breaking up our local school districts and local school control.” As proof it shows an image of one of her old tweets where she says, “I’m all for countywide schools.”
(Barnhart subsequently expounded on her position in a series of tweets.)
There’s a whole chapter in my book on the idea of cross-district collaboration in education, including countywide schools. Given the demographic patterns in Monroe County and the last 50 years of Supreme Court precedent, there’s no way to get meaningfully integrated schools without either moving school district boundaries or poking some good-sized holes in them. Even putting race aside, it seems obvious that having 19 different school districts in a county with a 25-mile radius is not the most efficient use of all of our resources. People have been making that point since the invention of the suburbs.
The first of my three recommendations in the book is for “a comprehensive report on potential major metropolitan reforms in education and other areas, including the viability of a unified countywide school system.” No one likes to hear about commissioning studies; I get that. The reason it’s necessary in this case is that, without a clear factual foundation from which to consider any cross-district proposals, fear creates a powerful vacuum. Suburban parents in particular are extremely susceptible to threats about “breaking up our local school districts.” The MCDC knows that very well.
In the last year I’ve worked behind the scenes with some interested community leaders (not Barnhart) to get that study paid for and done. It hasn’t happened. This is just a background study, mind you, not a concrete action or even a plan for a concrete action. I can tell you with complete certainty that no one’s school district is getting broken up anytime soon. “Never going to happen,” as Malik Evans says in the book.
The Barnhart mailer, though, points at something even more disheartening.
The purported left wing of the local political establishment isn’t interested in talking about integration — fine.
But what is the purpose of further stoking people’s ill-founded fears around integration in a primary election for a seat in the County Legislature, which plays almost no role in education policy? When no one has even raised the question of countywide schools or anything approaching them, and when such a proposal would assuredly be dead on arrival even if it did come up? When there’s no Republican running in November, meaning the seat will stay Democratic regardless of who wins? And when the campaign mailer in question doesn’t even arrive in people’s mailboxes until after Election Day?
What is the purpose?
This is the only thing I can think of: that the idea of public education as a broadly distributed common good, shared in equally across race and class and political boundaries, strikes local Democratic leaders as so wildly remote that they see no reason not to exploit it for a few cheap scare points as the fifth bullet point on a throwaway mailer in an ultimately insignificant intraparty election. So wildly remote that even if — oops! — they don’t get the mailer to the post office in time, and the scare points hit the mark but the candidate still loses, as Richards did on Tuesday by a 26-point margin — still, they must think, it doesn’t really matter. No damage was done to anything they care about.
I wish powerful local interests like the MCDC and the Democratic-dominated state legislative delegation would take an interest in this topic, but they haven’t. I wish they’d at least have the good taste not to post sweet nothings on social media on the anniversary of Brown v. Board, but they don’t.
Maybe this is a bar low enough to clear in the future: Even if they’re not willing to work toward a vision of an integrated future for our community, I wish they’d stop recklessly making it harder for those who are.