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Rucker C. Johnson, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke virtually on Tuesday as part of the Racial Foundations of Public Policy series hosted by the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. The series features public policy experts from across the country in conversation with Celeste Watkins-Hayes, director of the Center for Racial Justice at the Ford School.

Johnson is a labor economist who focuses on the economics of education and the role of poverty and inequality on a person’s life. He was inducted as the Sir Arthur Lewis Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and as a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the National Academy of Education. He was also a 2017 recipient of the Andrew Carnegie Fellowship. Johnson has also been invited to give policy briefings in the White House and on Capitol Hill. 

Watkins-Hayes introduced the topic of education by connecting it to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that the pandemic has brought education into the public consciousness.

“In this moment of the pandemic, so many people have education at the top of (their) mind,” Watkins-Hayes said. “We have seen the health crises bleed into economic crises and evolve very quickly — within days in fact of the shutdowns of schools — into an education crisis.”

Johnson agreed and said the pandemic has unearthed problems that have been avoided in the past. 

“The COVID pandemic has both been an accelerator and a revealer of the cracks and inadequacies of the system,” Johnson said.

These inequities were evident in Washtenaw County as well as nationwide. During the early months of the pandemic, Black residents of Washtenaw County represented at one point 48% of COVID-19 hospitalizations, despite making up 12.4% of the entire county population. A study conducted by researchers at the Universityreleased in Jan. 2021 found that positive cases correlated with the county’s minority populations. 

Watkins-Hayes said effective public policy is needed to prevent the pandemic from having a long-lasting, “scarring” effect on a generation of students.  

“This idea of scarring effects is such an interesting concept,” Watkins-Hayes said. “This is a moment where we could see scarring effects as a result of COVID if we don’t seize the moment and take seriously the conversation around educational equity.”

Juliana Lew, Art & Design recruiting and admissions manager, attended the event because of their interest in anti-racism work in education policy, specifically as a staff member. They said the conversation of educational equity was the part of the event that stood out to them. 

“What I loved most of all was when we hear about education gaps or achievement gaps, we often approach it from a deficit mindset,” Lew said. “But our speakers today asked us to consider how we can repay that debt by allocating resources in a way that is more equitable. Rather than aiming for equal, we need to aim for equitable.”

Johnson said lower-income schools have a greater need for resources, and therefore equal distribution of resources may not actually lead to equal results. 

“Equal is not equal if concentrated poverty schools have much greater need due to higher concentration of English language learners, higher concentration of special needs, and the amount of money to deliver equal educational opportunity differs based on that concentrated need,” Johnson said. 

During the conversation, Johnson continually returned to the idea of housing discrimination as a primary cause of educational inequity. 

“Black and white families who are nearly identical in household income are often systematically in neighborhoods and schools that have completely different available resources,” Johnson said. “We see that there’s vast differences in neighborhood quality, that affluent Black households … whose incomes are above $70,000 generally on average live in neighborhoods with a higher average poverty rate than poor white households whose annual incomes are less than $40,000.”

Johnson talked about how the roots of housing discrimination go back to redlining policies from the 1960s. He connected these policies to the ways that neighborhoods, and consequently school districts,  are still systematically segregated.

“Black families pay more property taxes than white families with identically valuable homes, and yet they get worse schools for their money,” Johnson said. “That’s coming from the fact that the accumulation of wealth in predominantly white communities and the concentration of poverty in predominantly minority communities — it has been government-assisted.”

The main solution Johnson proposed was integration primarily through reformed federal housing policies. He said that it is easy for people to dismiss segregated neighborhoods as the result of market forces, when really they are a byproduct of government policy. 

“The question is, how do we think about how the hands-off approach that the federal government has increasingly taken in the past fifteen or twenty years to address school segregation,how has that produced consequences and therefore produced negative consequences?” Johnson said.

Toward the end of the discussion, Watkins-Hayes moderated a Q&A session fielding questions from the audience. In response to an audience member’s question about why integration was necessary if Black students could have positive learning experiences in segregated schools, Johnson said that “separate but equal” education opportunities are not possible. 

“Every even moderately segregated school has a huge Black/white, Hispanic/white, and poor/non-poor achievement gap — a large one,” Johnson said. “It pretends as if we would really invest in them equitably if they were separate. We’ve never done that. We’re not doing that now.”

Johnson said integration creates diversity that is an asset in schools for all students, not just racial minorities.

“We tend to think of integration as something that is benefitting only Black and Hispanic children from a resource and equity standpoint, not the way in which it’s actually affecting how all kids are learning about the value of diversity,” Johnson said.

Johnson said quality education should be a public good that is inclusive and diverse. 

“We have to restore the public education as a public good, as the public mission, rather than a commodity to be bought with money and political power,” Johnson said. 

Daily Staff Reporter Audrey Clayton can be reached at