School Segregation Persists Across the States: Public Schools and Charter Schools, North and South

It is hard for me to write about school integration. As white parents, my husband and I made the choice to educate our own children in a racially integrated, majority African American public school district, and we believe the setting where they went to school was a valuable and essential part of their education. But I know that for personal reasons, many white and African American parents make a different decision, and it’s been clear to me for a long time that our decision was, quite simply, our own decision.

It is a little easier to think about racial and economic integration of schools from a public policy point of view. Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist, has been showing for years now (here and here) that our society is resegregating economically, and that that segregation is hurting the educational opportunities of students who are increasingly concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. Much of the educational inequality that accompanies racial and economic segregation directly results from the unequal funding associated with wealth and power. Racial and economic segregation are wound together in most places, and when local, state, and federal funding are combined, our society spends far more on the education of our nation’s highest-income children. The money buys smaller classes, more counselors, more music programs, and an enriched curriculum.

In their new report on the privatization of public schools, the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Network for Public Education present a profound endorsement of racially, ethnically and economically integrated public education: “The required inclusivity of the public school setting provides more opportunity for students to learn in culturally, racially, and socioeconomically integrated classrooms and schools, and that promotes a variety of social-emotional and civic benefits for students.  At a time when there seems to be more emphasis on community divisions in our social and political settings, attending a public school can provide students with more opportunities to encourage relationships and friendships across group lines, thus eliminating false barriers of separation. And yet our nation has embarked on a troubling course that steers us toward school privatization, exclusivity and division.”

The contribution of school privatization to the racial segregation of children at school is the subject of Emmanuel Felton’s profound report for the Hechinger Report and NBC News. Felton describes the mostly white Lake Oconee Academy charter school in Greene County, Georgia: “At Lake Oconee Academy, 73 percent of students are white. Down the road at Greene Country’s other public schools, 12 percent of students are white and 68 percent are black…. In all, there are at least 747 public charter schools around the country that enroll a higher percentage of white students than any of the traditional public schools in the school districts where they are located.  The differences between the charters and the whitest nearby public schools ranged from less than 1 percent to 78 percent.”

So, how did Lake Oconee Academy charter school make itself into a publicly funded segregation academy? “In its early years, Lake Oconee Academy created a priority attendance zone for the gated communities that surround it. This is legal in several states, allowing charters to pick the neighborhoods they want to serve. While these schools usually hold randomized admissions lotteries open to everyone in their school districts, families in preferred attendance zones get first dibs… The case of Lake Oconee Academy doesn’t just illustrate how charter schools can segregate a community, it also underscores how charters can give well-connected individuals outsize influence on local schools. The charter was the creation of a real estate development company that is also the county’s largest employer, Reynolds Lake Oconee. Company officials and their allies sit on many of the county’s most important boards.”  While the school does set aside some places for children who don’t live in its economically exclusive attendance zone, at Lake Oconee, there are other disincentives for families without resources to invest in their children. The school requires uniforms purchased from Land’s End.  And it does not offer any kind of transportation to school; parents have to drive their children—a burden for parents whose work schedules make it difficult to provide school transportation.

Felton concludes: “The proliferation of racially identifiable white charters in some states but not others can be attributed in part to differences in state laws. In addition to allowing charters to draw their own attendance zones, Georgia doesn’t require charter schools to provide school bus transportation. The four states with the most racially identifiable white charters—Michigan, Arizona, Texas and California—also don’t require charters to offer transportation or to address the issue in their charter applications. And in North Carolina, which had six such charter schools in 2015, lawmakers have discussed allowing charters to give priority to children whose parents work at corporations that have contributed at least $50,000 to the school.  In June, lawmakers passed a bill that lets four mostly white and affluent Charlotte suburbs open up charter schools that would give preference to their residents.”

School segregation is not by any means limited to charter schools. Nor is segregation limited to the South or to Republican all-Red states like Michigan and Arizona. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a report identifying New York as the state with the most racially segregated schools in the United States: “New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.”

The news has been filled this month with stories about racial segregation in New York’s exclusive specialized high schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio has now pledged to address the problem, but even in New York, doing something about racial segregation is a tough problem. The New York Times addressed the shortage of black and Latino students in New York City’s elite high schools in an editorial on Monday: “Opposition has been swift and fierce, much of it from alumni of the specialized schools, who have said the mayor’s plan would somehow lower the quality of education or ‘set kids up for failure.’ The very intensity of the response underscores how formative an experience it is to attend a specialized high school—an experience that for years has been unfairly denied so many black and Latino New Yorkers.”

Here are the stunning and deplorable statistics: “Black and Latino students make up nearly two-thirds of the city’s 1.1 million school children. Yet, of the 5,067 offers of admission to specialized schools this year, 51.7 percent went to Asian students and 26.5 percent to white students.  Latino and black students received 6.3 and 4.1 percent of the offers respectively. At Stuyvesant, the most sought-after of the schools, just 10 of the 902 students offered admission were black.”  The Times Editorial Board continues: “New York’s elementary and middle schools do not prepare children for the test, all but ensuring that students seek out extensive test preparation.  Many Asian and white students have done so for thousands of dollars apiece. Black and Latino students are likely to walk in with little or no test preparation.”

In 1971, the state legislature established in a state law known as Hecht-Calandra that students would be chosen for New York City’s specialized high schools based on scores on a single test, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Even now as Mayor de Blasio has proposed expanding the admissions criteria: “Perhaps the biggest challenge to the mayor’s full plan is political, since it will require overturning Hecht-Calandra. That would take forceful lobbying from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has so far signaled only lukewarm support.”

Mayor de Blasio has suggested a plan clearly based on academic merit. It is hard to believe his idea would be controversial: “Mayor de Blasio has vowed to replace the test with a system, to be phased in over three years, that would eventually admit the top 7 percent of students from every middle school, based on a combination of grades and performance on state exams. City officials say that if the plan is implemented, the specialized high schools would be about 45 percent black and Latino.”

Dante de Blasio, the mayor’s biracial son and a graduate of one of New York’s specialized high schools, Brooklyn Tech, just had an opinion piece published in the New York Daily News on the subject of racial segregation in New York’s elite high schools. Now a rising senior at Yale University, Dante de Blasio writes about his experience as a black student in a school where he was in the minority: “When I went to Tech, it was clear that people were missing. Fort Greene, the neighborhood that houses the school, is majority black and Latino, and I remember the constant discontinuity of walking through this neighborhood of black faces in order to enter a school where hardly anyone looked like me… Let me tell you what I appreciated most about Brooklyn Tech. The school takes people from all across the city—many of them from immigrant backgrounds and who will be the first in their families to go to college—and offers them a quality of education that many public schools can’t. But the way these schools choose students is offering them another education: a distorted lesson in who belongs in the upper reaches of education in this nation, and who does not.”


5 thoughts on “School Segregation Persists Across the States: Public Schools and Charter Schools, North and South

  1. Thank you for this stunning and painful piece.
    I become angry, sad, and hopeless until i remind myself that the ugly facts don’t entirely sum up the great work that people do every day to create a ‘new society in the shell of the old,’ that is, a more human society with deep feeling, thought, and connection to one another, both structurally and personally, across race, economics, and other differences.
    We need your detailed analyses for clarity of the disaster we have created, and for a way out.
    Just as Michelle Alexander in her book, ‘The New Jim Crow’ painfully articulated the direct line from Slavery to Jim Crow to Mass Incarceration. And public education segregation is part and parcel of that same sick Crow.
    The nature of ‘white supremacy’ (or what i call ‘white capitalism’) is that it can’t bear real integration, black and white, rich and poor, real difference (and dissent). So, it finds ‘a work-around’. That is the nature of all laws: they have loopholes, intended or not, so you can still have your cake and eat it, too, a la Marie Antoinette, until the whole bizarre system self-destructs.
    So, the ugly starting point is that race (and economics and violence) are the core practices (though not the only ones) of the USA from its origins.
    (The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulates, in his speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, how the South elite made race an economic impoverishment method for not just black people, but for the poor white Southerner. King notes the three corollaries of these destroying forces of America as ‘racism, materialism, militarism’.
    I wish you had also noted that schools are now generally more segregated today than they were before the great desegregation efforts of the 1950s-1970s, though that is clearly implied in your piece.
    The suppressed issue in all of this education talk is ‘what is the education we are talking about’: elite education (or the supposed ‘high quality education’) is often enough a sophisticated denial of ‘feeling’, a disconnection from the natural world, in which the intelligence is submerged into the same ‘white capitalism’, suppressing a moral compass and ‘feeling’ connection to the world, both to the natural world and others. David Orr, the Oberlin professor, has covered this issue well, He often cites Wendell Berry whose book, The Hidden Wound, is the best book written about race and the environmental crisis, by a ‘white’ Southerner.
    It is dangerous for the humanity of any person of color, white, black, or other, to assimilate to this ‘white capitalism’ which US education is so much about!
    Finally, i would highlight the new Atlantic article, ‘the 9.9 percent is the New American Aristocracy’.
    We need a ‘revolution of the heart’ as Dorothy Day said.
    I believe people have the heart. We need leaders to do their part and we need each of us do ours. It is not noble; it is simply human.

  2. “…offering them another education: a distorted lesson in who belongs in the upper reaches of education in this nation, and who does not.” This message was just on the news last night, I think on the PBS newshour, with a report about America’s ‘top 9.9 percent.’ Privileged people moving toward the have and have not physical separations which come with tightly gated communities and ever more segregated schools.

  3. Yesterday, I went to the gym and there was a young black man wearing a shirt which said, “I prefer black people.” I kept glancing at him because it seemed so narrow minded. If I had ever worn a shirt like that, I would be in trouble. I don’t even think like that. I wait to see how people treat one another.

  4. Thank you for such an eye-opening piece about public school segregation. I have worked in both public and public-charter schools in CT, where the segregation seems to be of a different source. From my perspective, most CT charters were started with the intention of giving under-served communities a leg-up. Most CT charters serve non-white students (I worked at a charter middle school in Bridgeport, CT with a 3% white population), but the laws do not allow them to select their neighborhoods. I now work at a public school in New Haven, CT (just 30 minutes from Bridgeport), where the demographics are nearly identical. However, just 10 minutes from my neighborhood public school, in the more affluent area of the city, the population completely switches to over 50% white students. I often grapple with my place in this unbalanced society. I am a white female, and am passionate about working toward educational equity. However, in a school with a majority white teachers but minority white students, I can’t help but wonder the impact this imbalance has on the students.

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