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.”

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School Segregation, An Ever-Present Problem Across America

In the public mind, misconceptions about residential and school segregation abound. Despite what many believe, the Civil Rights Movement did not end school segregation. And neither is segregation today primarily a problem of the South. The 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley, the case set in metropolitan Detroit, undid much of the impact of Brown v. Board of Education by banning busing across school district jurisdictional lines. Whites simply moved to the suburbs, which maintained racial segregation through all sorts of economic measures like zoning out public housing and mandating lot sizes so large that poor people could not afford to build there.

Here is historian Thomas Sugrue from his giant 2008 history, Sweet Land of Liberty: “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest. A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools. The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South. Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city….” (p. xix)  “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference. It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined, limits the access of many minorities to employment opportunities, and leads to racial polarization in politics. Residential segregation has led to a concentration of poverty in urban areas…. (p. 540)

But what about the South, where school districts are more likely to be county-wide and where the courts and the federal Department of Justice enforced the eradication of what was known as de jure segregation—segregation that was explicitly defined by Jim Crow laws?  Two fine articles published this week explore the ongoing resegregation of schools in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama, where a white enclave is seceding from the Jefferson County school district. Emmanuel Felton’s The Department of Justice is Overseeing the Resegregation of American Schools, published jointly by the Hechinger Report and The Nation, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ NY Times Magazine report, The Resegregation of Jefferson County: What One Alabama Town’s Attempt to Secede from Its School District Tells Us About the Fragile Progress of Racial Integration in America, examine an effort by white parents to remake Gardendale, Alabama’s public schools into a small, largely white school district.

Hannah Jones explains that Gardendale’s parents were very savvy in the way the proceeded. They formed an advocacy group for secession—Focus—Future of Our Community Utilizing Schools.  Then they waited until the Jefferson County Schools passed a bond issue and rebuilt Gardendale High School into a state of the art facility before they made their move to break away: “In Alabama, any town of more than 5,000 residents can vote to form its own school system, and over they years, members of Focus watched covetously as the neighboring white communities did just that. Gardendale, too, had considered secession for two decades but was deterred when feasibility studies showed that the town of nearly 14,000 could not support an independent school system, partly because the tax base could not generate enough revenue to replace its old and sagging high school. Gardendale lobbied Jefferson County to build a new multimillion-dollar high school, which opened in 2010, within the town’s limits.”

Felton describes the protests of white parents, who claimed in court that their proposed secession from Jefferson County Schools had nothing to do with race: “‘The media has twisted and turned this issue to make everyone think this is about race,’ said Chris Orazine, a white Gardendale dad. ‘The people who live in this community and love this community know that nothing is further from the truth.’… Speaker after speaker complained about how the city had been portrayed. This wasn’t about race, they insisted, but about doing what was best for ‘our’ children.”

Considering that Jefferson County is still under a federal court order to eliminate segregation, how can Gardendale be openly attempting to resegregate?  Hannah-Jones explains: “It was, to a large degree, the geographic organization of Southern states that made court-ordered school desegregation there successful. Unlike the North, where metropolitan areas often include several independent school systems, the South tended toward single, countywide school systems that served cities, suburbs and rural areas.  That meant that judges could order school desegregation across municipal borders and between black and white towns, and thus most white families seeking to avoid desegregation in the South could not simply pick up and move across an invisible line to a white community with a white public-school system… Or, in Alabama, they could leave.  In reaction to the Brown ruling, Alabama passed its school secession law, and in 1959, Mountain Brook, an all-white, wealthy Birmingham suburb, withdrew from the Jefferson County school district.”  Other school districts stayed in the county system until 1969, when a lawsuit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund forced the rezoning of the county schools under court order.

“(W)hat makes the Jefferson County case unique,” writes Felton, “is the federal government’s power to stop it…. That’s because Jefferson County is one of just 176 school districts, out of the 13,500 across the nation, that are still under federal oversight to make sure they’re keeping their promise to fully eliminate all vestiges of Jim Crow.  Yet six decades after Brown, federal judges and officials rarely check to see if districts are obeying their orders to desegregate—and in many cases, schools in districts with a history of discrimination against black children have actually grown more segregated under federal supervision.  And when the judges do step in, they’ve often sided with the districts where school segregation is getting worse.”  Felton describes the Department of Justice as lax in enforcement—“While Obama’s Justice Department racked up wins in dozens of cases, including a high-profile case in Cleveland, Mississippi, officials in many districts with segregated schools report that they hadn’t heard from either the Justice Department or the courts during Obama’s tenure. Many of the 176 outstanding cases have been in a state of suspended animation for years, if not decades.”

In April, federal judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, an Obama appointee, allowed Gardendale to secede despite that her decision named race as among the reasons white parents had sought a separate district. Felton writes: “In April, she ruled that Gardendale could break away.”  But her decision was slightly nuanced: “Gardendale would start with two elementary schools and would have to work in ‘good faith’ to earn the middle and high schools.”

Hannah-Jones describes Haikala’s requirements for Gardendale to act in “good faith”: “Haikala had, despite her finding of intentional discrimination, decided to give Gardendale ownership over the county’s two elementary schools located in Gardendale for the coming school year. In order to do so, she required the appointment of a black school-board member and for Gardendale to work with the plaintiffs and the Justice Department to come up with a desegregation plan to govern the new district. Gardendale would also either have to relinquish the high school that Jefferson County residents had paid for and that served students from several other communities or repay the county $33 million for the school. After doing that and then operating the two schools ‘in good faith’ for three years, Haikala said she would reconsider their motion for a full separation.”

Hannah-Jones concludes: “What the Gardendale case demonstrates with unusual clarity is that changes in the law have not changed the hearts of many white Americans.”  These articles—Felton’s  and Hannah-Jones’—are worth reading together. They are a sobering update on America’s long struggle with racism and the unresolved and very current issue of school segregation which is always accompanied by educational inequity. Quality education is supposed to be a right for all of our children, but we are a long way from having achieved justice.