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.

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Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here

Last fall, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, published The Making of Ferguson in the American Prospect.  Now after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, Rothstein has posted a new summary of government policies that have, over the past century, created tragic conditions in America’s big cities, the kind of conditions that lead to rioting as an expression of widespread anger and despair.

In From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation, Rothstein writes, “Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on.  These are all good, necessary, and important things to do.  But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.”

Rothstein quotes from the report of the 1968 Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to explore the deeper causes of rioting that arose from protests, again in the context of police brutality.  The Kerner Commission concluded that, “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  Rothstein, however, is more specific, attributing the concentrated poverty, segregation and inequality apparent across America’s big cities to government policies, not an accidental convergence of private choices.  The fact that such policies have been systemic is why we are seeing angry protests and rioting in so many places.  “When the Kerner Commission blamed ‘white society’ and ‘white institutions,’ it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time.  It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished and separately from whites.  Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.”

In his examination of Baltimore, Rothstein cites formal policies going back to 1910, policies that have included building and health regulations combined with government sanctioned policies of real estate companies, the adoption of restrictive protective covenants that specified who could not purchase homes in particular neighborhoods, the barring of African Americans from qualification for Federal Housing Administration loans, insurance redlining practices, the implications of punitive contract home sales for African Americans, and most recently the targeting of African American buyers by those marketing subprime loans, a practice that has led to much higher rates of foreclosures in black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland.  For all these reasons that have made it harder for blacks to purchase homes—the primary asset by which families build long term equity—Rothstein reports that today “black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth.”

So what does all this have to do with public education, the subject of this blog?  Just this week Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren released a study (not yet published at a site which can be linked) that re-analyzed older data that had seemed to show that moving away from segregated and highly impoverished neighborhoods did not make a difference for children’s life chances.  The new report documents—in dry academic language—that the places children grow up deeply affect their lifetime prospects and that if their families can move away from deeply impacted communities, children do better, especially if they move away when they are young.  “Overall, these results suggest that neighborhoods matter for children’s long-term outcomes and suggest that at least half of the variance in observed intergenerational mobility across areas is due to the causal effect of place.” “Urban areas, particularly those with substantial concentrated poverty, typically generate much worse outcomes for children than suburbs and rural areas…. We also find that areas with a larger African-American population tend to have lower rates of upward mobility.  These spatial differences amply racial inequality across generations….”

While we like to think that the Civil Rights Movement addressed our racial inequalities by eliminating de jure segregation across the South, Thomas Sugrue, the historian from the University of Pennsylvania, has explored what racial injustice looks like in today’s America:  “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, where the faces in welfare offices, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, and jails are disproportionately black.” (Sweet Land of Liberty, 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….” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. 540)

When he spoke at the Cleveland City Club in February, Richard Rothstein explained one of the new ways the segregation of institutions is being perpetuated these days—again by state governments, this time copying Jeb Bush’s Florida system of assigning letter grades for schools and school districts,  grades of ‘A’ through ‘F.’  The fact that the state school ratings track all the issues described by Rothstein, Chetty and Hendren, and Sugrue is never named.  The grades are said to describe the quality of the schools, but the conditions faced by the children and the teachers are overlooked. Here is what Rothstein told the Cleveland audience:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools.  And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools.  Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F’…. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that.  And so if you label schools with ‘A-F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A-F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

New Reports Confirm Charter Schools Promote Racial Segregation in CT and NC

For more than half a century since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our society has believed we value policies that support racially integrated public schools.  In the past two decades, however, the rapid growth of the publicly funded but privately managed charter school sector has promoted racial segregation.  Reports released this month from Connecticut and North Carolina document that when parents choose schools in the charter marketplace, they tend to segregate their children in schools dominated by large majorities of children of their own race.

Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee, of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, describe Connecticut School Integration that has been accomplished in the public schools and intentionally diverse magnet schools that were the result of remedies in Sheff v. O’Neill, the 1989 school funding and desegregation lawsuit in Hartford.  “The Sheff case was a long struggle by a group of outstanding civil rights lawyers, plaintiffs and local residents who supported the change and those who worked with them… The efforts have not eliminated segregation or ended racial achievement gaps but it is the only state in the Northeast that is going in a positive direction and it has created voluntary processes that have clearly reduced severe segregation in a time devoid of national leadership.”

While the extraordinary inter-district magnet schools with specialty curricula and the inter-district enrollment program that Sheff created have increased the mixing of students from city and suburb and demonstrated that black, white and Hispanic students can happily and successfully learn together, Connecticut’s charter sector, by contrast, has become highly segregated.  Orfield and Ee explain: “A 2014 report by Connecticut Voices for Children concluded that ‘a majority of the magnet schools and technical schools were ‘integrated’… but only 18% of charter schools.’  In fact ‘the majority of charter schools were instead ‘hypersegregated’ with a student body composed of more than 90% minority students.'”  Orfield and Ee recommend that in Connecticut, where public and magnet schools have become more integrated, “Charters should come under the state’s diversity policies and requirements and should have goals, recruitment strategies, public information and transportation policies to foster diversity including diversity of language background.”

In a second paper, published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, scholars from Duke University document that segregation of charters has been an accelerating trend in North Carolina.  The paper, “The Growing Segmentation of the Charter School Sector in North Carolina,” by Helen F. Ladd, Charles T. Clotfelter, and John B. Holbein, is behind a paywall, but an early draft, can be downloaded here from among the papers presented at the 40th annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy.  The Duke researchers describe a study conducted between 1999 and 2012 and conclude: “The state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time.”  The authors also conclude that rising test scores in North Carolina’s charters are not the result of improved school quality—as has been suggested by promoters of charter schools—but are instead the result of a shift in population as many charters have come to enroll students with higher average family income: “Our analysis of the changing mix of students who enroll in charter schools over time… leads us to believe that a major factor contributing to the apparent improved performance of charter schools over the period (of the study) may have as much or more to do with the trends in the types of students they are attracting than improvements in the quality of the programs they offer…  Taken together, our findings imply that the charters schools in North Carolina have become segmented over time, with one segment increasingly serving the interests of middle class white families.”

Reporting on the Duke study for the Washington Post, Jeff Guo explains that North Carolina laws governing charter schools may be contributing to the diminishing number of minority students in North Carolina’s charter schools: “One problem is that disadvantaged students have less of a chance to attend a charter school.  First, they or their parents have to be plugged in enough to know which are the good charter schools and motivated enough to apply.  Then, they need to have the resources to actually attend the charter, because unlike regular public schools, charter schools in North Carolina do not have to offer transportation or lunch to students.  For poor students who rely on school buses and free meal programs, the costs associated with attending a charter school may discourage them from the opportunity.”

As school districts across the South have remedied de jure segregation and been released from their court orders and after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2007 that race cannot be the sole basis of voluntary desegregation plans to remedy segregation by race, neither the federal government nor the states have been proactively supporting school integration.  It is another thing altogether, however, when market-based charter schools, which are said by their promoters to be public schools, are freed from the existing civil rights policies that govern public schools and that our society still claims to value.

Richard Rothstein Tells Cleveland Audience: Public Policy Created Segregation and White Flight

In a 2004 book, Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, examined social and economic factors in the lives of children and in the community that affect the academic performance of children in school.  Rothstein has been examining economic factors that affect student achievement for years, and his observations have recently been substantiated by the large research studies of sociologist Sean Reardon at Stanford University.  Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

Rothstein has recently shifted his own focus to the significance of the convergence of racial and economic segregation in public schools.  In the fall, 2014, issue of the American Prospect, Rothstein published a penetrating piece, The Making of Ferguson, that traces the shaping of greater St. Louis and particularly its inner-ring suburbs by structural racism over the decades of the twentieth century. (A longer, in-depth version of Rothstein’s piece is posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute.)

Last Friday, Rothstein presented a major address at the City Club of Cleveland.  I urge you to watch his remarks in this video.  Rothstein begins:  “Evidence continues to accumulate that despite our often stated vows to close the achievement gap in educational outcomes between black and white students, we cannot close that achievement gap in segregated schools.  Yet our schools are becoming more and more segregated over time.”

For Rothstein, racial and economic segregation are inseparable.  The challenges imposed by poverty are compounded when concentrated poverty in segregated schools ensures that all the children need special attention to their learning needs.  Rothstein explains, “Let me give you a very recent development… that is having a terrible effect on the achievement of disadvantaged children.  That is the ability of employers of low wage workers to use computers for much more just-in-time scheduling of work. For black hourly workers, 50 percent—half of black hourly workers—now receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance.  And having received these schedules, they’re often sent home early or called in outside their regular schedule.  Among black mothers of children less than 13 years of age, 32 percent now receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance.  What does this have to do with schools?  Well, parents with those kinds of schedules can’t plan regular meal times, can’t plan regular bedtimes, can’t make child care arrangements that require regular drop off and pick up at predictable times. The idea that children in these circumstances (and their numbers are growing because of the way our economy is being reorganized) can achieve at the same level as children who have regular bedtimes, who are enrolled in regular after school or preschool or early childhood programs is absurd.  But it is not only these individual characteristics, and there are many more of them.  What is much more important is when you take children like these and concentrate them together in the same schools… If you have a whole classroom where all the children have these characteristics, the instruction has to be tailored to a different level… Teachers can’t pay special attention to the children with special problems because every child has a special problem.  So the achievement, on-average, of classrooms like that is inevitably going to be lower.”

Rothstein condemns the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Seattle and Louisville—called Parents Involved v. Seattle— in which Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, declared that when segregation is de facto—determined by accident of history— the factor of race cannot be considered as a legal basis for addressing segregation by race.  “And that decision indicated to me how far we have come from an understanding of the racial history of this country. Our cities—Louisville and Seattle, and also Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Kansas City—have been segregated not by accident but by explicit, purposeful racial policies emanating from the federal, state, and local governments. We do not have de facto segregation in this country.  We have explicit racial apartheid.  And we have forgotten the history of how this came about.”

In his Cleveland address, Rothstein examines federal housing policy to trace the explicit role of government for driving racial segregation.  During the New Deal at a time of severe housing shortage, the Public Works Administration chose the sites of public housing projects according to a “neighborhood composition rule.” Federal law required the race of the inhabitants of public housing to match the race of the residents of the neighborhood where each housing project was built. Three quarters of public housing during the 1930s was built for white families in white neighborhoods, with one quarter of public housing built in black neighborhoods for black families.  After WWII, as the Federal Housing Administration embarked on a program to subsidize the construction of subdivisions in the suburbs, the condition was that homes were sold only to white families.  In Levittown, NY, for example, 17,000 homes were built and sold to white families who could also qualify for the FHA loans from which black families were shut out.  As white families left public housing in the cities, urban housing projects became segregated sites for African American families. “This was,” Rothstein explains, “all the result of the explicit policy of the federal government.”  And, of course, this process fed inequality because white families built assets when the homes they owned appreciated.

In Rothstein’s piece on Ferguson, Missouri in the fall, 2014, American Prospect, he concludes: “A century of evidence demonstrates that St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries.  These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained.” “Although policies to impose segregation are no longer explicit, their effect endures.  When we blame private prejudice and snobishness for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”

In his recent Cleveland City Club address, after his formal remarks and in answer to a question, Rothstein brings the conversation specifically to Ohio when he comments on the likely racial impact of the “A” through “F” school district rating system the state of Ohio will formally launch as school begins in the fall of 2015:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F,’ where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with ‘A’-‘F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A’-‘F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

Rich Neighborhoods Seceding to Form Their Own Segregated Enclaves in New Trend

Racial segregation is a reality across the South and across America’s big cities.  In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch quotes the data:  “80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of black students attend majority-nonwhite schools. Forty-three percent of Latinos and 38 percent of black students attend intensely segregated schools, where fewer than 20 percent of students are white…  Half of the more than sixteen hundred schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.  Half of the black students in Chicago and one-third of the black students in New York City attend apartheid schools.” (p. 292)

Segregation by income has also grown enormously since 1970.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.

While the extent of segregation is deplorable 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it is well documented and not surprising.  Last week, however, Businessweek reported what it says may be becoming a new trend that will accelerate resegregation across school districts in the South that have been released from desegregation court orders.  According to Businessweek, “About half of the almost 500 districts under desegregation orders in 1990 were released by 2009…”  These districts have been awarded what is known as unitary status, by which the court releases them from oversight because they are said to have done all they were able to do to integrate their schools.

In several metropolitan areas, wealthy neighborhoods of large school districts are now simply seceding—pulling out to form their own small, exclusive, white school districts.  “In Alabama, which makes it relatively easy to create districts, two Birmingham suburbs have left the countywide system in the past two years.  After the majority-black Memphis schools merged last year with the majority-white county district, Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature lifted a decades-old ban on creating new systems, and six suburbs seceded, approving sales tax increases to pay for their schools.  Parent groups in Atlanta and Dallas are considering similar proposals.”

Businessweek‘s story last week is about parents in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana.  Parents supporting an effort called “Local Schools for Local Children,” including parents whose children have been attending private, segregated academies, want to take their tax dollars and pull out of the “42,000-student school district they share with mostly black neighborhoods nearby, where many families live in poverty.”  Whether the parents in Baton Rouge will be able to form their own exclusive school district remains in question because the Louisiana general assembly has not yet approved the enabling legislation.  Persistent parents are working to form a separate town in order to help their chances.

“‘It’s going to devastate us,’ says Tania Nyman, who has two elementary-age children in Baton Rouge magnet schools. ‘They’re not only going to take the richer white kids out of the district, they are going to take their money out of it.'”  According to a research report from a local university, per-pupil spending in Baton Rouge would drop from $9,635 to $8,870.  According to the Businessweek reporter, this would be “a painful cut in a district where 82 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized school meals.  In the breakaway district, spending would rise to $11,686 per student.”

New Jersey Civil Rights Attorney Says School Reform Must Consider Real Issues: Segregation and Poverty

On this day as we reflect upon the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, an article by New Jersey civil rights attorney Paul Tractenberg is a sobering reminder that in public education we have a long, long way to go.  Tractenberg describes what he calls the two school systems of New Jersey:

“One, the predominantly white, well-to-do and suburban system, performs at relatively high levels, graduating and sending on to higher education most of its students.  The other, the overwhelmingly black, Latino, and poor urban system, struggles to achieve basic literacy and numeracy for its students, to close pernicious achievement gaps, and to graduate a representative share of its students.  These differences have been mitigated to a degree by Abbott v. Burke‘s enormous infusion of state dollars into the poor urban districts, and some poor urban districts like Union City have been able to effect dramatic improvements.  But neither Abbott nor any other state action has done anything to change the underlying demographics.”

Tractenberg describes a new report he co-authored, released jointly by Rutgers University’s Institute on Education Law and Policy and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, that focuses on apartheid schools “with 1 percent or fewer white students” and intensely segregated schools with “10 percent or fewer white students.” According to the report, “almost half of all black students and more than 40 percent of all Latino students in New Jersey attend schools that are overwhelmingly segregated” —falling into one of these two categories. “Compounding the problem is that the schools those students attend are doubly segregated because a majority, often an overwhelming majority, of the students are low-income.”

Tractenberg depicts the school reform strategy of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf as a radical agenda that ignores segregation and poverty: long-term state takeover of school districts; closure of so-called “failing” schools; privatization; attacks on teachers unions; evaluation of teachers based on students’ test scores; and promotion of vouchers. (Newark’s schools have been under state control since 1995.  Just this past week, Newark’s state-appointed overseer superintendent, Cami Anderson, fired four principals for speaking up at a public meeting to oppose her plan to close a third of Newark’s public schools.)

Tractenberg concludes: “‘evidence’ regarding the Christie/Cerf agenda shows that: long-term state operation of large urban districts is an unmitigated disaster; private-for-profit operation of public schools, public funding of private, mostly parochial schools, and most public charter schools have produced little or no substantial and sustained improvements in student achievement; replacing existing public schools with experimental “turnaround’ schools is no assurance of substantial and enduring improvement; and school vouchers have been overwhelmingly rejected by the public every time they have been put to a referendum.”

Tractenberg suggests that his own ideas —merging smaller school districts, creating county-wide school districts, creating a magnet school program modeled on Connecticut’s—are no more radical than the Christie/Cerf agenda.  He would acknowledge, however, that developing the political will for policies that will challenge power, privilege and attitudes about race and class is going to be as difficult today as it was when Dr. King tried to undertake a campaign against poverty toward the end of his life.  Tractenberg suggests we need an informed and thoroughgoing public discussion about racism and poverty and school segregation, a conversation that almost nobody is having these days in America.