The Cleveland School District in Mississippi has two high school communities, separated by railroad tracks. White students go to the west-side school; the east-side school is 100 percent black. It’s been this way for decades, but just last month, a federal court ordered the district to take steps to desegregate.
This is the second time it’s happened in the district’s history. The first was in 1969.
The case seems like a bit of a time warp, especially when looking at the harsh resistance that emerged from both sides of Cleveland’s railroad tracks and the warnings of a massive white exodus from the area if desegregation is enforced. But the Mississippi district is hardly unique. It is one of 177 open desegregation cases throughout the country, and new data suggests that schools have become more segregated since integration policies first appeared in the 1960s.
Over the past several decades, civil rights activists won a series of major battles to eliminate legally sanctioned segregation in schools — known in the legal world as “de jure” segregation. Far more stubborn, however, has been “de facto” segregation — that is, school segregation that exists as a result of housing disparities, particularly in urban areas. Poor neighborhoods continue to be populated mostly by minorities, and their schools reflect those demographics. Today, almost half of all black and Hispanic kids go to a school that is 90 percent nonwhite.
The resulting disparities are stark: One study from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, found that mostly white schools spend $733 more per pupil than schools that serve mostly students of color due to disparities in property taxes that fund schools. And although test-score disparities between black and white students have been declining, minorities in poor schools still achieve lower test scores due to a combination of less experienced teachers, a lack of resources and family poverty stresses. That has real impacts on black students down the line, including their likelihood to commit crimes.
After the Supreme Court handed down its decision on de jure segregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, activists began fighting for proactive solutions to end de facto segregation. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, courts ordered the forced integration of schools through controversial busing programs. Those litigation-heavy efforts lost much of their legal backing, however, after the Supreme Court decided in Milliken v. Bradley that segregation was permissible only if it wasn’t an explicit policy of school systems.
Since then, the primary tools for school desegregation have been through school choice programs that allow minority students access to schools outside of their district. That includes charter school programs, which allow public schools to operate independently from the school district under more experimental administrations; voucher schools, which give families from failing schools a public voucher to use at a school of their choosing; and open-enrollment policies, which give families the chance to enroll in districts in which they don’t reside.
Each of these strategies has shown mixed results in terms of effectiveness. But while academics often squabble over the data, it’s clear that motivated kids often do well when they’re given the chance to go to good schools with more resources. Meanwhile, the poorest schools remain just as segregated and the students left behind still lack resources.
As a result, some of the biggest opponents to school choice policies have historically been teacher unions and school boards from poorer schools. They often oppose desegregation policies that pull away resources from low-performing schools without plans to also improve the lowest-performing institutions — including integration programs such as busing. They argue that the root problem is a lack of support from the community and that greater investment in poor schools would result in reduced educational disparities.
A fascinating, more recent case that illustrates a poor school’s’ resistance to desegregation policies is the story of the Normandy School District in Missouri. After losing its accreditation status in 2013, a court order inadvertently integrated the district with a busing program to bring Normandy students to a whiter neighborhood. In addition to massive backlash from parents in the white neighborhood, administrators at the failing school derided the program as unfair, arguing that it was only making a bad situation worse at the low-performing schools. Normandy fought the integration measures in court and eventually reversed the policy despite the fact that many of its students strongly supported the busing program.
The increase in school segregation is an immensely complicated topic with a number of variables to consider. As resegregation increases despite decades of efforts to fix the problem, should reintegration be a major goal of school reform? If so, what’s the best way to do it? Does integration lead to recovery in our low-performing schools? What lessons can we learn from earlier interventions, and what do they say about the government’s ability to effect change in racial issues?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from: