American education is still segregated. Even after the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and despite the valiant attempts of state legislatures and courts, under the very nose of a nation that heralds education as the greatest tool and restricted freedom as the greatest evil, black children and white children still do not receive equal educations.
According to a 2014 estimate, 26 percent of all black Americans and 24 percent of Hispanic Americans live in poverty, compared to only 10 percent of whites. So if school districting is done by geography and real estate is determined by income and income is related to race, poor school districts are going to be densely populated with minorities. This is something America can see. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) determined from 2011 data that white students on average attend schools that are 9 percent black, while black students on average attend schools that are 48 percent black.
But remember the American mantra: education is everything. Optimistic educators who recognize that these stomach-churning statistics apply to their districts immediately attempt to directly rectify this great injustice. Why can’t we just make these schools better? Why can’t we give them the necessary resources, qualified teachers, brand new textbooks, and a revamped structure that allows for attention to individual learning? Why can’t a school be separate but equal?
The answer is that it’s not just poor or underperforming districts that suffer from the effects of de facto segregation. The NAEP accounted for income in studies on the black-white achievement gap and came to the same conclusion: black students are performing worse than white students, even when their families are socially and economically similar. This implies that even if America made strides towards economic equality, a racial achievement gap could still exist. Whether facets of the government or society want to admit it, the race has a significant impact of its own.
Further, there’s no way for every underfunded school in the nation to suddenly procure these expensive resources. State legislatures are slashing education funding and priding themselves on streamlining spending. The House Republican Fiscal Year 2016 Budget proposes to cut education spending by $3.1 billion. And even if we could remedy the factors in the classroom that detract from the learning experience, that wouldn’t begin to compensate for the environment outside the schoolyard. So poor schools with a high density of black and minority students end up stuck in a school environment that merely fosters underperformance.
A Storm in Normandy
The political refusal to recognize the importance of racial diversity manifests as a creeping, dark, murky haze of implicit contention. Since this tension is intangible, it often escapes the grasp of more sensationalist mass media. Although the shooting of Michael Brown brought necessary attention to racial inequality in the justice system, there exists another insidious form of racism in Ferguson.
Michael Brown graduated from Normandy High School eight days before he died. It took Brown extra time to accumulate all the necessary credits to graduate, but even then he managed to don the cap and gown—a feat that nearly half of black male students at Normandy High never accomplish. Still, graduating from Normandy High not have given Michael Brown any kind of accredited academic standing. Missouri’s 2014 assessment report on the Normandy gave it 10 out of 140. This is disturbing enough of a statistic on its own, let alone the fact that 98 percent of Normandy students are black and over 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Clayton High, just five miles down the road, has a predominantly white and middle class student body and a score of 138.5 out of 140.
Despite their failings, schools fueling the achievement gap, like Normandy High, don’t just get shut down. It’s not that they can’t get stripped of accreditation. It’s just that the process is politically, economically, and socially inconvenient. When an issue hits the trifecta like that, nothing really gets done until there is absolutely nothing else to do.
When a public school loses accreditation, the student body has to go somewhere. It’s entirely economically and structurally infeasible to just fix the school, so students are absorbed into surrounding districts That’s why when the 100 percent black Wellston School District lost accreditation in 2003, students were mandated to attend Normandy schools in 2009. The state had nowhere else to put over 500 black children without an uproar. Placing these children in a district with already deplorable scores and limited resources was a matter of political convenience.
The battle to integrate schools as a result of overcrowding or loss of accreditation is in no way unique to Missouri. In New York, the primarily white Public School 8 has experienced extreme overcrowding. The New York Department of Education has devised a rezoning program so that the primarily black Public School 307 can soon absorb the displaced students. White and black parents are equally unhappy with the decision. White parents complaining about the violence and low test scores at P.S. 307, black parents vocalizing fears about the instability a whole new group of students will add to an already stressed infrastructure. This kind of backlash is why integration, however necessary, is so gratingly difficult.
These painful, but honest concerns are along the same vein as those expressed by the more predominantly white districts in Missouri in 2014. When the state was finally forced to strip away Normandy’s accreditation in 2013, nearly a quarter of the students had to be bused to nearby accredited districts, which were mostly white. Over the time that Normandy students thrived in this integrated environment, test scores of the accredited institutions stayed up and the achievement gap seemed to lessen. The caveat to this miracle: it was only temporary. When the cost of education for these transfer students depleted Normandy’s funding, the district was forced to shut down completely the summer of 2014. The Normandy students were turned away from their new schools. Normandy was simply granted a new beginning, with a new name, and became the Normandy Schools Collaborative. The glorious period of integration was over, but the inequality persisted.
The Student Perspective
We can explore racial tension between whole communities as they attempt integration, but it is also important to understand how individual students perceive racial tensions. Even high-achievers feel the pang of unconscious discrimination that arises from the lack of diversity in education. Courtney Blair graduated from Shiloh High School before coming to Harvard as a freshman this year. Although Blair is one of quite a few freshmen Georgians of Gwinnett County, she’s the only one who heralds from a predominantly black school.Shiloh is a public school in Snellville, Georgia. Just this year, the school was ecstatic to introduce AP and IB curriculums. Shiloh is tucked into the southern end of Gwinnett County, which overall has highly rated schools and competitive sports teams. But among the other high schools, Shiloh really stands out. It’s situated in a residential pocket of mostly black families. The student body is 73% black, 12% Hispanic, and 8% white. The state of Georgia gave it a rating of 68.5 out of 100.
North Gwinnett High School is one of the schools just north of Shiloh that reflects a very different community. Of the 2,481 students, 1,439 are white. Roughly 273 are black. Its rating is 90.2.
Although Shiloh serves more economically disadvantaged students than North Gwinnett, the two schools should be receiving equal attention from the Gwinnett County Board of Education. But education funding to the county has been slashed repeatedly between 2003 and 2015 by a cumulative total of $816.1 million. As a result, local revenue has been forced to pick up a greater percentage of the cost. The whole system is leaving poorer districts a tiny bit more behind every year. By investigating the case of schools like Shiloh, the other forces at play begin to surface as well.
Although she couldn’t directly perceive the contrast in academic achievement, Blair could feel the chasm in ratings—just through the attitudes of students at schools like North Gwinnett High toward her school. She hastened to clarify that the sense of “inferiority” was not due to any blatant racism on behalf of the other schools. She described it as more of a micro-aggression. She noticed that she would receive congratulations from white students that reflected gratuitous surprise. This trend escalated after the apparition of her Harvard acceptance letter. She found it disturbing when people would tell her they were elated … and surprised. Blair couldn’t tell if it was because she was black, her school was black, neither, or both.
So with districts nationwide confronting educational inequality, why isn’t school integration on the American consciousness yet? It’s not just because the average American can’t handle it. It’s because nobody is sure what to do about it yet. The old methods failed and proposed methods seem too complicated or too expensive.
There may still be a way out.
It’s been apparent since the ’70s that parents of all races don’t want to be told where their children will attend school. But what if families chose integration? Options would exculpate the government from directly discussing education as a matter of race, but simultaneously encourage integration. With the rise of magnet schools, partial magnet schools, and charter schools, diversity exists outside of the public school system—and it’s happening by choice.
In response to the option of diversity, Courtney Blair immediately exclaimed that she “would be thrilled” because “school should mirror the population of the real world.” We can only hope that the rest of American students and parents share Blair’s optimism.