Resegregating Southern Schools: A Tale of Three Cities
Two new studies of education and civil rights last month suggested an ominous retrenchment in public education in the South, particularly in North Carolina schools.
‘“Since the 1980s, the tremendous progress in the South has been slowly eroding year by year as black students and the exploding population of Latino students become more isolated from white students,’” declared a study released on Sept. 7 by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project entitled New Faces, Old Patterns? Segregation in the Multiracial South.
A book released the same day by University of North Carolina Press, School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back?, added: ‘“Even states like Florida, North Carolina and Delaware where stable metropolitan desegregation plans existed for three decades are now rapidly re-segregating.’”
The authors of the Harvard study, Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee, argue that the increasing isolation of black and Latino students in the Southern and border-state schools is particularly tragic because progress in desegregating those schools was so dramatic after the civil rights movement.
‘“The Southern and border states’… saw major efforts at something experienced nowhere in the North: comprehensive city-suburban desegregation in many of the largest urban communities,’” they write. ‘“Only the South had substantial numbers of major cities where the city and suburban schools were in a single county-wide system.’”
A rough sketch of North Carolina’s three largest school systems at a crossroads emerges in the Harvard study, as well as in a Sept. 25 front-page story in the New York Times. The literature portrays the state’s second-largest system, Wake County schools, as forging ahead to address educational quality challenges through a post-civil rights model of economic integration while the largest system, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, reverses decades of progress following a court order to end cross-town busing.
Guilford County Schools, the state’s third largest school system, was not mentioned in the Harvard study or the Times article, but appears to fall somewhere in the middle, with school board members publicly committed to upholding diversity and to equitably distributing resources but also jockeying to respond to a public clamor for neighborhood schools.
‘“It is a very difficult issue and there is a great divide in Guilford County of what citizens actually want,’” said Dot Kearns, an at-large member of the Guilford County School Board from High Point. ‘“Given the housing patterns in our county and the history out of which this county rises up if you simply go to the nearest neighborhood school, several things happen: There is not room for everyone and you have overcrowding in some schools, and you simply re-segregate students because of the very ingrained housing patterns.
When Guilford County Schools last redistricted in 1999 the school board appointed a citizen steering committee to determine how to draw attendance maps.
‘“They came back and said, ‘We can’t bring you a consolidated map because we do not agree,”” Kearns said. ‘“It’s been a very difficult issue and sadly we have re-segregated schools in Guilford County.’”
Wake County schools, which serve Raleigh and its sprawling suburbs, is mentioned as a model in the Harvard study.
‘“Most of the South’s segregated high schools are ‘dropout factories’ where most of the students do not graduate,’” write authors Orfield and Lee. ‘“In addressing this and related problems, educational leaders and policy makers should examine the greater success of diverse high schools and create magnet, transfer and other policies to create more of them or if that is not possible, to consider the possible value of integration by social class and achievement levels in improving desegregation and educational success by limiting the number of high schools with high concentrations of poverty such as Wake County (metro Raleigh) NC.’”
The Times article cited a ‘“concerted effort’” to integrate Wake County schools economically as a reason for ‘“drastic improvement in reading and math scores by black and Hispanic students.’” To prevent concentrations of poverty the school system pursues a policy of limiting the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch at any given school to no more than 40 percent. As a result, suburban students commute into central Raleigh, and poor, inner-city children ride the bus out to schools in the suburbs.
In contrast, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is portrayed as having lost ground.
‘“Among a list of the large school districts in the country that have terminated their desegregation orders, the most dramatic backward movement has come in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the large metropolitan school district that was the subject of the Supreme Court’s first busing order in the 1971 Swann case.’”
The school system assigned students to schools by race for 30 years, busing them across town to break up long-established segregation patterns, said Damon Ford, a spokesman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
‘“About in 2001, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that our school district had achieved unitary status, which meant we no longer had the vestiges of desegregation and we no longer had to bus kids,’” he said. ‘“In the fall of 2002 we began the new ‘Family Choice Plan.’ There are four zones. If you choose a school in your zone then you could be provided transportation to that school.’”
Ford said an assertion in the Times article that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is among the school systems that have adopted economic integration plans like Raleigh’s is incorrect.
‘“If we had an economic integration plan people would not complain that our schools are re-segregating,’” he said. ‘“People say that our schools are having more of a racial look, and they do.’”
The Orfield and Lee study found that the typical black student in North Carolina attends a school with an average of 60 percent minority students, making schools in the Tar Heel State more racially segregated than those in West Virginia, Kentucky, Delaware, Oklahoma and Virginia, but less segregated than those in the Deep South states, Texas, Florida and South Carolina.
Since 1991, black students in North Carolina have experienced increasingly less exposure to their white peers, according to the study. The share of white students in the average black student’s school was 49 percent in 1970, 54 percent in 1980, 51 percent in 1991 and 40 percent in 2003.
Compared with the dramatic developments in Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford County Schools’ experience seems to be muddled.
At-large Guilford County School Board member Nancy Routh, a former teacher and school administrator who lives in Pleasant Garden, said she doesn’t necessarily see a school system that’s becoming more racially segregated, just one that’s getting poorer and more multiethnic.
‘“Based on the 2000 Census data, [there has been] an increase in the population of Hispanics, and what has been the refugee population ‘— the Asian population that has been brought here from Cambodia and Vietnam, including the Montagnards ‘— all of those things that are changing the demographics of North Carolina,’” she said. ‘“We received some information about the demographics of Guilford County compared to the rest of the state that the percentage of our students who qualify for free and reduced lunch has increased significantly in the last few years.’”
Routh, who began her career as a teacher at Hampton Elementary prior to court-ordered desegregation and worked in the school system during the 1970s era of cross-town busing, expressed reservations about the idea of tinkering with demographic mixes to address racial and economic inequities.
‘“Whatever your plan was that seems to affect the balance of demographics of those areas will change,’” she said. ‘“If you get to a situation that your whole demographic shifts then why do you continue to move kids around to affect some kind of mix? My philosophy has always been to spend your resources on the instructional program rather than resorting to shuffling our kids around.’”
Chairman Alan Duncan cautioned against the idea that Guilford County Schools could match Wake County schools’ record of improving student achievement ‘— 80 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level on state tests last spring, double the scores a decade ago, according to school officials ‘— by replicating its economic integration plan.
He pointed out that about 47 percent of Guilford County Schools students qualify for free and reduced lunch, compared to 27 percent of students in Wake County, making limiting the number of poor students in a given school a more challenging task.
Duncan added that Wake County has the additional advantage of having a more educated adult population; 2004 Census figures peg the share of adults with at least bachelor’s degree at 49.4 percent in Wake County and at 31.6 percent in Guilford County.
‘“That’s not surprising,’” he said. ‘“They have Research Triangle Park and they have state government. There’s a lot of educational research that suggests that if you are able to do what Wake County is doing it’s beneficial in terms of raising student achievement. [But] the demographics of these two counties are not comparable.’”
Kearns called Wake County schools a ‘“lighthouse system’” and pointed out that county and city schools there merged more than 20 years before their counterparts in Guilford County did so. Greensboro city schools, High Point city schools and Guilford County Schools merged only in 1993.
The board policies that govern how Guilford County Schools draws attendance zones also differ starkly from Wake County Schools’ economic integration mandate.
A vaguely worded decree adopted in October 2004, the ‘Attendance Zone Considerations’ policy seems designed to please all constituencies, declaring, ‘“The school attendance plan for Guilford County Schools is designed to foster the mission of public education, to include promotion of higher levels of academic achievement and good citizenship.’”
To achieve this the policy calls for ‘“recognizing and valuing diversity’” and ‘“using clearly defined boundaries, where practical’” ‘— two imperatives that seem destined to clash. Giving ammunition to the large public faction in favor of neighborhood schools the policy calls for serving ‘“the economic interest of taxpayers by efficiently utilizing transportation dollars.’”
‘“You have to weigh whether diversity is worth enough to bear some costs,’” Kearns said. ‘“A lot of schools are saying that it is a compelling state interest. To completely segregate out again by race doesn’t seem wise.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at email@example.com