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Pernicious effects of school resegregation

segregation-300-200favicon This article is a hard one to read. But I hope you’ll read it.

In “Resegregation in the American South,” Nikole Hannah-Jones tells the story of school segregation, desegregation, and resegregation in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

It focuses on the family of James Dent, an African American man who attended Tuscaloosa schools shortly after Brown v. Board of Education, when most southern schools clung to Jim Crow policies.

Ms. Hannah-Jones expertly juxtaposes the school experiences of Mr. Dent with those of his daughter, Melissa, who attended school at the height of court-ordered desegregation, and those of his granddaughter, D’Leisha, who currently attends a re-segregated high school.

The story is not pretty. And it’s sad.

I mean, we know the story. Desegregation was difficult to achieve in the South, but after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and more than a decade of court involvement, many communities integrated schools, which decreased the achievement gap and offered African Americans more access to college and the American dream.

Ms. Hannah-Jones cites a study by Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley:

A 2014 study conducted by Rucker Johnson, a public–policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found de-segregation’s impact on racial equality to be deep, wide, and long-lasting. Johnson examined data on a representative sample of 8,258 American adults born between 1945 and 1968, whom he followed through 2011. He found that black Americans who attended schools integrated by court order were more likely to graduate, go on to college, and earn a degree than black Americans who attended segregated schools. They made more money: five years of integrated schooling increased the earnings of black adults by 15 percent. They were significantly less likely to spend time in jail. They were healthier.

Unfortunately, over the past 15 years, and for a number of reasons, schools have re-segregated. The evidence demonstrates that this trend hurts African Americans tremendously. It certainly has affected the Dent family. While Melissa’s integrated education helped her attain a more secure economic standing than her father, the reverse is true for D’Leisha. A star student at a re-segregated high school, D’Leisha faces few college opportunities because of low ACT scores.

It’s horrible.

Reading this article got me thinking about a couple things. First: the effects of the small schools movement in the early 2000s. The thinking was that large schools led to anonymity, which led students, particularly kids of color, to fall through the cracks. I think that’s true, and I believe in small schools, and I taught at one for 12 years. But it may also be true that the movement, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, may have unwittingly exacerbated trends in school resegregation. After all, large comprehensive high schools may do a better job to promote racial diversity; then again, large schools have other significant problems.

The article also left me asking, Now what? We may know that integrated schools are better for students. But it doesn’t take a cynic to conclude that most Americans have largely given up. Ms. Hannah-Jones writes, “Polls show Americans embracing this promise (of integration) in the abstract, but that rarely translates into on-the-ground support for integration efforts.” Even the most liberal white parents are leery of sending their children to public schools.

It gets me to think whether the charter school movement also serves to make segregation more permanent. (I work for a charter school network and have taught in a charter school.) On the one hand, strong charter schools have done a great job educating kids of color, who otherwise would not receive a good education. That’s clear. But on the other hand, charters do little to promote an agenda of integration.

This is hard stuff.

Please read the article. It’s long, but it’s important. And then please tell me what you think in the comments. Thank you! favicon


  1. Zelda

    At my last school they attempted to make a charter school within a public school to some extent. There was a parent participation portion of the school, where if the parents signed on to a certain number of weekly hours of work then those children would be in a classroom all together, and the non-participation parents’ children would be in a separate classroom. It ended up being a classroom of mostly white and asian students in one room, and a classroom of mostly (all) brown students next door (same grade). One classroom would have high test scores, lots of parent participation, and do extra activites and field trips. One would not. You can imagine what the parties looked like. It was horribly sad. Especially when my students would ask why the other class was going on a field trip they weren’t going on. The school’s reasoning was that if they didn’t segregate their own students, the parents would do it anyway by sending their children to private schools. Although there are many good sides to charters, in the end I’ve always decided against them for basically this reason. I do understand, as a parent now, how hard the decision is on where to send your child though. My ‘token white boy’ in one of my classes was there because his mother chose to make a stand against the school’s system, and what a difficult decision to have to make for your own child.

    • Mark Isero

      Zelda, thank you for your comments. Your anecdote sounds familiar: For charter schools, the concept of “parent choice” is very compelling. Eva Moskowitz, a huge proponent of charters in New York City, says “parent choice” a lot. What happened at your last school (self-segregation through co-location of charters and traditional public schools) is happening across the country.

      Like you, I see this issue as extremely complicated. We want the best for our children. And the decisions we make have real consequences. On the one hand, traditional public schools, over the last generation, have done very little to address the achievement gap. Despite their problems, many charter schools have good results. Critics can dismiss those results with various claims (charter schools skim, charter schools have larger budgets because of private money, charter schools have high attrition rates, charter schools care only about standardized tests). But the high-performing charter schools are doing well.

      On the other hand, charter schools, at least in the short term, do seem to place additional pressures on traditional public schools. What happens when their attendance drops? What happens when student demographics shift? What happens when non-union schools are right next door to unionized schools? It’s a tough situation!

      Thanks again for making me think.

Please share your brilliant insights!