With the continued push for education reform efforts in Alabama, we need to be asking tough questions of our educators, our boards of education, our lawmakers, and each other about what kind of public education is currently being offered to the children of Alabama and is that what we want and expect.
In order to ask the tough questions, we have to know the condition of public education which requires us to know the facts.
Sometimes those facts call to mind Alabama’s unsavory, sordid and massive resistance against integration of our public schools in the 1950s, 1960s, and well into the 1970s.
The decades-long war fought by public officials against the integration of Alabama’s public schools left a battlefield of wounded neighborhoods strewn with new promises that we would do better to improve educational opportunities for children regardless of the color of their skin.
Most of those promises remain unfulfilled. Other promises have resulted in seemingly-integrated but much-fragmented opportunities for our children that are too often dependent upon school officials who control the turnstiles for pathways for student success.
Despite the courthouses full of dockets and desegregation orders, during the 2014-2015 school year, one of every three Black public school students attends school where more than 90% of students are Black. One in four attends school where 100% of the student body is Black.
One in four White students attends school where more than 90% of students are White.
In other words, more than 195,000, or 26.7% of Alabama’s 733,000 public school students attends a racially-isolated public school.
Racial Isolation and Racial Imbalance
Racial isolation has been defined a number of ways through the years. It has traditionally been used to refer to the number of nonwhite or minority students in a school. It has been defined as when nonwhites comprise more than 50% of a school’s population, but also as when 85% or 90% of the total student population are nonwhite. Recent research and publications utilize the 90% figure, and that is the measurement used here.
The racial isolation of White students in Alabama is also noted here.
Racial imbalance, while not the focus of this article, differs from racial isolation in that imbalance refers to the uneven distribution of students across a system of schools. For example, in a school district where 40% of all students are black, if one school’s population is 5% black, where another school’s population is 70% black, there is an imbalance among the schools. That imbalance can be caused by a number of factors, including how zoning is contrived and what flexibility officials exercise when assigning students to schools within the system. Imbalance has also been defined as when nonwhite students comprise more than 50% of a school’s population.
De Facto and De Jure Segregation
Segregation is generally described as either de facto or de jure. These terms were typically associated with the turmoil and struggle of the Civil Rights era that eventually brought forth federal orders to desegregate our schools.
Some folks will say that desegregation orders no longer are necessary because there’s not a public school in Alabama that won’t enroll a student due to the color of their skin.
So if any student can walk in any school and be enrolled, what then accounts for the number of racially-isolated schools?
Many will argue that racially-isolated schools are a product of de facto segregation, meaning that people have segregated themselves, not because of any requirement to do so, but because of voluntary choices they have made.
They’ll add that de jure segregation, or segregation sanctioned and enforced by law, was defeated with the federal court’s intervention and issuance of desegregation orders, putting an end to laws and rules that sorted students by color.
Some will argue that de facto segregation is a simple fact of life, and that folks who are like each other ought to be allowed to choose to live around each other and send their children to school with each other and that the government has no business intervening and trying to force choices on folks who are happy where they are.
All of those arguments assume that multiple choices are available and there is no harm in living in racial isolation.
Choice suggests barriers do not exist. Barriers take all forms, including affordability of housing, availability of academic preparation in the early years, and access to extracurricular and enrichment opportunities.
Racial isolation is depicted for schools where more than 90% of the student population is Black or more than 90% of the student population is White.
Why Racial Isolation Matters
Racially-isolated schools provide a restricted and narrow view of the world at large for students attending such schools.
After decades of supporting race-based school assignments, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-based student assignment plans in two American school districts. According to the Court, school districts should move toward race-neutral student assignment in public schools within districts.
While the Court did not address district racial isolation among and between districts, it did agree that the government has a compelling interest in avoiding racial isolation in public school. In Guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) following those decisions, the negative impact of racial isolation (used in the narrow frame of racial isolation of nonwhite students) is delineated:
The academic achievement of students at racially isolated schools often lags behind that of their peers at more diverse schools. Racially isolated schools often have fewer effective teachers, higher teacher turnover rates, less rigorous curricular resources (e.g., college preparatory courses), and inferior facilities and other educational resources. Reducing racial isolation in schools is also important because students who are not exposed to racial diversity in school often lack other opportunities to interact with students from different racial backgrounds.
Have all of those things happened in Alabama’s schools? Does academic achievement of students at racially-isolated schools lag behind peers in more diverse schools? Do racially-isolated schools have fewer effective teachers, higher teacher turnover rates, less rigorous curricular resources and/or inferior facilities?
Now that we know which of Alabama’s schools are racially isolated, those questions can begin to be asked.
The USDOE added this benefit which perhaps is as important, if not more important, than improvements in academic achievement for students in racially diverse schools :
Racially diverse schools provide incalculable educational and civic benefits by promoting cross-racial understanding, breaking down racial and other stereotypes, and eliminating bias and prejudice.
Methods to Impact Racial Isolation and Racial Imbalance
Assigning children to schools through the use of geographical attendance zones is by far the most common practice in Alabama. Neighborhood zoning provides the least amount of opportunity to reduce racial imbalance and racial isolation among schools within school districts, but preserves the “neighborhood schools” favored by many residents.
School choice programs, such as magnet schools (including International Baccalaureate, or IB, programs) and charter schools, are, in theory at least, supposed to alleviate the geographical problems of zip-code zoning, by attracting families to a school because of the high-quality academic program offered at the school. However, here in Alabama, magnet and IB programs are few and far between, offering an extremely small number of students opportunities to choose to attend a school other than the one to which they are geographically zoned. No charter schools exist in Alabama at this time.
The “Dear Colleague” letter referred to in the previous section provided guidance to school officials to assist in reducing imbalance and isolation among schools within their school districts.
While reducing imbalance and isolation within school districts should be a priority, much of Alabama’s imbalance and isolation occurs between districts. There is little that boards of education can do to influence where students live, but guidance suggests that districts could voluntarily allow students to transfer between districts, specifically giving the example of a majority-black urban district and a majority-white suburban district with adjoining borders.
I couldn’t help but think of the Mountain Brook City and the Birmingham City school districts and wonder if school officials would consider a policy like that in an effort to reduce racial isolation within their school districts.
I also couldn’t help but think of the massive effort to “fix” the Alabama Accountability Act to make certain that no school district could be forced to enroll a student from a neighboring district’s failing school. [FYI: Twenty-three states mandate acceptance between districts of students wishing to enroll (three of those states are Kentucky, Louisiana, and Georgia).]
Speaking of districts, here’s a look at the 29 Alabama public school districts where more than 90% of students are Black or 90% of students are White.
The Full Set of Numbers about Racial Isolation in Alabama’s Public Schools
When you look at the numbers below, ask yourself if this is what you expected, sixty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Ask yourself if it’s okay with you that more than one in three of Alabama’s black public school students is enrolled in a public school where 90% of the students are black, and one in four black students is enrolled in a school where 100% of the students are black.
More black students than white students are enrolled in schools where 100% of the students are of the same race.
One in five of Alabama’s school districts are comprised of students of more than 90% of one race, either black or white.
Is this what we want for our children?
We need to know the answer to this question in order to engage in the discussion about school choice and other efforts to improve educational opportunities for Alabama’s children.
Racial Isolation in the Public Schools, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, March 1967 – This report highlights many of the problems that children in racially-isolated Black schools encounter. No update nor further research from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has been published. Beginning on page 8 of the linked PDF, the “RESULTS OF RACIALLY ISOLATED EDUCATION” is given. While the language is harsh and unfamiliar to most of those younger than 40 years old, it is important to look back and review this document to determine how much progress has been made in 48 years.