Ending Modern Day School Segregation, Part 1

After long decades of silence or backsliding, state legislatures are newly beginning to think about policy solutions to contemporary school segregation. A bill in North Carolina, for example, would require public reporting on levels of segregation at each school, and my home state of Massachusetts is considering a bill that would establish a grant program for voluntary school integration efforts, a state-level version of the federal Strength In Diversity Act

The conversation has likewise picked up in Virginia, a state with extreme lows and highs when it comes to school integration. In a story that I can’t tell often enough, Virginia is home to one of the five cases that were eventually bundled together into Brown v. Board, starting from when student activist Barbara Johns led a walkout that caught the attention of the NAACP. I’m compelled by Johns story because it can be so evocative of the checkered history of progress and backlash reflected across America’s struggle for school integration. Johns school, along with every other school in Prince Edward County, was closed for 5 years as part of the “massive resistance” campaign described below. More recently, Johns statue replaced Robert E. Lee at the U.S. Capitol just 15 days before white supremacists charged the Capitol wielding Lee’s flag as a weapon. 

Especially because the backlash can be so fierce, progress depends on sustained efforts of community activists moving people the way that Johns moved her classmates. Along those lines, a large coalition of racial justice organizations in Virginia recently came together to host a series of conversations on “Ending Modern Day School Segregation” with state candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. In a two-part post, one of those groups – The Thomas Jefferson Alumni Action Group – summarizes key exchanges from the series, organized according to topics like school funding, school choice, and teacher diversity. 

As a sort of companion to these posts, I strongly recommend checking out several recent reports from Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights (home of this blog) as well as Genevieve Siegel-Hawley’s book “A Single Garment,” which looks at how district and school leaders have (mostly successfully) pursued voluntary integration across PK-12 in the Richmond metro area. The CECR reports, notably, include a list of state policy recommendations to build on positive local efforts and Virginia’s growing statewide diversity. One report, for example, finds that segregation in/around Virginia’s largest metropolitan regions is due largely to with-in district sorting via attendance zone boundaries. In response, the report recommends empowering school boards to address school segregation in the school rezoning process. 

It’s fascinating to hear the policy proposals of the candidates who participated in the EMDSS series and compare those against where we’ve come and where we might be headed. Importantly, candidates less sympathetic to school segregation did not participate in this series; so, the proposals below represent the perspectives of those pushing most aggressively for contemporary school integration. What do you find hopeful? What could work for your state? What might be missing? 

“Ending Modern Day School Segregation” Part 1, Thomas Jefferson Alumni Action Group

Sixty-seven years after Brown, our education system reflects and arguably perpetuates racial inequities. A recent report found that nationally, more than half of school children are in racially concentrated school districts, and that predominantly white public schools receive approximately 23 billion dollars more in annual state and local funding than schools with predominantly non-white student bodies, despite serving about the same number of students.

Virginia has a deeply troubling history of school segregation. At the height of the civil rights movement, the state was at the forefront of massive resistanceopposing school desegregation, and closing schools, even entire districts, in order to not racially integrate them, and even creating more than 20 segregation academies–private schools that remained white only–until they too, were found unconstitutional in 1976. In the classroom, we continue to face profound racial challenges from racial gaps in educational achievement and disciplinary actions disproportionately taken against non-white students, to the unequal COVID-19 pandemic impact on students of color.

All candidates for Virginia governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general were invited to participate in fireside chat style interviews. Five candidates–three Democrats (Jennifer McClellan for governor, Sean Perryman and Xavier Warren for lieutenant governor), one Republican (Merle Rutledge for governor), and one Independent (Princess Blanding for governor), all Black–accepted the invitation. Rutledge’s platform resembled contemporary conservative orthodoxy – anti-Critical Race Theory, pro-privatization and school choice – but with an additional emphasis on student mental health. In an effort to focus on the most progressive solutions to contemporary school segregation – and in the interest of space – Rutledge’s comments do not appear in the summaries here though you can see his entire EMDSS talk (and all the others) at TJAAG’s YouTube Channel

Unfortunately, neither of the primary winners – Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor, and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate – accepted the invitation to the EMDSS conversations. In part 2 of this post, we’ll explore their education policies in more detail. 

School Funding and Residential Segregation

The democratic and independent candidates interviewed all agreed that school segregation–albeit de facto, not de jure, in its modern day incarnation–was an important issue to tackle, and each identified lack of funding as an underlying cause of inequitable outcomes. Perryman and Blanding zeroed in on the system of property taxes funding schools as the major driver of disparities in school resources, while McClellan pointed to segregated housing and disparate PTA funding as factors to address, and Warren spoke specifically on funding HBCUs, broadband and infrastructure, and career and technical education pathways. 

Perryman: “In VA we have a real challenge of getting the funds to the right schools [to address high poverty and old buildings] to appropriately get these schools to where they need to be. As long as we continue to fund schools based off of where people live, housing policy is going to be a relevant part of the discussion. If you don’t have low-income housing in what is seen as a good school district, then you won’t have a diverse (by income) set of students in that school district. That’s why NIMBY [not in my backyard] people won’t allow low-income housing in their district. You’re essentially talking about redlining that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that those schools are not funded to the same extent.

“We start with funding because so often income is a proxy by race, because they can’t discriminate by race legally. But when I talk about funding I’m not talking only about just giving money to schools. I’m talking about fundamentally rethinking how we give money to schools. If our funding is not tied directly to property values, then you won’t have the need for segregated housing, you don’t just move to the neighborhood zoned to a good school.”

Blanding: “[Modern day school segregation] doesn’t deny black students from attending the same schools but … inequitable funding based on personal property taxes [results in] inequities we see in terms of access to materials, infrastructure of school buildings that majorly disadvantage low income, marginalized communities. 

“One of our policy stances is to have a statewide practice of pooling countywide tax revenue to fund education based on the number of students served by a school instead of district personal property tax rates, which is important because right now this causes a big divide between the access available to schools. Students have no control over their parents’ economic status and yet we are depriving them of resources. We have to even the playing field.”

McClellan: “We cannot integrate schools without integrating communities. Milliken vs Bradley creates major obstacles to integration, bans bussing & combining school districts. [We have to] focus on removing barriers to integrated communities; communities still have racial covenants even if they are unenforceable. [We need to expand] housing credits for developers of affordable housing in higher income areas.

“[PTAs have] radically different budgets. The point of a public education is supposed to be that it doesn’t matter what your zip code is. [I’m] all for any way to help bridge those gaps, [such as] funding for PTAs to be pooled and redistributed.” 

Warren: “We need to invest in infrastructure. Many schools are dilapidated. Our people have a digital divide. We’ve been promised broadband internet for years. We have to make immediate investments in broadband and internet. [We] need to equip future Virginians for what’s to come to meet challenges for tomorrow.

“[We need to] fully fund HBCU and minority serving institutions. VA has many HBCUs and Marymount (Hispanic serving). They [train people of color for] healthcare, legal, educational professions and produce experts we need. [We get] better outcomes when we have individuals that can relate to us, connect with us.” 

Academically Selective Public Schools & Early Childhood Education

All four highlighted racial and class barriers to accessing advanced academic programs.

Blanding: “I struggled to get my two oldest daughters into early childhood education programs because I made too much money but I was working 2-3 jobs … every child should have the same opportunity because otherwise it’s creating more divides between the haves and have nots by creating disadvantages at an early age. [S]tudents are taking the same high stakes test and need to perform in the same world after school but they are not receiving the same education. Governor’s schools and other advanced academic opportunities have prerequisites. Most of the students in these programs [are] white students whose parents had pull in the community, e.g. were teachers or school board members. Students [from] families who didn’t have access to knowledge about the prerequisites don’t have access to these opportunities and don’t learn about them until it’s too late.”

McClellan: “The equity gap does not begin in kindergarten. It begins at birth. The biggest change in kindergarten in the last 20 years is academic: kindergarten teachers can tell which children have already had formal education. [We have to focus on] early childhood education, universal child care, and early learning programs.”

Perryman: “We need to have universal pre-K, because that really dictates outcomes in a student’s life. Students are judged as early as second grade to enter the advanced academic program (in Fairfax County Public Schools). If they don’t have that foundation, it’s going to have consequences in the rest of their K-12 experience.”

Warren: “[We] need to invest in early childhood education. The earlier [children] are introduced [to formal education], the more benefits they’ll have.”

Stay tuned for part 2- we’ll look at candidates’ proposals on school choice, school discipline/policing, and teacher diversity. We’ll also summarize platforms of the McAuliffe and Youngkin, the candidates for governor. 

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