Along the banks of the Mississippi, simmering tensions that should’ve been judicially dissolved over fifty-years ago have recently roiled back to the surface. Due to the growing likelihood of financial dissolution, the school district that governs inner-city Memphis schools recently voted forfeit its charter and force a merger with neighboring Shelby County, a much wealthier and much whiter district.
Families in Shelby County aren’t exactly thrilled, its Board of Education sued to block the merger and referred to the proposed melding as a “hostile surrender.” And Memphis is far from alone.
Since the economy began to tank in 2008, thirty-four states and Washington D.C. have been forced to make cuts in K-12 education, with many of those cuts affecting the poor and disadvantaged. Examples of this include Arizona eliminating support for disadvantaged elementary school kids, California cutting help for high-need students, and Illinois ending a program aimed at reading and study skills of at-risk students.
Memphis is far from the only city with racial and class education tension rippling across its surface, and when you dive a little bit deeper the pressure that’s been building up on our poor and black population soon begins to seem unbearable.
As the vast majority of American students attend public schools where attendance is based on where you live, the first important factor to examine is just how segregated America still is. As of 2009, American schools were more segregated than they were during the 1950s, with “millions of non-white students are locked into ‘dropout factory’ high schools” where there’s little chance for advancement.
And in twenty-first century America, 75% of blacks live in communities that are classified as “highly segregated” on an international scale. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the average white student attends a school that’s 80% white.
Our poor black neighborhoods are “crowded, highly concentrated, and isolated far more severely than neighborhoods where poor whites, Latinos, or Asians live.” Kids in these communities face a wide array of disadvantages: they have higher drop-out rates, are less likely to attend college, have higher unemployment rates and lower earnings, and a higher teen pregnancy rate. Nationwide, nine out of ten black kids live in homes without enough financial reserves to last three-months without income, four times the white rate.
The neighborhood your family lives is one of the most important factors in just how close you can get to the American Dream, as “residential segregation is the linchpin of American race relations because so much else flows through community dynamics.”
There are plenty of ways to illustrate this, but if graduating college is a fundamental step in achieving the dream then the fact that white students are seven-times as likely to graduate college serves as one example. So does the fact that the high school drop-out rate for black students is nearly double the white rate.
And unsurprisingly, community segregation and educational segregation go hand-in-hand. After declining from the seventies into the eighties, school segregation intensified throughout the nineties. By 1999 it rose back up to 70% after having fallen to a historic low of 62% during the eighties.
With high school drop-out rates for poor students ten times the drop-out rate of wealthy students, kids who most need a quality education are the least likely to get it, as they systematically attend our lowest-quality schools. The children of minorities attend lower quality schools that other kids no matter how you measure quality, whether it’s “by class size, teacher credentials, teacher salaries, computers, or curriculum.” And it doesn’t end there:
“Students in high-poverty schools are less likely to have opportunities for extended-day, gifted, or talented programs than other students. They are more likely to learn math and sciences like chemistry and physics from teachers who did not major or minor in those subjects. High-poverty schools are least likely to have access to technology, computers, and the ‘information highway.’ Teacher salaries are higher in schools with little poverty and low in high-poverty ones. Schools in better-off districts spend more money per student than schools in lower-income areas.”
It might be easy to assume that educational segregation is simply part of the legacy of old now-overturned laws which formally codified separation of the races, but when you look beneath the surface an obvious air of intent is readily apparent. During interviews with Professor Thomas Shapiro of Brandies University, families explained why they moved to the neighborhood they did. They first brought up rather amorphous ideas like lifestyles, standards, and atmosphere. But, after being pressed, they finally explained that race and class were the central issues behind their relocation.