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Why school districts like Michael Brown’s have suffered ‘rapid resegregation’

August 11, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Since 1988, American schools have grown more segregated. Jeffrey Brown talks to New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones -- who recently wrote about school segregation in Ferguson, Missouri -- and Sheryll Cashin of Georgetown University Law Center.
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GWEN IFILL: For the first time this school year, nonwhite children made up more than half of the country’s public school students. But the country’s schools have grown only more segregated since 1988.

The most recent data shows the average white student goes to a school that is more than 70 percent white. And less than a quarter of black students go to majority white schools.

Jeffrey Brown takes a look at whatever happened to integration.

JEFFREY BROWN: One metropolitan area where schools are largely segregated is Saint Louis. And one year after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, it’s an issue that continues to resonate there and beyond.

New York Times magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones has reported on the situation in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country. Her work has appeared in ProPublica and on the radio program “This American Life.” Also joining us is Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown University who writes on desegregation efforts. Her latest book is titled “Place, Not Race.”

And welcome to both of you.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, let me start with you.

Give us a quick overview of what you saw in Ferguson and its schools. What struck you most forcefully there?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES, The New York Times Magazine: Well, the thing that strikes you most is, this is the most segregated, impoverished districts in the entire state.

There are 520 districts in Missouri, and this district ranked dead last. It was stripped of its accreditation, and in the classrooms, sometimes, there’s very minimal amount of teaching occurring.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there was even a short-lived effort, I gather, there to bring some of the students from that school district to another suburb, which was mostly white.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Yes, it was because of the Missouri transfer law. I call it accidental integration, because the law was never intended as an integration statute.

But because Normandy is almost entirely black and lost its accreditation, it, under the law, was given the right to send its students to an accredited district. And in this case, the accredited districts are mostly heavily white.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sheryll Cashin, it is more, not less common that American schools are segregated, are more segregated these days.

SHERYLL CASHIN, Georgetown University Law Center: Right.

In the ’70s and ’80s, many school districts around the country were under court order to desegregate. And in the ’90s, the Supreme Court basically signaled it was time for courts to stop policing desegregation, and two-thirds of the school districts that had been under desegregation orders have come out from under them. And we have had a rapid, massive, resegregation since 1998.

JEFFREY BROWN: And have we largely given up on the idea of integration?

SHERYLL CASHIN: Well, I hope that’s not true.

There are about 80 school districts in this country that voluntarily have school integration plans. They tend to use economic integration as their model, rather than race, because the Supreme Court makes it hard.

But those 80 school districts are out there trying, without a lot of encouragement, frankly, from the federal government or others. So I hope, because there are successful places, like Louisville, like Montgomery County, Maryland, increasingly, people are looking to the Hartford example, where 45 magnet schools that are well-resourced and integrated have been built because of a lawsuit.

And there’s a multiracial coalition of parents, the Sheff Movement, that supports it. So there are positive examples out there. I hope we have not given up on it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nikole Hannah-Jones, what did your reporting tell you about the state of attempts and integration and what are the key factors in it?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, it tells you that integration efforts in this country peaked in 1988.

And that’s also when the closure of the achievement gap peaked. So, since then, we have seen largely an unraveling. Sheryll talks about that there are 80 school districts that are actively attempting integration, but there are thousands of school districts in this country, and most of them are not.

As a nation, we have kind of decided that desegregation efforts are not politically worth our while. And so you have seen a pretty rapid resegregation, particularly in the South. And in much of the Northeast, there was never much desegregation in the first place.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are the biggest factors in all of this as to who is getting a better education. Is it money? Is it teachers? What is it that makes the difference? What do we know?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, there’s two things. Now we’re seeing in black and Latino schools a high concentration of poverty, which provides a very difficult learning environment and teaching environment.

But also data collected by the U.S. Department of Education shows that to this day we have failed to make separate equal. So schools that are heavily black and Latino get the least qualified teachers. They get the least rigorous curriculum. Their facilities are worse. And so the separation is continuing to harm these students.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that, Sheryll Cashin?

SHERYLL CASHIN: Well, Nikole is right. I don’t want to misrepresent the facts.

Eighty schools — 80 districts pursue integration; 14,000 don’t. And Nikole is right. The vast majority of black and Latino students at public schools today are in separate, unequal schools. And the United States of America does the opposite of what its competitors, who are beating us in the international test scores, do.

Our competitors put the most experienced teachers in disadvantaged areas. We do the opposite. We tend to put, you know, the weakest, often uncertified teachers in schools with the most need. And only 1 percent of high-poverty schools succeed. And, unfortunately, the Department of Education has focused its efforts mainly on trying to turn around high-poverty schools, with not much success, and hasn’t focused much on deconcentrating poverty, which is proven to be successful when it is achieved.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will have to leave it there.

Sheryll Cashin, Nikole Hannah-Jones, thank you both very much.

SHERYLL CASHIN: Thank you.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Thank you.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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