The Legacy of Race

Despite Progress, American Schools Are the Same as They Ever Were — Separate and Unequal

(Source: Unsplash)

“You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good.”

Candidate Donald Trump, 2016

In a campaign speech in August 2016, the future president of the United States outlined his stark perception of the economic status of African Americans and particularly the state of Black schools. It was a statement many saw as oversimplified and glib — he bookended it with “What do you have to lose?” — and reflective of a view that “your schools” meant anything but “our schools.”

The ugly fact is that the schools that serve mostly children of color have never been on a completely level playing field with schools that serve mostly white children. Separat­e and unequal schools have always been the American reality, even when the law mandates otherwise.

“We just have to be honest with ourselves. We don’t have a uniform public education system in this country. I don’t think we ever had a uniform public education system in this country. We have very good schools and we have very bad schools. We have a lot in between those two poles,” said Dr. Derryn Moten, acting chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Alabama State University, whose scholarship includes U.S. history from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement and Southern American culture, among other things.

As a rule, the most persistent metric by which those educational inequalities can be measured remains skin color. In Alabama, a narrowing but continued achievement gap based on race is one way to see the ultimate impact of having schools that remain unequal.

Disparities in Educational Attainment

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card, measures math and reading skills of American children. NAEP scores show that Black students as a group still lag behind their white counterparts. Those gaps have narrowed substantially, but they do remain, according to the Stanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis.

In 2019, when the national average NAEP score in math for fourth graders was 240, the average math score for a white Alabama fourth grader was 239, while the average score for a Black Alabama fourth grader was 215. The gap for eighth graders showed white Alabama students scored 30 points higher in math than Black eighth graders in the state (279 versus 249), while the national average was 281.

In reading the same year, white fourth graders in Alabama scored 223, versus 195 for Black fourth graders, while the national average score was 219. White eighth graders in Alabama scored 261, just under the national average of 262, while Black eighth graders scored 239.

Alabama is one state where socioeconomic disparities between Black and white students bear much of the blame for the achievement gap, according to the Stanford CEPA. Those socioeconomic differences go beyond just how much money a school gets.

“When you have Black fourth graders who have a vocabulary that is 50% less than white fourth graders, that’s not necessarily a function of school funding. It’s a function of some other things,” Moten said. “When you have kids who are growing up in homes where there are no books present or where there are few books present, when you have children who are not read to, because they live in a single parent household and their parent has to work and so an older sibling becomes the child care provider for the younger children or the television becomes the babysitter. I’m not trying to create stereotypes or generalizations. This is just true. We need a broad scale approach to fixing these issues, in my opinion.”

Stanford CEPA researchers are among the many connecting racial bias with gaps in learning. For instance, in the 2020 report “Collective Racial Bias and the Black-White Test Score Gap,” Stanford’s Francis A. Pearman II notes that racial bias correlates with segregation and educational opportunities.

“Black-white disparities in educational outcomes remain persistent features of U.S. schooling,” Pearman writes. “Scholars have proposed a number of structural explanations for these disparities, including inequitable funding, residential segregation, socioeconomic differences, and differential exposure to teachers and schools of varying quality … . For perhaps just as long, however, scholars have theorized and demonstrated that implicit racial bias, i.e., relatively unconscious associations regarding race, can also contribute meaningfully to racial disparities in educational outcomes.”

The effect racial bias and segregation in education has on children can be observed across disciplines. Doctors can see it, as well.

“Although the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education banned government-sponsored segregation and laid a foundation for equal access to a quality public education, the U.S. Department of Education continues to report institutional or structural inequality in educational access and outcomes, even in the most diverse and well-resourced communities in the United States,” the American Academy of Pediatrics noted in a report published in August 2019.

The AAP said that students of color, “have less access to experienced teachers, advanced coursework, and resources and are also more harshly punished for minor behavioral infractions occurring in the school setting. They are less likely to be identified for and receive special education services, and in some states, school districts with more nonwhite children receive lower funding at any given poverty level than districts with more white children.”  

You might wonder why pediatricians are commenting on inequality in education. Here’s why: the state of a child’s educational success has a bearing on the child’s health.

“Educational achievement is an important predictor of long-term health and economic outcomes for children,” AAP notes. “It is critical for pediatricians to recognize the institutional, personally mediated, and internalized levels of racism that occur in the educational setting because education is a critical social determinant of health for children.”

In other words, when children encounter racism — whether it’s built into teaching or curriculum or the school environment, or it’s encountered in personal dealings with adults or children at school — it has a negative impact on their long-term health. And it affects how well they do in school, the AAP report notes.

AAP connects racism from different sources with mental health issues and chronic physical maladies. Other research associates racially segregated schools with a number of other problems in society.

For example, a team of scholars, James W. Loewen, PhD; Fran Kaplan, EdD; and Robert Smith, PhD., wrote on America’s Black Holocaust Museum’s website that the “pattern of racial segregation in America has serious consequences for the well-being of millions of children. Most schools are still racially segregated, and those serving primarily Black children are often underfunded. These schools struggle to educate many children stressed by the racism and poverty their families have suffered over generations.”

Race Affects Economics of Schools

As Moten noted, the socioeconomic status of a parent can determine how much time a parent can spend with the child on homework and where the child will live, among other things. Where the family lives can determine other important aspects of the child’s schooling, as well. There is a relationship between geography, politics and race, research reveals.

School funding issues connected to politics and race led to the formation of EdBuild, a nonprofit think tank that issued the report “$23 Billion” in February 2019. The reason for the report and it’s overarching message explains the name: “Nationally, predominantly white school districts get $23 billion more than their nonwhite peers, despite serving a similar number of children. White school districts average revenue receipts of almost $14,000 per student, but nonwhite districts receive only $11,682. That’s a divide of over $2,200, on average, per student,” the report notes.

(Source: EdBuild)

EdBuild’s study outlines another persistent issue directly connected with racial segregation: unequal access to “fundamental freedoms and opportunity.”

“Families with money or status can retain both by drawing and upholding invisible lines,” the study states. “Many families do just that. This, in conjunction with housing segregation, ensures that … district geographies serve to further entrench society’s deep divisions of opportunity. …

“Even after Brown v. Board, even after decades of school finance litigation meant to equalize the playing field, and even after accounting for wealth disparities, the wrenching reality endures — the United States still invests significantly more money to educate children in white communities,” EdBuild states. “Race and class are inextricably linked in the U.S. … Predominantly white districts are far better off than their heavily nonwhite peers.”

EdBuild’s study shows that “in the United States, 20% of students are enrolled in districts that are both poor and nonwhite, but just 5% of students live in white districts that are equally financially challenged.”

The study also shows that white school districts tend to be drawn so they serve far fewer students. “White districts enroll just over 1,500 students — half the size of the national average, and nonwhite districts serve over 10,000 students — three times more than that average,” the study revealed. Those districts serve about the same number of students, however, because, as EdBuild points out, the number of predominantly white school districts outnumber predominantly nonwhite systems six to one. That gives white districts an edge when it comes to lobbying for legislative change, including increases in funding.

All things considered, EdBuild notes, “Small districts can have the effect of concentrating resources and amplifying political power. Because schools rely heavily on local taxes, drawing borders around small, wealthy communities benefits the few at the detriment of the many. … Because our system relies so heavily on community wealth, this gap reflects both the prosperity divide in our country and the fragmented nature of school district borders, designed to exclude outside students and protect internal advantage.”

Alabama Differs on Funding

In Alabama, however, the school funding picture today is nuanced. While nationwide, nonwhite school districts on average receive $2,226 less than white districts, according to EdBuild, in Alabama the average for high-poverty, nonwhite school districts is $240 more per student than for high-poverty white school districts.

That means that the poorest nonwhite school systems in the state actually get $240 more per student per year than the poorest white school systems.

The difference decreases when the poorest nonwhite systems are compared to all white systems. Poor nonwhite school districts get $146 more per student than white districts overall.

The extra funding for poor students of color, however, is a fairly recent development. The report “Place Matters for Health in Jefferson County Alabama,” published in 2013, delved a bit into educational funding inequities at the turn of the 20th century.

“In the early 1900s, there were 4,903 seats available in eight elementary and one high school to serve the 7,600 white children of school age. On the other hand, three elementary schools and a rented space in a local church provided 1,607 seats for the 6,200 black children of school age. Student ratios were 40:1 for whites and 73:1 for blacks. In 1910, $1.78 was spent per capita on each black child and $9.41 on each white child. … Discrepancies in teachers’ salaries are telling as well: Black teachers received only 28% of the salary of white teachers.”

Educational inequities have always been common throughout the country in one way or another. Under slavery, of course, it was illegal to give Blacks a public education. And even after the 13th Amendment, Blacks and whites were legally segregated for decades into separate schools, said Moten, of ASU.

In 1896, shortly after Birmingham was founded, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. That ruling essentially said that racially segregated schools were just fine as long as they were equal — separate, but equal.

Source: EdBuild

“Because of the Plessy decision, we get the policy or the practice of separate but equal. But separate never meant equal,” Moten said. “And so these black schools were never on par with their white counterparts, and so we have that legacy that we have to take into consideration.”

The Plessy ruling made racially segregated schools constitutional until 1954 and the case of Oliver Brown, a Black man living in Topeka, Kansas, who tried to enroll his daughter Linda into an all-white elementary school. When the school refused to let her in, Brown, supported by 12 other Black families with similar situations and with the backing and direction of the NAACP, took the matter to court. The Brown lawsuit also contended that school segregation violated the 14th Amendment which mandated that states could not “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown, then-Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal.”

Inequality Persists

But that was hardly the end of unequal schools.

“The inherent links between race and class in our country haven’t been remedied by school-funding lawsuits nor the passage of time. They remain ever present, and while we have made some progress on the issue of economic inequality in our schools, we still have a terribly inequitable system,” EdBuild found.

“Some people might say, you know, ‘the Civil War ended in 1865. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board was 1954, 1955. That’s a long time ago.’ Not really,” Moten said. “Not when you’re talking about overcoming a system that was created almost from the beginning of this country’s founding. We still struggle.”

Schools still segregated — not by law, but by practice, Moten said.

“They’re segregated anyway because they’re segregated primarily by economics,” he said. “Poor schools are typically in poor neighborhoods, they are poorly funded, they are attended by children who come from poor households and those children largely tend to be black and brown.”

In Alabama, the state’s 1901 constitution still mandates racial segregation in schools. Although those provisions do not trump federal mandates banning segregation-by-law, the Alabama Legislature made clear even after the Brown ruling its intentions to maintain separate schools, as noted by the Encyclopedia of Alabama:

“After the Brown decision, the state enacted legislation aimed at circumventing the ruling. A 1955 ‘pupil placement law,’ written by state senator Albert Boutwell, was designed to give local school boards the power to decide where students would attend school based on ability, availability of transportation and academic background.

“Two more Alabama laws that were passed in 1956 attempted to give local boards the legal means to resist desegregation. One measure allowed school boards to close any school faced with integration and also reasserted local control over education. Another, Amendment 111, also written by Boutwell, was a ‘freedom of choice law’ that allowed parents to decide which schools their children would attend. It also codified separate schools for blacks and whites and provided funding for and allowed teachers to take their public pensions to the numerous whites-only ‘segregation academies’ and private schools that began to arise throughout Alabama and the rest of the South after the Brown decision. In addition, the ‘Boutwell Amendment’ added a clause disavowing the concept that citizens have a ‘right’ to an education at public expense.”

As late as 2012, a majority of Alabama voters cast ballots to keep the segregationist language in the state constitution, which the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative saw as an important indicator of the mindset of the people. Another proposed amendment aimed at removing outdated language from the state’s constitution is on the Nov. 3 ballot as Amendment 4.

The EJI on its website states that, while the provision in the state’s constitution has been unenforceable for decades, “its underlying prejudice continues to influence perceptions of Alabama and shape the realities of continuing educational inequality. …  Alabama schools remain deeply separate and unequal: 90.34% of students attending Alabama’s 75 ‘failing’ schools in 2018 were African American.”

When you consider the connections between segregated schools and segregated neighborhoods, some funding issues for those schools can be tied to taxes, and taxes can be tied to home prices, according to Andre Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institute, a scholar-in-residence at American University and a columnist for the Hechinger Report.

“Home prices in Birmingham are significantly lower, resulting in less property taxes for the municipality, for the city,” Perry said in an interview for an earlier BirminghamWatch story. “The city uses tax revenue to fund things like education, police, infrastructure. And Birmingham is losing millions because of housing devaluation.”

Perry said that homes in Black neighborhoods in the Birmingham metro area are valued at about $45,000 less than similar homes in nonminority neighborhoods, “not because of crime, not because of education, but because of the concentration of black people around the asset.”

“People will say, look at the teachers; they’re not teaching well. Look at the students; they’re not trying. But it’s clear that housing devaluation is robbing billions from cities and financing … education and educational support services,” Perry said.

The Same Boat

There is evidence that the damage done by racial segregation or biased practices hurts Alabama as a whole.

Consider a report issued recently by PARCA, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, titled “Agenda for Alabama’s Third Century: Raising Educational Attainment for All.” The report notes that “higher educational attainment is correlated with higher rates of labor force participation, higher personal income, and higher GDP per capita, as well as, better health outcomes.”

But PARCA points out that Alabama lags behind other states in numbers of high school graduates, numbers of bachelor’s degrees, rates of college graduations. The numbers are worse for black adults than for whites.

(Source: Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama)

That’s not only a problem for people and communities of color. “It’s not a surprise that Alabama trails other states,” states the report, posted on PARCA’s website Sept. 1. “The state is dragged down by its historic underinvestment in education, by the legacy of racially segregated, separate and unequal schools, as well as continuing inequities and de-facto segregation in some areas.”

PARCA notes that “For its first 150 years of statehood, Alabama intentionally operated separate and unequal schools for blacks and whites. And even for whites, the schools weren’t adequate to keep students on pace with the rest of the United States.”

Historic underinvestment in education meant that before the COVID-19 pandemic, “despite a booming economy and low unemployment (in the U.S. as a whole), Alabama continued to have one of the lowest labor force participation rates in the U.S. Businesses struggled to find employees to meet the demands of more technologically advanced workplaces, while a disproportionate number of citizens, primarily those with lower levels of education, stayed stuck on the sidelines,” PARCA wrote.

So the more people who are “stuck on the sidelines,” the worse off the state of Alabama is when it comes to competing for good jobs and economic success.

“We’re losing,” Moten said. “If Alabama wants to thrive, Alabama has to invest in all of its children, not some of its children.”