Public Schools Are Still Segregated

On May 17, 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivered a unanimous ruling that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools violated the 14th Amendment and was, therefore, unconstitutional. States were subsequently ordered to begin desegregating “with all deliberate speed.” As we approach the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision, we must examine how far we have come in our effort to desegregate our schools.

While segregation is illegal, it is still a reality throughout much of the country. In 2021, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that approximately 60% of black and Hispanic public school students attended schools where 75% or more of students were students of color.

A report released in 2022 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reveals that more than a third of U.S. students attended a predominantly same-race/ethnicity school during the 2020-21 school year. And 14% of students attended schools where almost all the student body was of a single race/ethnicity.

Additionally, a study released just last month found pretty much the same results. For example, in one school district, students of color comprised 2% of the total enrollment, while in an adjacent district, they accounted for 80% of the student body.

The racial differences exist simply because, invariably, children who attend government-run schools are forced to attend the school that is close to their home. And since most neighborhoods are not well integrated, neither are the schools.

So what can parents do if they don’t like their nearby school and there isn’t a charter or private option?

Some parents have used false addresses to get their children into better schools. However, according to a 2023 report, in at least 24 states, parents who use an address other than their own to enroll their children in public school can be criminally prosecuted, resulting in steep fines and even jail time.

One celebrated case typifies the problem. In 2011, Hamlet and Olesia Garcia’s marriage was on the rocks. So, along with their daughter, Olesia moved in with her father, who lived in an upscale part of Pennsylvania. When it came time for her daughter to go to school, she enrolled her at nearby Pine Road Elementary School. However, in 2012, the couple reconciled and moved out of the area, but kept their daughter at the same school to finish the rest of the school year. Not long after, the couple was called in to discuss residency issues. This led to a huge fine for the Garcias and nearly got Hamlet imprisoned for “educational theft.”

Another notable case took place in 2011 when Kelley Williams-Bolar, an education aide in Ohio, spent nine days in jail after being convicted of sending her two daughters to a superior school in a district where her father resided.

But in some places, there is some wiggle room.

Depending on the school district, if one of the parents is employed in an area with a better school than where they live, they may be able to secure a waiver to send their child to that school. For example, in Los Angeles, if a family lives near an underperforming school and one of the parents works in an upscale area with a better school, they can apply for an “intradistrict permit.”

Oddly, homelessness can also be helpful. In California, “…homeless children do not have to re-register at a different school every time they move, and districts must provide transportation to school regardless of where a homeless child is living.” In fact, an Illinois school administrator once noted that “families pretend to be homeless so they can move to better school districts. State and federal laws require school officials to enroll students immediately, even if they doubt a claim.”

Clearly, the best way to integrate schools is via full-blown school choice. Despite establishment naysayers, parental freedom leads to more racially mixed schools.

Of course, the biggest impediment to school choice is the teacher’s unions, and they will do everything they can to stop it wherever and whenever they can.

The National Education Association is a pit bull on the issue. It regularly slams any privatization measure. In an extended piece on its website, the union trots out all the usual tired bromides, including, ridiculously, the choice that will lead to resegregation.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten insists, “Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment, are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

The rarely coherent teacher union mouthpiece Diane Ravitch blogged in 2022 that the “origins of school choice are well-known; resistance to the Brown decision.” She blathers on, referring to libertarian Milton Friedman as a “right-winger” and asserts that “Republicans are dedicated to destroying public schools and stealing their funding.” Then, doubling up on her wackiness, she exits with, “My addendum: if they destroy our public schools, they will destroy public libraries, public lands, the right to vote, and, in time, our democracy.”

And then there is reality.

Researcher Greg Forster reports that ten empirical studies have examined private school choice programs on segregation, and nine found that the programs reduced it, while one found no visible difference. Not one study showed that choice leads to racial discrimination.

Additionally, a 2023 poll by YouGov revealed that educational savings accounts are very popular with parents. (ESAs allow parents to receive a deposit of public funds into a government-authorized savings account with restricted but multiple uses. Those funds can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses, and other approved customized learning services and materials.) Not surprisingly, 70.3% of black parents are in favor of the program. By comparison, 59.1% of white parents and 50.8% of Hispanic parents support ESAs. Moreover, 78.9% of black teachers favor ESAs, while 56.2% of white teachers and 60.7% of Hispanic teachers are in support.

To show how bizarre the education by zip code policy is, just imagine the following conversation:

You: I’m having dinner out tonight.

Me: You’re going to the restaurant down the street from where you live, right?

You: No, it’s not very good. I am going to a restaurant across town; it has better food and superior service.

Me: Uh-uh, you can’t go to that restaurant; you must go to the one closest to your home. It’s the law.

You would proceed to tell me that I was crazy. And I did make a nutty statement, didn’t I? But sadly, this is exactly how we deal with education throughout much of the country.

When the teachers union in Florida filed a lawsuit to kill the state’s voucher program, researcher and school choice advocate Matthew Ladner snapped, “If there is a moral difference between redneck governors standing at the schoolhouse doors to keep kids out of school with a baseball bat and union bosses wanting to go into schools to kick kids out of schools with legal baseball bats, the distinction escapes me.”

Ladner is right, of course. It’s high time that we eliminate our zip code-mandated education system. It’s anachronistic, horrible for families, and it is indeed racist.

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Larry Sand, a retired 28-year classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.