|Gertrude Wilks (right), the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers, moved to East Palo Alto and was |
one of its most prominent leaders in the 1960s.
it to happen, and some politician sees some benefits (political/financial) to doing
Segregation in our public schools has never been fully addressed because no
one put their political capital behind establishment of a new model.
We need this.
Betsy Combier, Editor
Charters without Borders: Using Inter-district Charter Schools
In 1966, Gertrude Wilks, a black mother in East Palo Alto, California, was fed up with the inadequate teaching methods and scarce resources in her son’s predominantly black high school. Then she had an idea. Wilks started a grassroots “sneak out” movement that would send her son—and a hundred other children—to schools in the neighboring predominantly white and wealthy Palo Alto school district. Wilks and the other black parents partnered with white Palo Alto residents who lent their addresses to register the students. Twenty years later, this grassroots movement to fight the racial and socioeconomic segregation of school districts—and the unequal opportunities it created for students—led to the creation of a legal inter-district transfer program for East Palo Alto students that is still in place today.1
Nearly fifty years later, some parents still go to great lengths to escape segregated, low-performing school districts. In 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar, a black mother living in Akron, Ohio, used her father’s address to enroll her children in the neighboring suburban school district of Copley-Fairlawn. In Akron, Williams-Bolar’s daughters were assigned to schools in which more than 95 percent of students came from low-income families and which were failing almost all of the state’s academic standards. In Copley-Fairlawn, no school had more than 16 percent low-income students, and every school in the district met state standards for all subjects and grade levels. Like Wilks, Williams-Bolar saw that crossing district lines could be the key to providing better options for her children. Her problem and her approach to solving it are not unique, but her story received national attention because of her dramatic punishment:Williams-Bolar was convicted on criminal charges for fraud and served jail time.2
Today—just like in 1966 or 2011—it is pretty much universally recognized that the school a child attends has a huge impact on that child’s educational opportunities.
Today—just like in 1966 or 2011—it is pretty much universally recognized that the school a child attends has a huge impact on that child’s educational opportunities, but the truth is that, for most families, there just are not that many options for escaping racially isolated, high-poverty, poor-performing school districts. The struggles for school integration that grew out of the civil rights movement have resulted in inter-district integration plans in a handful of American cities, and they have delivered strong results for students. But these programs are few and far between, they have long waiting lists, and they are for the most part struggling to retain funding and popular support in a political climate that has largely forgotten about school integration. We should support the continuation and expansion of these programs, but we also need more approaches to inter-district integration.
Charter schools can and should be part of the solution to addressing inter-district segregation. Although charter school supporters and school integrationists may seem strange bedfellows, there is a growing subset of charter schools committed to school diversity. Furthermore, the charter school model comes with flexibility, funding, and political viability that could be huge assets in the fight for integrated schools.
This issue brief provides an overview of inter-district segregation and existing inter-district integration plans, argues that charter schools should play a greater role in encouraging inter-district integration, and recommends policies and actions to further inter-district integration using charter schools.
THE PROBLEM OF INTER-DISTRICT SEGREGATION
More than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our public schools remain de facto segregated by race and class.3 In the Northeast, more than half of all black students attend hyper-segregated schools in which 90–100 percent of students are black or Latino. In the South, where the percentage of black students in 90–100 percent minority schools is now the lowest, still one in three black students attend hyper-segregated schools. The likelihood of Latino students attending 90–100 percent black or Latino schools is nearly as high. And black and Latino students are much more likely than their white and Asian peers to also attend high-poverty schools—a phenomenon that researchers from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA have dubbed “double segregation.” If you are a student in a 90–100 percent black or Latino school, there is an 80 percent chance that at least 70 percent of the student body is low-income. If you are a student in a predominantly white and Asian school (10 percent or less black or Latino), there is less than a 10 percent chance that your school has a poverty rate that high.4
Importantly, the differences among school districts are more to blame for this stratification than the imbalances within school districts. According to one estimate, differences among school districts are responsible for more than 80 percent of the racial segregation in public schools.5 That is, individual school districts are much more demographically homogenous than broad regions that include multiple districts. Other research finds similar results.6
Inter-district school segregation is in part a reflection of residential segregation. The concentration of poverty in neighborhoods has been steadily on the rise since 2000, with over 11 million Americans living in neighborhoods in which more than 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line.7 And the “double segregation” seen in schools is similarly rooted in neighborhoods. Controlling for family income, black and Latino families are more likely than white and Asian families to live in poor neighborhoods. The average black family earning $50,000 per year lives in a poorer neighborhood than the average white family earning just $20,000 per year.8
However, segregation among school districts often goes beyond simply reflecting the realities of residential segregation. In the political battles that forge district lines, sometimes poor neighborhoods get pushed out, or rich neighborhoods get pulled in. The results of this process are visible in an interactive mapping by nonprofit EdBuild of the poverty rate for each school district in the United States, which highlights several particularly egregious examples of gerrymandered school districts. In Nebraska, for example, the district outline for Ansley Public Schools looks like a slice of Swiss cheese surrounded by a scattering of crumbs (see Figure 1). Ansley has a higher poverty rate than the other districts in the area, thanks to bizarre boundaries that tack on poorer neighborhoods in outlying areas as islands for Ansley and punch holes within Ansley’s main geographic area to send wealthier neighborhoods to other districts.9