Education v. Equity: Shedding Light on a Broken System

By Maya Honda-Granirer

Block High School in Jonesville, Louisiana seems more like an abandoned building than a school. The walls and carpets are moldy from unrepaired leaking, the windows are cracked and the ventilation is broken — the building is completely unsafe. The students’ athletic coach, Bennie Volt, has to teach world history, geography, ACT prep and standardized test prep, despite only being certified in physical education. A fact which should come as no surprise: 70 percent of the senior class is Black. In the same school district, 13 miles away, lies the well-maintained, clean, beautifully equipped Harrisonburg High School, whose senior class is overwhelmingly white (almost 90 percent!). Students at Harrisonburg have higher academic achievement and more of them go to college once they graduate. The disparity between the two schools could not be more striking. 

The stories of Block and Harrisonburg High School shed important light on the story of education in America — a story of segregation, racism and negligence which continues to this day.

The issue of segregation in schools reached an important milestone in 1954, in the historic court case of Brown v. Board of Education. On May 17th, racial segregation in schools was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. Earl Warren, the Governor of California and Chief Justice at the time, wrote in the Court’s verdict that, “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” 

School desegregation initiatives continued to face fierce opposition after Brown v. Board. In fact, many subsequent Supreme Court rulings hastily tossed aside the principles of equality and fairness that Brown v.s. Board vowed to protect. The ruling of the 1974 Supreme Court case of Miliken v. Bradley, which concerned the planned desegregation busing of public school students across district lines in Detroit, held that segregation was allowed, as long as it was not considered an explicit policy of each school district. The end of court-ordered desegregation was precipitated by the Supreme Court ruling of the Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell case in 1990, which asserted that school districts could be released from court oversight once they had made a “good faith” effort to desegregate, even if it meant that they would likely re-segregate soon after. 

Almost 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the United States has yet to solve its problem of racial segregation in schools, which remains deeply embedded in the landscape of American education. Nationwide, Black and Latinx students continue to be concentrated in schools that are characterized by their high poverty and low achievement rates, while white students are more likely to attend high-achieving and more well-off schools. According to research conducted by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, the percentage of Black students attending schools that are 90 to 100 percent minority has been increasing since the 1990s. A study from Harvard’s Civil Rights Project found that almost nine-tenths of segregated Black and Latinx schools experience high levels of poverty. Moreover, it concluded that the average Black or Latinx student attends a school with more than twice as many poor classmates than the average white student. Racial and economic segregation in schools hasn’t gone anywhere. 

Some might think that segregation on its own is not too bad. After all, there are no longer any laws explicitly enforcing segregation. So, what’s the big deal? Well, racial and economic school segregation has been shown to have a significant impact on educational outcomes as well as Black achievement later in life. A 2016 study published in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences concluded that the disparity in the average poverty rate in the schools white students attend and Blacks students attend is the single most important factor in the educational achievement gap between white and Black students. 

Black students across the United States are also on the adverse side of a massive disparity in funding for schools. Predominantly nonwhite school districts across the country receive $23 billion less than their predominantly white counterparts every year, according to data collected by EdBuild, a non-profit company advocating for equity in school funding. This makes sense, considering that funding for schools relies heavily on local taxes — wealthier, predominantly white districts get more, while poor, predominantly nonwhite districts don’t get enough. 

Of course, poor, predominantly white districts also exist, and lack of funding for schools in these areas is an injustice in itself. That being said, it is critical to recognize that the inequality in school funding is inextricably and profoundly tied to race. 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. Moreover, the average poor, white school district receives $150 less than the national average, but still nearly $1500 more than the average poor nonwhite district, as reported by EdBuild. This disparity in funding means that predominantly Black and Latinx schools are typically underfunded, understaffed and undersupplied. Students must learn with outdated textbooks and inadequate learning supplies and because of high levels of teacher turnover, teachers must often teach classes for which they are not qualified. The schools themselves are sometimes even unsafe. The US Government Accountability Office announced that an estimated 54 percent of public school districts need to fix or replace multiple systems and features in their schools (e.g. ventilation, plumbing, structural integrity). Of course, the burden of this issue is disproportionately placed on students of colour, since their schools experience the most severe lack of funding.

Let us once again take a look at Block and Harrisonburg High School. In the 2018-2019 school budget for the Catahoula Parish school board, Harrisonburg was given $20,000, while Block received a mere $7,000. This happened because the wealthier — and whiter — town of Harrisonburg raises its own additional funds through a local tax — something which the residents of Jonesville cannot afford to do. With this tax, Harrisonburg High School has been able to economically and racially segregate itself from the rest of the school district. 

Not only does racism manifest itself in geographical and economic disparities, but it also takes the form of deep-rooted and far-reaching racial bias. Federal civil rights investigations have found that Black students are punished more harshly than white students, even when they are being punished for the same misbehavior. According to Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, Black boys are three times as likely to be suspended as white boys and Black girls are six times as likely to be suspended as white girls. These findings reflect a bigoted and distorted depiction of Black people as “thugs,” which has been propagated in the United States for centuries. While this racial bias is being brought to light more nowadays, it is undeniable that it continues to impinge on virtually every facet in America, including incarceration rates, police brutality and sadly, school suspensions. What’s more, findings show a direct correlation between getting suspended in school and getting arrested later in life. In her 2018 study, “Educational and criminal justice outcomes 12 years after school suspension,” Janet Rosenbaum from SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University noted that suspended youth were 30% more likely to have been arrested once, 51% more likely to have been arrested two or more times and 23% more likely to have been in prison than similar non-suspended youth. 

The disparity between school suspensions of Black students and white students is a byproduct of racial bias, but certainly not the only one. Black students are also 54 percent less likely than white students to be recommended for gifted-education programs, even after adjusting for factors like standardized test scores, according to national data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Additionally, researchers at American University reported that when Black and white teachers evaluate the same Black student, white teachers are 12 percent less likely to predict the student will graduate high school.

Education is one of the most powerful tools we have to put a stop to racism, poverty and crime. Yet, at the moment, it is the institution that helps keep these systems in place. This has to change. 

But change has yet to come. When presented with the prospect of integrating all the high schools in the Catahoula Parish school district, parents at Harrisonburg High School firmly held that they didn’t want their kids going to school with Block High School kids, because of their ‘moral character’ — yet another instance of racial bias and prejudice. This sentiment is not uncommon. Many white and Asian parents oppose school integration on the grounds of wanting the best for their kids.  

While it is perfectly natural to want the best for your children, integrating schools is not some sort of compromise. Desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s led to substantial academic gains for Black students and no decrease to white students’ academic attainment. Moreover, integrated schools are shown to reduce racial bias and improve creativity and critical thinking for all students. The benefits of school integration carry on long into the future. A 2011 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that Black students who attended integrated schools had higher earnings, improved health outcomes and lower incarceration rates as adults. 

Education is just one of many factors that have led to the many disparities between white people and communities of colour in the United States, and integrating schools won’t fix these problems overnight. Nevertheless, racism in education has helped sustain the cycle of poverty that so many people of colour are trapped in when it should be helping them to overcome it. It is one reason the students at Block High School won’t have as much opportunity and freedom as the students at Harrisonburg once they graduate. It is one reason the country is broken and it is one (more) reason to fight for racial justice in America. 

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