Continuing Legacy of Segregation

More attention needs to be focused on providing incentives for middle-class families to return to the public school system. In the past, magnet schools for high achieving students have been successful at creating racially integrated learning environments. Unfortunately, only a very small percentage of students meet the academic qualifications to attend the selective schools. The Ruby Bridges Foundation proposes an entirely new vision for creating a racially and socioeconomically integrated school that would also serve as a community center.

The landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision was based on the premise that separate is inherently unequal. More than fifty years later, however, segregation and systemic inequality remain critical problems in the nation’s schools. According to a recently published report by the University of Minnesota, only 10% of public schools in the city of New Orleans meet their criteria for being integrated. Not surprisingly, African American students faced the highest levels of segregation in both the city and the suburbs. In 2009, 78% of African American students in the New Orleans metropolitan area attended nonwhite segregated schools, and the percentage was much higher in Orleans Parish. Of the nonwhite segregated schools, 99% met the federal definition of a “high poverty” school and 84% were classified as “very high poverty,” meaning 75% or more of the students at the school received free or reduced lunch. Overall 93% of students of color in the New Orleans metropolitan area attend a high or very high poverty school.

The overlapping problems of racial and socioeconomic segregation lead to one conclusion – a half-century after Brown, separate is still unequal. With so much attention focused on transforming public education in New Orleans, there has been virtually no discourse on the issue of segregation. As educational and sociological research has repeatedly demonstrated, integration of schools is imperative for two reasons: academic and societal. The academic performance of a school is closely correlated to the socioeconomic make-up of the student body. Schools with high concentrations of poverty are far less likely to be successful than schools with low concentrations of poverty. Further, one of the best-established methods for bridging the achievement gap is to provide students from low-income households with access to middle-class schools. While socioeconomic integration is important for academic reasons, racial integration is good for society as a whole. Racially and culturally integrated schools produce more tolerant individuals, who in turn make better citizens in a democracy.

Undeniably the logistical and political obstacles to integration are great. In the city of New Orleans, students of color represent 95% of those enrolled in the public school system; however, the absence of white students is in part due to the fact that more than 25% of school age children are enrolled in private and parochial schools.  Of the children enrolled in private schools in New Orleans, the majority of the students are white and many are likely to be from middle-class backgrounds. Jefferson Parish also has a similarly high percentage of students attending private schools. As a point of comparison, private school attendance in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes amounts to nearly three times the national average.