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School desegregation: Where does North Carolina stand now?

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Recent research shows that while schools are more diverse today than in the past, they are still highly segregated. In a discussion hosted by the Center for Racial Equity in Education last week, panelists discussed some of the causes for this – as well as possible solutions.

Speakers pointed to housing policy, expansion of school choice, and district-level decisions as causes of segregation in education among North Carolina cities. 

“We have to even look beyond the academic outcomes to understand that, often in the segregated spaces, when Black students are showing up in historically white spaces, they’re experiencing racial hostility. They’re experiencing racial biases from teachers. They’re often experiencing really high levels of exclusionary discipline, and their parents are often ignored by the school system and often pushed out of the schools as well,” Chantal Hailey, an assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of Texas at Austin, said.

Segregation between classrooms

The harms of segregating students within and outside of schools can come from many factors. 

Panelists emphasized that students of color tend to be put in different classes than white students, giving them the perception that white students are smarter. Even when students of color are placed in mixed environments, they can still encounter racial hostility. For example, children may be disciplined only for the sake of being excluded from their peers, or their families’ voices may not be heard enough by the school district. 

Jason Giersch, an associate professor in the political science department at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, researches education policy. He said that people often make the mistake of categorizing schools from “30,000 feet” when the diversity of those schools can look different “on the ground.”

“There are schools that on paper are very racially balanced. But if you go inside those schools, and you see how the classes are arranged and assigned, and they’re not — there’s no integration going on there,” Giersch said.

Nationally, students of color in racially diverse schools are still underrepresented in advanced courses. Though they share schools and some classrooms with white students, students of color often do not have access to the same opportunities. 

Segregation between districts

According to an analysis from the University of California at Berkeley using recent census data, four of North Carolina’s major cities are considered to be highly segregated. Segregation in cities trickles down into segregation within school districts.

Hailey noted that in order to look at the problem of resegregation from a new lens, the outcomes can be fueled by parent preferences. 

“We have to understand that white families’ aversion to attending school with Black and Latine students is about two times Latine and Black students’ aversion to attending school with majority white students,” Hailey said.

The panelists said that school choice preferences are not exclusive to one racial demographic or set of values.

No matter their values, school choice allows people to express their preferences through where they choose to send their students. Giersch said that some students may choose to go environments where their identity can be affirmed, such as Black students graduating from a predominantly white high school and choosing to go to a historically Black college or university (HBCU).

“There’s schools where families maybe feel like they’re assigned to, and that’s where the district puts them, and this was not the school we wanted, but that’s where our zip code is,” Giersch said. “And then there’s schools that people feel fortunate to be in and, and there’s a sense of pride that comes from that. And what a change for a child that would be to feel fortunate to be where they are, and how that would affect how they approach their school day and their education.”

Hailey said that states holding a lot of smaller school districts are more prone to being segregated. In some instances, schools will secede from their home district and become more segregated as a result. 

National factors and remedies

Property taxes funding schools are a key indicator of disparities between white and nonwhite schools. Communities with lower property values are more often occupied by families of color, and therefore get fewer opportunities for their students. 

Along with addressing housing policy, panelists suggested ways to make schools more welcoming for students of color. 

Citing points made by W.E.B Dubois, Hailey said that when focusing on proper education for Black students, the focus should be on “minimal hostility” and positive relationships between teachers and students. This can be fostered by having teachers who understand their students and the communities that they grow up in.

Giersch said that desegregation at the school district level is “unlikely.” However, Hailey said that there is hope for the future at a national level. 

Last week, the Department of Education awarded $12.5 million across a dozen states including North Carolina for school desegregation efforts.

“The fact that our current national Senate gave them $12 million to focus on desegregation plans across the United States says that we haven’t missed our political moment,” Hailey said.

Panelists also emphasized the impact voting has on decisions regarding school choice. Giersch said it does not just mean getting ready for the next presidential election. Asking questions of candidates about school policies goes beyond making a difference then and there, he said, but also seeing how the process unfolds so that you can plan for the future. 

Footage from the event can be found here.