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Debate is raging this year in Mississippi about whether state legislators should agree to start public pre-k programs for the first time. They’re also arguing about school funding and charter schools.

effect of racial segregation on education
Alan Richard

In decades of debate on school reform in Mississippi, though, one issue is ever-present but draws little public discussion: race.

The state’s public schools remain nearly as segregated, in some cases, as they did in the 1960s. In many communities across the state, especially in towns where black children are in the majority, white children almost exclusively attend small private schools founded around the time of court-mandated desegregation in the late 1960s.

Black children, by contrast, usually attend the public schools in these communities. This is also true in Jackson, the state capital. The consequences have been devastating for the state in terms of educational attainment and economic disparities.

White students are a minority in Mississippi’s public schools: Only 44 percent of the students in the state who attended public schools in 2010 were white, compared with 51 percent of whom were black and 3 percent who were Hispanic (a growing population), according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ annual Condition of Education report. This is one of the lowest percentages of white students attending public schools in the nation—and remember that the majority of Mississippi’s population is white.

And of the students who attend private schools in Mississippi, very few are black.

The most prominent private schools in Jackson and in tiny towns across the Delta region remain almost entirely white, although that’s changing slowly, and public and parochial schools on the coast certainly have grown more diverse.

I’m not picking on Mississippi, a state I love and where I have spent considerable time working in journalism and communications. This is a national problem.

UCLA scholar Gary Orfield leads a growing list of researchers who’ve demonstrated the substantial re-segregation of U.S. public schools over the past 15 years. With continuing demographic shifts in many states and communities, this issue is rearing its head in new and important ways.

My own work shows that the type of public-private school segregation found in Mississippi actually is commonplace in most majority-black, small-town and rural communities across the “Black Belt” and Deep South, stretching from East Texas through northern Florida up to Virginia and Maryland.

Unfortunately, this is also the case in the tiny town of Summerton, S.C., which I have studied for Education Week and other publications. This community along Interstate 95 is, in fact, the birthplace of the school desegregation movement in our country. The Briggs vs. Elliott lawsuit (1952) was the first of several that together became Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), and was the most prominent of those cases argued before the Supreme Court.

The problem with continued school segregation in Mississippi, South Carolina, and many urban and suburban communities across the country isn’t that white people have fled. It’s that people are separated. Resources are divided. Taxpayer support is shaky. Quality is poor.

Former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter, a legendary advocate for educational improvement and better race relations in his state, called for reconciliation a few years ago in his acceptance speech for the 2008 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. “My perspective is that the best way to overcome these stresses is through sharing experiences—through working with others—through recognizing that we are all in this together and that the elements that we have in common are so much greater than the things that divide us,” Winter said. “By working with other people who may be different from us, the old barriers and the old stereotypes begin to fade away.”

Ain’t that true?

My friends who founded the nonprofit organization Parents for Public Schools (PPS) in Jackson were mainly middle- and upper-class white families in the capital city’s neat Fondren section (where The Help was set) who decided in the 1980s to send their children to public schools—not the white-dominated private schools created mainly in the late 1960s and early 1970s to avoid desegregation.

Many of those families kept the faith in public schools, and were joined by countless black families. PPS has evolved into a parent-engagement organization that still makes a positive impact on the Jackson Public Schools—and in other places through chapters in Cincinnati, San Francisco, Kalamazoo, Mich., and towns in the Mississippi Delta. (I’ve done some work for the national office of PPS.)

Change across the state—and other parts of our country—on the issue of school segregation will require more families to buck tradition in their communities. Black families in the Delta may need to threaten to abandon the public schools en masse. White families need to reinvest in public schools that often have challenges but also fall victim to urban myths rooted in racism and even sexual mores.

We do better together—and there’s plenty of evidence that shows children do, too. I’ll explore some of that evidence in a column to come.

Alan Richard is a journalist and communications consultant in Washington, D.C. A former writer for Education Week, he won national awards for his coverage of the South. He’s working on his first book, Summerton’s Children: Segregation in the Town Where Brown vs. Board of Education Began.

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  1. Alan,
    Thank you for this piece, and to Hechinger for the reporting on education issues here in MS. The long-standing racial separation between public and private schools is still the sad reality of educational life in Mississippi, and it forms the backdrop for the recent struggles over charter schools. Not sure that bucking public education en masse is really an option for us parents or educators in the Delta. What I’d rather see is a coalition of parents, educators, students, and community stepping up to reclaim the “public” part of public education and making our schools what they should have been all along. An important first step would be to make our elected representatives stop the long-standing school funding inequities and consistently fully fund the state’s public education formula (MAEP).

  2. Amen, Alan, and amen and ditto, Renee!

    Echoing my favorite words of Alan, “We do better together—and there’s plenty of evidence that shows children do, too.” And, also my favorite line from Renee’s comment, “What I’d rather see is a coalition of parents, educators, students, and community stepping up to reclaim the “public” part of public education and making our schools what they should have been all along.”

    As one of five Parent Coaches in MS working for PPS National under the Schoolhouse to Statehouse Program, I’ve found that in east central MS counties with two separate school districts, the “city/municipal” districts are usually majority black and the county districts are most likely to be majority white, which has lead to come county school districts being referred to as “the poor man’s private school.”

  3. It sure was fun for me, a white boy, growing up going to majority black schools. I got to experience wonderful diversity, from getting spit on and shoved around to being given neat nick names like “that lil’ white boy” or “cracka”. My favorite game was one where I would unassumingly look away only to find my belongings gone, either taken as reparations for the less fortunate or playfully thrown into school trashcans.

    I only wish more white people could experience it. Good times.

  4. Wow, “we do better together”. . .I’m waiting for that evidence, as all I have seen when black kids get with white kids as bullying. (Not from the whites.) You apparently don’t have a clue that this is also seen in the black on white crime rate, and the fact that 1 in 3 black men will be in jail in his life. Being 13% o the population, yet being 40% of the jail population also shows us peaceful whites want to be far away, not forced to be integrated with them. An education for an all black school is a complete waste of money, as they don’t want it, and they score like they are guessing. Or so the news anchors said about the test scores in Detroit schools. . . they are raised up, and made more passive when they are controlled and policed by whites in and around them, but that doesn’t justify the damage they do to the education of whites. More time is spent on misbahaving students then teaching now in the schools teachers say. This ends with more homework, whites being in the honor role classes to seperate them, and increased homeschooling or private schools. I would love to send my kids to a free school to socialize with good kids, but as we can’t afford private school, and even those have some blacks, we homeschool. My husband grew up going to a private school with only one black family. The kids were treated very nicely he said, but they were the terror of the school, and were kicked out. Blacks who are not a good part white just don’t mix in with passive whites, and it is because of two things: their low IQ, and their high testosterone. Look it up, and the effect low IQ and high testosterone have on other things. . .It’s not civilization.

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