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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.
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.