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Segregation in the city we live (but pay little attention to)

| Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Just weeks ago, the South Bend Community School Corporation Board unanimously (and remarkably quickly) passed Focus 2018, a strategic plan which shuts down area schools, adjusts hours of operation and redraws enrollment boundaries. Though hardly unusual, Focus 2018 has confounded South Bend residents through its rushed passage and apparent ignorance of the ill effects of neighborhood schools in a segregated city. In 1981, the case United States v. South Bend Community School Corpreshaped the South Bend school system, establishing a consent decree that ordered the number of “black students in each school … be within 15 percent of the total percentage of black students in the school system.” The plan also “ensured student transportation and school closings would fall equitably on all racial groups,” adjusted faculty assignments and ordered “substantially equal disciplinary practices.”

The passage of Focus 2018 suggests the enduring pertinence of this consent decree (and others like it in cities across the nation). The normalization of plans like Focus 2018, however well-intentioned, could threaten the future educational opportunities of minority students.

In 1955, the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education deemed the Plessy v. Ferguson rule of “separate but equal” facilities for racial minorities to be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. This ruling served as a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement. The Court subsequently ordered schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” and from 1964 to 1988, desegregation accelerated as majority-white schools opened their doors to an increasing number of black students. However, in 1991, the Supreme Court authorized the termination of desegregation plans in Oklahoma City Board of Education v. DowellWithout federal oversight, school districts unintentionally (and sometimes, as in Tuscaloosa and others, intentionally) re-segregated, separating black and Latino students from their white counterparts.

Desegregation offered many minority students — previously educated in segregated schools with few resources and underqualified teachers — expanded educational opportunities. Significantly benefiting all black students, desegregation even improved the educational outcomes of the few minority students who attended high-performing segregated schools. Desegregation boosted adult attainments (education level, future occupation and probability of incarceration, among others) while producing no noticeable negative effect on white students.

Today, however, black and Latino students are disproportionately punished, suspended and dismissed from schools, crippling chances of academic achievement and obstructing efforts for “equitable and supportive learning environments for all students.” Black students are disproportionately arrested in public schools as compared to white students, resulting in a school-to-prison pipeline fueled by zero-tolerance policies. Beyond school discipline, residential segregation and the ill effects of concentrated poverty further disadvantage minority students trapped in segregated schools.

The New York Times reported on Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development research that showed the United States to be “one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students.” This inequality stems from the use of property taxes, which are “allocated to each taxpayer proportionately according to the value of the taxpayer’s property,” to fund public education. Schools with high concentrations of black and Hispanic students who qualify for free or reduced lunch — a commonly used indicator of poverty — continue to spread with subpar resources and instruction. If education is indeed “a great equalizer of the conditions of men,” as educational pioneer Horace Mann and politicians of both parties argue, then the problem of school segregation poses an existential threat to the American notion of equality.

In South Bend, NAACP activists and parents alike expressed concern for the future of the consent decree, along with the implications of the Focus 2018 plan. In Indiana, more than 70 percent of black students attend a non-white majority school, and in 2015, several South Bend schools showed concentrated black enrollment, inconsistent with county racial demographics. The Indiana Department of Education’s most recent “report card” largely failed South Bend’s schools with 22 D’s and F’s and only three A’s and B’s out of 33 schools. Officials have responded that these grades reflect a single test score and do not account for student improvement over the years.

Before Focus 2018 can be implemented, however, the School Corporation Board must receive approval from the Department of Justice asserting the plan’s compliance with the 1981 consent decree. The Focus 2018 plan’s impending implementation has left the community with an excess of questions. Does Focus 2018 mirror Tuscaloosa’s recent redistricting efforts in an attempt to recapture the hundreds of students lost to private schools and nearby school districts? Will Focus 2018’s emphasis on neighborhood schools, which draw students from the surrounding area, simply reflect South Bend’s documented residential segregation? Can Focus 2018’s combination of higher-performing magnet schools and underfunded neighborhood schools fix existing educational problems for all students, regardless of race or class?

Only time will tell whether the Board’s plan — informed by a single town hall meeting — will perpetuate or hinder segregation. For now, the future of the South Bend school system lies in the hands of the Justice Department.

Isabel Rooper is a sophomore. To contact her, email [email protected] 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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