Ferrel Guillory: Should resegregation be a choice?

Published 11:49 pm Monday, January 23, 2017

In its 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court spoke in powerfully direct language. As it struck down the South’s “separate but equal’’ schools for whites and for blacks, the unanimous court declared, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments,” the court said. “Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.”

A confluence of events last week made it seem apt to revisit the language of the historic high court ruling. The nation celebrated the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Barack Obama would spend his final day in the White House as the nation’s first black president. Donald Trump, elected after a campaign that escalated racial frictions, would take the oath of office. In a confirmation hearing, a Senate committee examined his appointee as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, a long-time advocate of charter schools and private-school vouchers as alternatives to traditional public schools. And next week is National School Choice Week.

The Trump administration appears poised to intensify federal support for charter schools and for tax-funded assistance to students in private schools. The national debate will surely echo in North Carolina’s great debate over the future of its preK-12 schools. And education remains, as it has historically, a catalyst for bridging America’s racial fault line.

Enrollment in North Carolina charter schools rose by more than 9,000 students in the past year, while district-run public schools had a 3,400-student decline. Still the 1.4 million public school students far out-number the 92,000 students in charter schools.

Meanwhile, evidence from academic research and from state data suggest that shifts in charter-school enrollment patterns have contributed to further segregation of black and low-income students in North Carolina schools. “As choice and charters expand, so does segregation,’’ said the headline on a recent essay by the UNC-Charlotte Urban Institute that summarized research and focused on Mecklenburg County.

In spring 2016, Professor Helen Ladd and two colleagues at Duke University published an extensive research paper on what they termed “the growing segmentation of the charter school sector in North Carolina.” North Carolina has continued to bring on new charters since they issued their findings. They wrote that the “marked change in the racial composition of charter schools largely reflects two complementary trends: the closure of charter schools with relatively small proportions of white students and the opening of charter schools with high proportions’’ of white students.

To be true to recent history, you cannot attribute solely to charters the resegregation in North Carolina and Southern schools. The South responded to the Brown ruling with resistance and delay, with “freedom of choice’’ plans and the development of all-white private “segregation academies.”

It was not until a cluster of court rulings, culminating in the 1971 Swannbusing case in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, that substantial desegregation took hold across the South. Desegregation peaked in the late 1980s when more than 40 percent of black students were enrolled in majority-white schools. But then as federal courts lifted mandatory desegregation orders, local systems across the region fell back into having more racially distinct schools.

For the foreseeable future, preK-12 education will continue to be delivered by a diverse mixture of public, public-funded charter and private schools. The state’s larger districts have expanded their offerings of magnet and special-focus schools as a response to the parents’ desire for “choice’’ and to attempt to preserve some measure of racial, ethnic, and income balance in classrooms.

No doubt, operators and advocates of charter schools — as well as private schools with students receiving vouchers — would howl in protest at the suggestion that they resemble the old “seg academies.” Indeed, North Carolina no longer has a Jim Crow-style law requiring separate black and white schools. What it has now are policies and funding designed to accommodate “parental choice,” a phrase of emotional potency.

To stymie further public school resegregation will require multiple, often difficult decisions and judgment calls at the local level. To prevent charters from becoming something akin to “segregation academies’’ will require state authorities to adopt stronger standards and exercise critical oversight.

Even if today’s “parental choice’’ policies do not arise from a Jim Crow law, can North Carolina ignore what actually results? Isn’t it the role of public policy to balance individual choice with a commitment to the common good — and to avoid falling back to schools that are “inherently unequal”?

Guillory is director of the Program on Public Life, professor of the practice at UNC School of Media and Journalism, and vice chair of EducationNC.