Are These the Schools Southerners Want?


By Todd S. Hawley and Adam W. Jordan

As we continue our “anti-dumbass” campaign to champion and improve Southern public schools for all students, we maintain our focus on the influence poverty, race, and racism continue to play in schools. Within the current political and cultural climate, there looms a growing sense of separation, where private interests replace democratic interests and the rich and powerful profit while the poor and underserved continue to struggle. You might think we were living in the 1930s or 1940s. This is, however, 2017, and the resegregation of public schools is increasing at an alarming rate.

As parents and proud Southerners we constantly ask ourselves, are these the schools we want? Are these the schools we need? Is this the way we want to prepare our children for the future? What scares us the most is that this is happening without much pushback. As Southern schools continue to resegregate, as communities secede from larger county school districts and state legislatures vote to dismantle integration efforts, the result is greater separation and less equity for all students. Add to this the push for greater school choice and a national budget proposal that would move millions of tax dollars from public schools to for-profit charters as well as private and religious schools, and you have the potential to reverse decades of work to integrate Southern schools.

The impact of rising numbers of segregated schools is highlighted in a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. According to the GAO report, “From school years 2000-01 to 2013-14 (the most recent data available), the percentage of all K-12 public schools that had high percentages of poor and black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent.” In these schools, “75 to 100 percent of the students were black or Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch.” The most telling aspect of the report is this finding: “Compared with other schools, these schools offered disproportionately fewer math, science, and college-preparatory courses and had disproportionately higher rates of students who were held back in ninth grade, suspended, or expelled.”

Again, we ask, are these the schools we want? Are these the schools we need? Is this how we want to prepare our children for the future? If the answer is “no,” then we have to resist the resegregation of public schools and promote inclusive schools that bring students together in integrated schools.

Rather than depending only on black and Hispanic families to mount the fight against these regressive policies and approaches to education, we call on those who benefit from these policies to acknowledge and own their complicity in the growing belief that resegregating schools and communities is an acceptable practice. What if upper- and middle-class white people in the South, the groups most likely to leverage their considerable privilege and cultural capital to promote the resegregation of public schools, were to speak up and resist the return to old ways of doing business? These families should leverage their privilege to create a system that benefits everyone, rather than separating themselves from everyone else. We believe that part of the solution is to actually admit that we are allowing school districts, state legislatures, and federal officials to turn back the clock. It’s time to shine a light on regressive policies that have been dismantling decades of progress. This is essential if we are to bring attention to the promise of a democratic system of public schools where all students learn and live together as part of the same community. Otherwise, we will continue to allow resegregation to expand in plain sight.

Fortunately, certain advocacy groups and political leaders are leveraging their privilege to help bring about change in public schools.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is dedicated to highlighting and confronting discriminatory, segregationist school policies. The SPLC has created a curriculum to assist teachers as they work with their students to explore issues of diversity, identity, and action. The Network for Public Education is an advocacy group whose mission is “to preserve, promote, improve, and strengthen public schools for both current and future generations of students.” And U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., recently launched a new project called DeVos Watch. DeVos Watch was created to maintain the public’s focus on the work of the current U.S. secretary of education and her efforts to funnel public funds into for-profit charter, private, and religious schools. Warren’s efforts provide space for all Americans to hold Secretary DeVos accountable to the wishes of the public.

Each of these efforts provides a small glimpse into the potential for privileged citizens to advocate for families from diverse and impoverished communities. This is the type of work that we hope our column inspires.

Are you working to improve public schools for everyone? Do you know of individuals, groups, or organizations are doing this work? If so, please join our efforts and let us know who they are. We hope that you will use this link to share their stories with us. We are always looking for people and groups to highlight as we continue this fight. We also hope you will be inspired to use your own privilege to make public schools more inclusive where you live and work. What might seem like a small step has the power to leverage real change. We encourage you to ask questions, to attend school board meetings, to call or write your local and national elected officials and to make your work visible on social media. Without a concerted effort to confront the resegregation of public schools, we will soon find ourselves living in the 1930s as we approach 2020. These are not the schools we want, these are not the schools we need, and this is certainly not the way we want to prepare our children for the future. Will you join us in this fight? The future of the South and the future of our democratic way of living depends on it.

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