We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Mara Casey Tieken, author of Why Rural Schools Matter. From headlines to documentaries, urban schools are at the center of current debates about education. From these accounts, one would never know that 51 million Americans live in rural communities and depend on their public schools to meet not only educational but also social and economic needs. For many communities, these schools are the ties that bind. This book shares the untold story of rural education. Drawing upon extensive research in two southern towns, Tieken exposes the complicated ways in which schools shape the racial dynamics of their towns and sustain the communities that surround them. Vividly demonstrating the effects of constricted definitions of public education in an era of economic turmoil and widening inequality, Tieken calls for a more contextual approach to education policymaking, involving both state and community.
In today’s post, Tieken discusses the desegregation effect of Brown v. Board of Education, and the more recent reversion toward resegregation in U.S. schools.
Somewhere during these past six decades, our nation reversed course. What had been a slow march towards school desegregation has become instead a rapid retreat from that goal. This about-face is not accidental—and recent education policymaking is largely to blame.
This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that found racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. In large measure, the decision worked. Though it took many years—and the added weight of executive orders, U.S. troops, and the Civil Rights Act—slowly, the nation’s schools began to integrate. By the late 1980s, gains in desegregation were significant, particularly for black students. The South saw the largest gains: the year of the Brown decision, no black student was attending a majority white school, but, by 1988, 44 percent were. The South had become the most integrated region of the country.
Delight, Arkansas, was one of the success stories. In a state notorious for its civil rights history, this small rural district quietly works towards desegregation. Through several school closures and reorganizations in the 1960s and 1980s, the Delight school district came to encompass students from six small towns—three nearly all-white, two nearly all-black, and one more racially mixed. The process certainly had its faults: in the closure of its schools, the black community bore a cost the white community never did. Yet it also had a supportive leadership and teaching staff. As a former superintendent explained, “when kids came here, black or white, they were Bulldogs and we all pulled together.”
When I visited Delight for the first time in 2007, I found a desegregated district. Its one K-12 school, with 330 60students, was about 60 percent white and 30 percent African American (with the remaining 10 percent international students, due to a robust international program). More telling than numbers were the details: black students spent the night at the houses of white classmates, the rosters of AP classes listed both black and white students, and the school ran smoothly under the leadership of a black principal and a diverse school board. Delight sometimes struggled with racialized incidents—a racial epithet heard on the playground or a parent’s ignorant comment. But, however imperfectly and incompletely, it was moving towards the promise of Brown.
Today, though, we see a different reality: our nation’s schools are resegregating. Since 1988, every region of the country has seen an increase in the proportion of black students attending intensely segregated schools (schools in which 90 to 100 percent of the student body is a student of color).
And these trends have even reached the ruralest corners of Arkansas. In 2010, the Delight school district was closed, lost to district consolidation. Due to new district lines, school choice policies, and lingering residential segregation, most white Delight students were assigned to a nearly all-white district, while most black Delight students found themselves in a district with a much higher black population. A desegregated district vanished, the lines of race redrawn.
These results should not surprise us. The last time the federal government issued legislation in support of desegregation was during the early 1970s. Recent Supreme Court decisions have ended desegregation plans and reduced the tools and resources necessary for pursuing a racially mixed student body.
But recent trends are not just the effect of restricted or absent policies; current education policies seem to actually cause resegregation. Accountability mandates, testing sanctions, and charter school laws have all contributed. It was Arkansas’s Act 60 that led to Delight’s closure: through its strict 350-student district enrollment minimum, this little corner of the state was left a bit more racially separate. Though these policies say little about race, this is often their very flaw: colorblindness has racialized consequences.
Today’s educational policies are driven by data and motivated by competition—indicators and values we assume to be unbiased and racially neutral. Yet these policies are anything but impartial. The achievement sanctions of No Child Left Behind have hit intensely segregated schools the hardest, often hastening the flight of the few white children that had remained. Many charter schools offer racially isolated alternatives to traditional public schools; nationally, their net influence has been another resegregating force. And in Arkansas, I watched one beloved, desegregated district close, simply for the numbers.
As we’ve seen in these past sixty years, desegregated schools won’t simply happen. It takes willing leadership, supportive teachers, and smart education policies—policies that make racial integration as important as test scores or enrollment minimums.
With Brown came the promise of an integrated nation and a more vibrant, equitable democracy. We know how to achieve that promise; in fact, not too long ago, we were working toward that goal. With the right policies, we can resume that journey.
Mara Casey Tieken is assistant professor of education at Bates College and coauthor of Inside Urban Charter Schools: Promising Practices and Strategies in Five High-Performing Schools. Her new book, Why Rural Schools Matter, is now available.