Courts and Law

Fifty years later, segregation battles still in the courts

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Here’s one word you don’t often hear being bandied about in the General Assembly while debates continue over charter schools, vouchers and funding: Segregation.

To many, it’s a term for the archives, the stuff of black-and-white highlight reels.

But this Monday, in federal court in Greenville, segregation will be front-and-center as Senior U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard opens hearings in a case involving an order that dates back to 1965.

In Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education, parents have asked Howard to reject a 2011 school assignment plan which, they say, leaves several district schools racially and academically imbalanced.

But Pitt County contends that it considered race as just one of several factors when approving the plan, as it was entitled to do under U.S. Supreme Court precedent and under the terms of a prior court order. The county school board wants the judge to declare the district compliant with prior desegregation orders and remove it, once and for all, from further court supervision – attaining so-called “unitary status,” in desegregation parlance.

It’s the first major desegregation status case in North Carolina since 1999, according to attorneys from the UNC Center for Civil Rights, who represent the plaintiffs, and one that the more than 100 school districts across the South still operating under desegregation orders will be watching.

But it’s also a case that resurrects a concept many thought dead — a reminder that racial, ethnic and class isolation persists in both traditional public schools and their so-called “reform” partners in the school choice sector.

“Nowhere in the U.S. is there so much experience with segregation and its predictable consequences than in the South,” wrote Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Erica Frankenberg in a recent report for the Civil Rights Project. “If the region is to recover from those consequences and build an enduring and successful multiracial future, it badly needs to tackle new initiatives and policies to deal with the realities of a complex, deeply multiracial society where whites are one of several major minorities.”

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Pitt County, located in the eastern part of the state, is a microcosm of a multiracial and class-stratified population growing in North Carolina.  Fifty-nine percent of its approximately 170,000 residents are white, 34 percent black and five percent, Latino. Nearly 24 percent live in poverty – higher than the state’s 15 percent average. That includes the more than one in four children, and some 64 percent of those enrolled in public schools qualify for free or reduced meals. Unemployment there hovers at the ten percent mark.

In its 35 public schools, African-American students make up the majority, according to district records. In 2012-13, close to 48 percent of its students were black, 38 percent white, and 10 percent Latino.

The county school board (which merged with Greenville City Schools in 1986) has been subject to a desegregation order since 1965, when the federal court found that the district was operating racially-segregated, dual and unconstitutional school systems, and required it to submit plans which would achieve balanced enrollment similar to the school age population in the district and “eradicate the vestiges of the dual school system and eliminate the effects of segregation.”

Although the county remained subject to that order and ongoing supervision, the court in 1972 removed the district from its active docket pending objections over any new plans that might be brought to its attention.

In 2006, the Greenville Parents Association filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, contending that the district’s 2006-07 assignment plan discriminated against white students because it used race to balance some of its elementary school population.   A settlement followed in November 2009, with the court reiterating the district’s continued desegregation obligations under earlier orders.

In late 2010, the district approved a school assignment plan for 2011-12 which the parents in Everett say left some schools with high minority, low-achieving student bodies, in violation of prior court orders. The percentage of white students at the district’s C.M. Eppes Middle School dropped to 25 percent; at Elmhurst Elementary, to 23 percent; and at South Greenville Elementary, to 17 percent. The district also opened a new elementary school, Lakeforest, with only 12 percent white students.  Each of those schools likewise had a corresponding drop in student proficiency rates.

The parents also contend that, of the schools not included in the reassignment, many remain racially imbalanced and low-achieving and are operating over capacity.

But the district claims it has complied with court orders and has largely achieved racial balance throughout the district in terms of student assignment, faculty composition, comparable school facilities and resources and transportation, and argues that a district can still be balanced as a whole even though the numbers in a few schools are not. It also relies on a court-approved 2007 attendance area policy that eliminated race as the sole measure of diversity.

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It’s been nearly 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and ordered desegregation to occur “with all deliberate speed.” It took more than ten years following Brown, though, for the Court to give that edict some teeth, ruling in Green v. County School Board that challenged school districts had to prove in court that they had created “unitary” systems in which schools were no longer identified along racial lines.

Following Green, the South became the most integrated region in the country for black students.  But in the early 1990s, an increasingly conservative Supreme Court began to modify the standards by which school districts would be judged when asking to be released from court supervision, allowing factors such as the demographics of student population and the good faith of the district to be considered.

What followed, experts say, was a period of relative laxity in the enforcement of desegregation orders — and a resegregation bounceback. More than 200 school districts came out from under court supervision, including Charlotte.  According to the Civil Rights Project, an average black student there in 1991 attended a school that was evenly split, racially; now, two decades after the end of the desegregation order, the average black student attends a school with a 76 percent minority student body.

Another 200 districts, though, continue to operate under desegregation orders, and the Justice Department claims to have reinvigorated its enforcement of those orders.

Just this past week the Department entered into a consent order with a Tennessee school district, which among other things requires the district to close some segregated schools, build a new school and revise its attendance zone lines.

And in March it did the same with a district in Georgia, requiring the school board there to alter its attendance zones and increase minority enrollment to reflect the reflect the racial composition of the district as a whole. The order in that case also requires the district to eliminate racial disparities in how teachers and staff are assigned to the district’s schools and to engage in affirmative efforts to recruit African-American personnel.

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North Carolina, along with most of the country, is becoming increasingly multiracial.

Though states in the South still educate the highest percentages of black students in the country, the percentage of Latino students here has grown exponentially. Today, they account for nearly the same share (23 percent) of the region’s enrollment as black students (26 percent).

But efforts to balance student bodies to reflect that population have either subsided or met with little success. A recent study of data from the U.S. Department of Education reveals that an overwhelming majority of those students study in racially isolated classrooms: 80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of black students are in schools where the majority is non-white.

Part of that can be attributed to the fact that Latinos were not included in most early desegregation orders and their civil rights were not expressly recognized by the courts until 1973.

But renewed resegregation can also be attributed to the priority that’s been given to reform efforts like vouchers and charter schools over the need to achieve balance in the schools.

For example, North Carolina’s charter school law expressly provides that charter school populations reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the area’s general population.

But that has not happened.  Instead, charter schools here are even more segregated than their public school counterparts – an imbalance yet to be challenged in the courts.

That collision between desegregation and school choice is currently being played out in Arkansas, though, where the Little Rock School District sued the state, saying it violated a prior desegregation order by creating an open-enrollment charter school system without first seeking court approval.

It’s a battle that opens a new chapter in desegregation history, one that’s likely to be played out elsewhere, according to experts.

And it’s one, according to Siegel-Hawley, that the South is uniquely qualified to handle, because many in positions to eliminate racial isolation are themselves the products of desegregated schools.

“Many Southerners grasp the on-going significance of race, having grown up in a region where slavery and Jim Crow were such critical components of area history,” she wrote. “These graduates know first-hand that diverse schools have the potential to break down stereotypes and forge meaningful friendships across racial lines.”

(Monday’s trial in Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education begins at 10 a.m. at the United States Courthouse in Greenville. We’ll have updates next week.)