As we mark the sixtieth anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling which declared separate public schools for white and black children inherently unequal, we confront the reality of public schools that are still single-race in too many communities in Mississippi and in America. We believe charter schools may be Mississippi’s best hope for integration in some of our persistently divided communities.
Mississippi has a long and ugly history of segregated public schools. Even after the Brown decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ten years later, Mississippi repeatedly devised tactics to obstruct federal integration requirements. One early effort was the creation of a “freedom of choice” policy that maintained the dual race-based school systems but allowed any student to choose any school in a district. With the help of civil rights activists, a few black families chose white schools for their children, but no white families chose black schools. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that Mississippi had to desegregate immediately, many white families, especially those in predominantly black districts, abandoned public schooling altogether in favor of private academies. Some districts experienced a brief period of integration through the 1970s and 1980s, but these gains have evaporated as many Mississippi school systems – public and private – have now become as hyper-segregated as ever before.
The missteps made during our early desegregation efforts, especially the falsely named “freedom of choice” policy, are why so many in the black community are suspicious of modern school choice policies. But can the public charter school movement of today actually provide a pathway to the long-held dream of integration in Mississippi?
This question is especially important considering criticism by prominent desegregation researcher Gary Orfield that charter schools contribute to segregation. Last week, Orfield’s Civil Rights Project released Brown at 60 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The report finds that overall racial segregation across the nation is increasing and suggests that charter schools are part of the problem, claiming that charter schools as a whole are deeply segregated. Critics have correctly pointed out a large flaw in the design of the Orfield charter studies, which draw a comparison between the demographics of charter schools located in hyper-segregated black neighborhoods and the demographics of the average traditional public school in a very large urban area instead of comparing charter schools to traditional public schools in the same hyper-segregated neighborhoods.
Flaws in his studies aside, Orfield’s work is based in the realities of large metropolitan areas where school demographics closely mirror segregated housing patterns. In the unique context of many Mississippi school districts in which fewer than a handful of schools are available to educate all the students in a county, the challenges and the opportunities look different. For those Mississippi parents who have evolved beyond the racial animus of their elders, the largest barrier to integration is school quality.
Today, many schools in Mississippi, whether public and private, are failing to provide our children with an excellent education. According to NAEP, the nation’s report card, Mississippi’s black students, white students, poor students, and non-poor students all rank among the lowest-performing students in the nation. ACT data from 2013 indicates that only 12% of Mississippi students graduate from high school meeting the four college readiness benchmarks. When parents are not able to make decisions based on quality, they tend to stick with the schools that are attended by their neighbors, their friends, or their church members. Other parents may simply leave their communities or the state in search of better schools.
Charter schools can provide a high-quality public option that can outweigh the outdated traditions and community norms that have enabled segregation. Charter schools are free to be more innovative and are held more accountable for improved student achievement. They cannot charge tuition, teach religion, or have admission requirements. In Mississippi, charter applicants face rigorous authorization processes before they are approved to open schools. As mandated by the Mississippi Charter Schools Act of 2013, 80% of a charter school’s student population must reflect the underserved population of the school district where it is located. This prohibits charters from becoming enclaves for more-advantaged students, while also providing significant space for a diverse student body. Currently, three groups across the state are in the application process to start charter schools in D and F school districts. These groups are responding to families in their communities who are looking for better educational options for their children. If charter schools can deliver, many families might set aside old mindsets and traditions to make a school choice for their children driven by quality, not race. Voluntary integration of schools may occur in places where it has never occurred before. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, we may finally see segregation dismantled.
To learn more about charter schools in Mississippi, visit mississippifirst.org.
Angela Bass is Deputy Director of Policy at Mississippi First, a 501c3 nonprofit specializing in education reform.