City's schools lead U.S. in segregation

The Education Beat

Pattern: Reports raise questions about the isolation of black students and inequities in funding.

August 11, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BY ONE KEY measure -- the isolation of black students -- Baltimore has the most segregated school system in the nation.

That finding, from a report issued Friday by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, might not be surprising. Still, it's startling to see Baltimore at the top of a list of American districts with the lowest occurrence of black and white students attending the same schools.

How low? In 2000, 5.9 percent of black kids in the city went to school with whites. That's a lower percentage than New York City (6.6 percent), Miami (6.8 percent), Prince George's County (9.1 percent) or St. Louis (13.2 percent). And we know the situation hasn't improved appreciably in two years.

"In Baltimore City, the average white attends a school that is almost half-white," the report says, "yet whites comprise just over 10 percent of the entire enrollment. Blacks in cities similar to Baltimore [attend school with whites less frequently] because whites are isolated despite making up only a tiny percentage of the total enrollment."

On the other side of the coin, black and white students attend the same schools most frequently in districts that are predominantly white and suburban. Most of those are in the western United States, but the district leading the national list is Carroll County, whose 2.3 percent black enrollment is so spread out that 94.3 percent of the county's black students are in school with whites.

That's an amazing pattern: Over here, we have starkly segregated Baltimore, whose few remaining whites are concentrated in a handful of schools. Over there, just a few miles away we have rapidly suburbanizing Carroll, with few blacks.

In between: northwest Baltimore County, a district that has seen a 26.8 percent decrease in black and white students attending the same schools since 1986. The county is one of many districts, predominantly in the South, that have resegregated in the past couple of decades, according to the report. This has wiped out gains made after the Supreme Court's Brown decision almost a half-century ago.

The report, Race in American Public Schools: Rapidly Resegregating, says that "virtually all" of the nation's districts with enrollment above 25,000 are becoming more segregated for black and Latino students.

"Blacks are the most isolated from whites in districts with either no desegregation plans or where the courts rejected city-suburban desegregation," says the report. The city tinkered a bit in the mid-1970s, "pairing" a few elementary schools (putting primary grades in one school, upper elementary grades in another) and at one time adopted a junior high zoning plan that was ludicrously gerrymandered.

Meanwhile, Baltimore County officials stood by silently as schools grew segregated along the north and northwest corridors. And those brave enough to suggest cross-district remedies were shouted down.

You could argue, and many do, that remedial action wouldn't have made any difference, that residential segregation occurs no matter what the schools do to counter its effects. But it's sad to see what the report calls the "steady unraveling of almost 25 years' worth of increased integration."

Again, so much effort -- and little to show for it

The day before the Harvard report, the respected Washington-based Education Trust came out with a report on a related theme. In most states, the report says, school districts with the neediest students and highest concentrations of minorities receive far less state and local aid than wealthier districts.

Again, little surprise that districts with the most need often get the least money. Again, sad to realize that so much effort, so many court suits over so many years have produced so little.

But the Education Trust report, like the one from Harvard, is based on data from 2000. That year, the gap between have and have-not districts in Maryland was $912 for each student. And it had widened by 30 percent since 1997. Enter the Thornton Commission, such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and other enlightened folks. The General Assembly this year approved $1.3 billion in new spending over six years. Most will go to the neediest districts.

Again, some argue that the effects of poverty and family background overwhelm anything schools can do. And others argue that money and organization don't count for a lot.

"While the state spends sufficient money, and while its school organization is theoretically sound, yet the federal census ... ranks Maryland 23rd among the states in illiteracy."

That was Abraham Flexner, the father of Maryland's modern public school system -- in 1916.

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