By the numbers

Memphis school segregation worse than 50 years ago

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot/Chalkbeat
Students at the 2017 ribbon cutting for Aspire East Academy's new building in Memphis, one of six schools that are all black and Hispanic students.

Schools in Memphis have become increasingly segregated over the last 50 years, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, in which 90 percent or more of students are black. That’s up from about 40 percent in 1971 when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation.

Add in Hispanic children, whose share of the student population has dramatically increased since then, and more than 80 percent of schools are highly segregated.

 

Share of highly segregated Memphis schools

Note: The racial demographic data of Memphis schools comes from the Tennessee Department of Education for Shelby County Schools and Achievement School District for the 2016-17 school year.

And without a re-entry of white families into the city’s school system and massive policy changes, the segregation will only worsen, say academics who have traced Memphis African-American and education history.

The numbers in Chalkbeat’s analysis, like the 1971 ruling by Judge Robert McRae Jr. that ushered in an unpopular busing plan that failed to achieve integration as white families fled the city, do not include private or suburban schools.

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Judge Robert McRae Jr., who oversaw desegregation orders in Memphis.

According to Marcus Pohlmann, author of “Opportunity Lost,” which chronicles Memphis education history, the two largest events that created the “obvious resegregation” of schools in Tennessee’s largest district were: white families fleeing public schools in masse after desegregation orders went into effect in the 1970s; and the creation of six suburban districts in 2014, which dismantled the historic merger of the mostly black and poor city school system with a largely white and affluent county district.

“Any hope of maybe tweaking the boundaries of this large countywide school system to reduce that to a degree, disappeared,” Pohlmann said.

Memphis is hardly alone in this trend. Federal data shows the share of schools with high percentages of poor and black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent between 2000 and 2014. Those students often had fewer college preparatory classes and had higher rates of being held back in ninth grade. And after school districts dismantled assignment systems meant to spur integration as court orders were lifted, researchers found black and Hispanic students began dropping out at higher rates.

But unlike other cities, Memphis can’t claim a resurgence in segregated schools, says Daniel Kiel, a University of Memphis professor who has researched local school segregation.

“It’s hard to say schools resegregated when they never stopped being segregated in any meaningful way,” he told Chalkbeat.

As the nation prepares to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for equality on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, Chalkbeat’s analysis of segregation in schools show how little has changed.

“I cannot see how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life,” he said in his last book in 1967, “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?”

Charles McKinney, the chair of Africana studies at Rhodes College, said the demographic comparison is “a confirmation of what we already know.”

“Some of the primary indicators of poverty and inequality are largely unmoved over the course of the last 50 years,” he said. “This should not be a surprise. Anyone who acts surprised now, just isn’t paying attention.”

The shift in student demographics of Memphis schools over the last half-century —from 46 to 7 percent white — is one of the most revealing changes. Black students increased from 54 to 79 percent of Memphis schools.

Memphis student racial makeup

Despite the stark differences, there are fewer schools now that are all black and none that are all white. In 1971, there were 29 schools that were all black and 18 that were all white. Now, just three Memphis schools are all black and none are all white, according to state data. Six are all black and Hispanic students.

About 7,700 more black students attend highly segregated schools now, though as a percentage of black students, that is slightly lower than in 1971. Add in Hispanic students and that number jumps to 16,112 more students of color in highly segregated schools.

Black students attending highly segregated schools

After several iterations of a desegregation plan in Memphis that included busing students to schools to mix up their racial demographics, thousands of white students fled the city school system and numerous private schools opened to absorb them.

Memphis City Schools attempted to entice white families to stay in the district by launching “optional schools” in the 1970s where students test into more rigorous, specialized programs. Though that measure found nominal success in retaining black middle-class and some white families, McKinney said the concept defeats the purpose of true integration. He cited programs like Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, which became an all-optional school in 2014 and East High School, which by phasing in its optional program displaces neighborhood children to other schools.

“We’ve created a formula that literally states that school quality is predicated on the removal of the kids who most need access to quality education,” he said. “That’s absurd.”

To reduce segregation in Memphis schools, Kiel said it would take both an enormous amount of will from white families to integrate Memphis schools and policy changes to dismantle the fragmented educational landscape the city has today.

“Tweaks of policies that are not accompanied by an underlying belief in the rationale for those policies — that has undercut the goals of the policies in the first place,” he said. “That’s not a failure of the policies, that’s a failure of the people’s will.”

McKinney agreed with a sentiment trumpeted by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who while visiting Memphis last week said the Bluff City is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about how school segregation worsens.

“If you say you are really concerned about enduring segregation in Memphis and Shelby County, you’re the primary driver of that segregation,” he said. “So, how are you going to disinvest in segregation? You have to make a course correction.”

If trends of school segregation continue, the whole city is negatively impacted, Pohlmann said.

“Whites are less likely to be concerned with poorer predominantly black schools. Citywide social relations are damaged, especially making it harder to breakdown stereotypes,” he said.

“As long as we allow this level of economic inequality in society, things like race and class segregation in the schools are just almost inevitable.”

disintegration

In most U.S. cities, neighborhoods have grown more integrated. Their schools haven’t.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Between 1990 and 2015, Seattle’s neighborhoods saw a notable decline in racial segregation.

It would make sense, then, to think that the city’s public schools had also become more integrated. Not so.

In fact, they were headed in the opposite direction. In 1990, only 3 percent of schools were intensely segregated — that is, at least 90 percent of students were nonwhite — but by 2015, that number had spiked to 17 percent.

That’s not entirely surprising. During that time, a high-profile Supreme Court case made it more difficult for Seattle to integrate its schools by race. But new research looking at America’s 100 largest cities shows that the diverging trends in Seattle — neighborhoods growing more diverse, as their schools grow more segregated — is not an anomaly.

The analysis finds that, between 1990 and 2015, 72 percent of U.S. cities saw their neighborhoods grow less racially segregated, by one measure. Sixty-two percent saw their schools grow more segregated over that same period.

“There is this incredibly striking trend,” said Ryan Coughlan, a professor at Guttman Community College, CUNY, who conducted the research. “It raises all kinds of alarm bells and questions as to what that’s about.”

Most cities did not see schools segregate as much as Seattle did. And 27 cities, like Durham, North Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee, saw both their schools and neighborhoods grow less segregated in concert over that 25-year period. But overall, the study finds that integrating neighborhoods didn’t predict integrating schools in those same cities.

The analysis has significant limits, particularly when looking at single cities. It uses one of several possible ways to measure segregation: the degree to which the racial breakdown of students in individual schools or neighborhoods mirror the demographics of the rest of the district or city. In most cases, charter schools are not included. That makes the data less useful in places like Detroit, where charters now enroll half the city’s students.

The big-picture trend matters, though. More integrated schools have long been shown to improve academic outcomes for low-income students and students of color. Living in a more integrated neighborhood has also been linked to long-run benefits for younger kids.

“Because of the connections between integration and educational opportunities, the dramatic increase in school segregation alongside the decrease in neighborhood segregation requires the immediate attention of school leaders, policymakers, and the public as a whole,” Coughlan wrote.

What’s behind those trends?

The analysis, published last month in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, can’t say why that’s happening. The end of many legal desegregation orders during that time likely played a role. Coughlan also hypothesizes that the rapid increase in school choice, through charter schools and other means, had something to with it.

“These are 100 different urban areas with very different circumstances,” Coughlan said.

The paper’s starting point is 1990, before the first charter school law passed in the U.S. Since then, school choice has rapidly grown, through charters and other means.

In Seattle, though, charter schools are almost certainly not the cause of its increase in school segregation, since the city has very few.

Another city that saw a major spike in school segregation along with a modest decline in neighborhood segregation is Charlotte. Like Seattle, it’s seen a resegregation of schools in the wake of high-profile court cases.

Charlotte also has a number of charter schools; there and elsewhere in North Carolina, other research has found that charters have likely exacerbated segregation. (Coughlan’s Charlotte data does not include charter schools.) Nationally, research has shown that charters either exacerbate school segregation or have no effect on it.

“The broader literature at this point I think shows that charter schools do not integrate schools,” said Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who studies segregation.

Other research has shown that the existence of different school options can promote neighborhood integration (also described as gentrification). That could help explain Coughlan’s results, with a family’s ability to opt out of a neighborhood school encouraging their move to a neighborhood they wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

The disconnect between housing and schooling trends has important implications. For one, it means that divided neighborhoods shouldn’t be used as an excuse to do nothing about divided schools, said Tomas Monarrez, a researcher at the Urban Institute who has studied school boundaries.

“Neighborhood segregation is the result of a long, long history of discriminatory policies both on the part of private agents and the federal government,” he said. “School systems have gotten to ride that and say segregation’s not our fault.”

Instead, he argued, school leaders should be taking affirmative steps to integrate schools, and recognize that they may have to continually adjust their policies. “School attendance boundaries don’t have to replicate neighborhood segregation,” Monarrez said. “You can gerrymander school attendance boundaries to decrease it.”

City-by-city data

You can look up how residential and school segregation changed in your city from 1990 to 2015 below. Keep in mind that a city and its corresponding school district do not always overlap perfectly — the school data for Indianapolis, for example, includes just the Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s central district but one of 11 districts in the city.

Segregation, here, means the degree to which the demographics of students in individual schools mirror the rest of the city’s public school students. This captures whether different groups of students are spread evenly across schools in a city, but it doesn’t say much about cities where virtually all students are students of color. Most segregation occurs between rather than within school districts.

Source: “Divergent Trends in Neighborhood and School Segregation in the Age of School Choice,” Peabody Journal of Education.

counterpoint

Some Asian American groups have backed the SHSAT, but this one says the exam should go

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School is one of the city's most sought-after specialized high schools.

In the fight to integrate New York City’s coveted specialized high schools, one source of opposition has stood out.

Asian parents and alumni have waved signs at City Hall, heckled education leaders at town halls, and marched in protest of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the test that serves as the sole entrance criteria for the elite schools.

That’s why it’s noteworthy that the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families is calling for the test to be nixed in favor of an admissions system that weighs multiple factors, releasing a report on Tuesday that attempts to bring nuance to a debate that has often played out in sound bites.

“We believe that current admissions processes to specialized high schools contribute to the problems of segregation and inequity in NYC public schools,” the advocacy organization’s report notes.

Specialized high schools enroll a disproportionate share of Asian students. Many have argued that the mayor’s plan, which aims to enroll more black and Hispanic students in the schools, pits one community of color against others. Only about 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, even though those students comprise about 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The Coalition’s report offers a counter-narrative to the debate, highlighting that many Asian organizations have long called for admissions changes at the specialized high schools and arguing that Asian students would benefit from an overhaul.

But the organization stops short of endorsing de Blasio’s proposal, blasting his administration for failing to include the Asian community in its development or rollout. (One of the coalition’s co-directors is a mayoral appointee to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy.)  

“We remain highly critical of the processes that he and the Department of Education have taken in crafting and releasing those proposals to the public,” the report says.

An education department spokesman said the city looks forward to working with the coalition to eliminate the test, and said the city is presenting its plan to every community school district.

The report comes as parents are considering suing over the city’s diversity efforts and supporters of the test have hired a lobbyist to fight the potential changes.

The coalition’s stance also highlights the steep challenge de Blasio faces as he gears up to lobby state lawmakers to scrap the entrance exam, which is currently required by state law. Though Democrats managed to gain control of the Senate in the latest election, the issue doesn’t have a clear party line — and some of the mayor’s natural allies have expressed doubt, or even backed away from the mayor’s proposal.

Read the full report here