In New York City few Black students gain admission to the city’s nine specialized high schools that are regarded as some of the best in the nation. The New York Times reported just seven Black students have been offered a spot at Stuyvesant High School for next fall and that paltry number is two fewer than last year. Black students were offered just 5 percent of the seats at the specialized high schools though they represent 70 percent of public school enrollment in New York City.
Across the Hudson River in New Jersey’s largest city, Newark, the mayoral campaign is being shaped by the debate on the future of that city’s public school system. Already under state control, the state appointed school superintendent has proffered a plan titled “One Newark” that proposes school closings and conversions to charter schools, and is facing vocal opposition against the proposal in the Black community. Public education has long been a flash point in Newark; in fact it was a central factor in the 1967 uprising that claimed 26 lives. Today the status of public schools remains a divisive issue as the campaign between native sons Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries for the city’s top job illustrates. After the celebrity mayoral turn of now U.S. Senator Cory Booker, the reality of the dismal state of the city’s public schools is at the forefront of the mayoral campaign. Like most urban school districts in New Jersey the Newark public schools lag behind their suburban counterparts in terms of academic performance while admittedly confronted with a host of challenges not present in the suburbs.
This is not to suggest that all is well in the tree lined streets of America’s suburban school districts. The Prince George’s County public school district in Maryland has been struggling for years with leadership challenges and underwhelming academic performance in the suburban DC county that is politically controlled by African-Americans. And just minutes outside of Newark in the suburban South Orange and Maplewood public school district wide racial disparities exist in a district where Blacks comprise 44% of the schools and are a majority of the shared high school. Just this month the South Orange Maplewood public school district was cited as one of the 10 worst in the state of New Jersey for segregating special needs students by race; a distinction that now has the district under the mandate of a state court Consent Decree.
Sixty years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education the sad truth is that equity remains elusive in public education in the United States. While integration has produced many diverse school districts and individual schools there is now a hardening of racial stratification in the school building in many instances. Specific classes, mainly those identified as upper level or Advanced Placement, are becoming the sole territory of white or Asian students. How bad is it? In the South Orange Maplewood school district in 2011-2012, according to data obtained from the American Civil liberties Union (ACLU), of the 424 students in the district’s Columbia High School, or 22.8 percent of the total student body, who took at least one AP course during the 2011-2012 school year, 70 percent of those students were White, compared to only 20.9 percent of whom were Black, and 1.9 percent of whom were Hispanic. 72.7 percent of AP mathematics students were White, compared to 14.4 percent Black, and 3% Hispanic; 73.3 percent of AP science students were White, compared to 14.4 percent Black, and 1.1% Hispanic; 65.8 percent of AP foreign language students were White, compared to 28.9 percent Black, and 2.6 percent Hispanic; and 73 percent of all other AP subjects were White, compared to 17.3 percent Black, and 2 percent Hispanic. These statistics suggest a “diverse” school district in a predominantly white suburban community is maintaining apartheid-like conditions in its majority Black high school. And it is not alone in the maintenance of such racial disparities.
On Friday the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) released a report detailing the depths of racial stratification in public education. The findings though not surprising to anyone who has been following developments in public education were striking for the revelation of the early impact of disparate treatment based on race. The most striking statistic in the DOE report was that Black students represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 42 percent of preschool students facing a single suspension and 48 percent of preschool students suspended more than once. The report also detailed the degree to which Black students do not have access to courses in math and science that are considered essential to college admission and successful completion. The data also revealed the racial imbalance in disciplinary actions, a phenomenon that Attorney General Eric Holder has identified as problematic as it fuels the dropout rate among Black students and juvenile interaction with the criminal justice system. And the problem of unfair disciplinary actions is not solely a challenge for Black boys. The data shows that Black girls are suspended at higher rates than most boys, and students of color, boys and girls, are suspended at three times the rate of white students.
What the DOE data reinforces is the reality that the civil rights struggle is far from over and that public education remains the central battleground. With the advent of new national curriculum standards and the growth in publicly funded charter schools, Blacks are now confronted with an educational landscape that is not only uneven but appears tilted in the direction of diminished opportunities. During the period of Jim Crow that resulted in the Supreme Court striking down segregation as unconstitutional in Brown, in a unanimous decision, the message conveyed was that all students regardless of race had a constitutional right to equal access to public education. Today the situation is a bit more nuanced as access has often been granted to racially mixed schools but institutional bias within public school districts has the same effect of legal segregation. And in school districts that are majority Black issues of leadership, inequitable resource allocation from states, and poverty are denying millions of Black students a quality education.
What remains to be seen is whether a critical mass of Black advocates will emerge who will organize locally first and then nationally to take on education reform as a present day civil rights campaign.