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On Brown anniversary, GAO report finds segregation deepening

At the same time, City Council grills District officials on why schools lack basic services.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Today is the 62nd anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional.

The decision voided Jim Crow laws in Southern states that deliberately segregated schools. It did not address – nor did it slow – segregation arising from housing patterns or federal policies, including lending practices that redlined neighborhoods of color and made it nearly impossible for Blacks to move to the suburbs.

The Government Accountability Office on Tuesday released a study with the muted title, "Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination." The bottom line: Today, schools are more segregated than ever by both race and income.

From 2001 to 2014, the report found, the number of schools where at least 75 percent – and in some cases 100 percent – of their students are low income and Black or Hispanic grew from 9 percent to 16 percent.

And these schools, according to the GAO analysis of U.S. Department of Education data, were less likely to offer math, science, and college prep courses, and more of their students were held back in 9th grade, suspended, or expelled.

These conditions are reflected in the Philadelphia region. Here, school districts flush with resources and educating a predominantly White student body surround the city, whose overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic district is short on school nurses, college counselors, libraries, the availability of art and music instruction, and — in many cases, paper, pencils, enough textbooks, etc. Some inner-ring suburbs such as William Penn, which has a predominantly Black enrollment, are in a similar situation. Tax rates are high, but they raise less money than neighboring districts like Radnor with lower tax rates but greater household income levels and higher property values.

The Inquirer wrote about this 12 years ago on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, including a feature on the William Penn district. Since then, the trends have only accelerated.

Another report released on the Brown anniversary by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA analyzed segregation by state and found that 45 percent of Black students in Pennsylvania attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent non-White, ranking it 8th among the states. Pennsylvania ranks 11th in the segregation of Latino students, with 30 percent attending schools that are 90 to 100 percent non-White.

Pennsylvania is also ranked as the state with one of the most inequitable funding systems in the country, resulting in the largest spending disparities among wealthy and poor districts.

These realities were on full display Tuesday in City Council as members grilled Philadelphia School District officials about the District’s budget and why they do not or cannot provide basic necessities to schools, teachers, and students. Superintendent William Hite outlined investments he wants to make but repeated the District’s need for more revenue and more stable funding streams – while not actually asking Council for more money for next year.

Now, the District’s projected costs are rising at twice the rate of expected revenues, and a huge structural deficit will hit in 2019, he said.

"Let me be clear –­ our budget cannot be a set of yo-­yo investments, spending one year and cutting back the next. We need year-over-year investments to succeed," he said. "And our investments can only be sustained through recurring revenues."

This year, due in large part to the District’s inability to fill a large number of long-term vacancies and an ill-fated move to improve substitute service by outsourcing it, the District ran a fund balance. But this came at a huge cost: Thousands of students went without permanent teachers for a good part of the year.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym led the charge questioning Hite and other officials, pushing for an end to split grades and large classes. She brought up the issue of whether special education students are receiving all the services they are legally entitled to and whether all students at all schools are offered full curricula in foreign language instruction and other state mandates – and what happens if they are not.

She noted that $65 million was not spent this year by the District due to the inability to hire enough personnel, not just teachers but also nurses and counselors – which officials have admitted is a bad way to save money. Elementary school vacancies alone accounted for a $20 million savings, according to District budget documents.

The GAO report on segregation and inequity suggested that the U.S Department of Education and the Department of Justice, which also analyzes school data to find potential civil rights violations, use its findings about disparities in academic offerings and discipline practices to drive change. It found that the Department of Justice is not regularly monitoring about 178 school desegregation cases that are still open around the country.

U.S. Secretary of Education John King said at a recent national conference of education journalists that maintaining pockets of high-poverty schools increases the challenge of providing a quality education for all students. He also said he would like to see states and districts use socioeconomic integration as a school improvement tool. Experts at the conference noted that school turnaround efforts depending on either privatizing or putting extra resources in racially isolated, high-poverty schools assume that "separate but equal," the doctrine that the Supreme Court rejected in Brown as unconstitutional and against American values, is unable to be changed – and thus here to stay.

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