Commentary

Atlanta’s Segregated Schools — in 2004

By Eric Wearne
May 17, 2004

In 1953, right before the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Atlanta Public Schools consisted of 600 schools serving 18,664 students. Black and white students were kept apart by the government. Fifty years after Brown, APS consists of 96 much larger schools serving 55,812 students of all races, and more than three quarters of them are still in schools where one race has a 90 percent majority.

Atlanta’s private schools today draw students from the same basic geographic area as APS, yet they are significantly less segregated than are the public schools.

How can this be? Aren’t schools of choice supposed to be the ones that foster “balkanization” and increase racial segregation? Indeed, National Center for Education Statistics data show that almost 60 percent of Atlanta’s 53 private schools have single-race majorities of 90 percent or higher. But 79 percent of Atlanta’s public schools are that segregated.

Usually, students are assigned to public schools based on where they live, so, absent choice, housing patterns are reproduced in those schools. A kid’s address in large part determines the quality of school he will be allowed to attend. It is hard to imagine a system that would be much more capable of keeping our public schools segregated than that. If wealthier parents become dissatisfied with their children’s schools, they can pay to send them to private schools, or at least move into a district with a better public school system.

Middle- and upper-class families for years have been able to choose their children’s schools based on academic reputation, safety, location and special programs. Poor parents are forced to take what they’re given, unless they live close enough to a charter school or can take advantage of a private scholarship program.

Increased spending itself doesn’t do much to improve schools. And while spending is not irrelevant, the idea that high-achieving districts do well simply because of money is a myth. Two of Atlanta’s most affluent suburban districts — Gwinnett and Cobb Counties — both spent less per student than APS did in 2002, and achieved better results. (Gwinnett spent $7,107 and Cobb spent $7,047, compared to Atlanta at just under $10,000). Granted, Atlanta has a higher percentage of poor and at-risk children, but APS is one of the highest-spending districts in Georgia, and has some of the worst outcomes to show for it.

Clearly, simply spending more money will not by itself create better schools. The combination of poverty, the false hope that higher (and still inefficient) spending can be a panacea, and a lack of educational options within the city itself, however, is a sure way to keep poor urban children in the failing public schools to which they have been forcibly assigned. Middle-class white parents don’t put up with unsafe, low-achieving schools. They leave them. Is it right to tell poor parents that their children have to stay in them regardless of their success or failure?

Surely, Atlanta itself has come a long way since 1954. We’ve moved from a situation where the attorney general of the state was helping to lead the charge for “massive resistance” against Brown and where new schools were created specifically to avoid desegregation, to a situation in which Atlanta parents (at least those who can) choose to put their children into more integrated schools than the ones the government provides.

But this is not simply the story of a racist South finally coming to grips with what enlightened Northerners knew all along. Post-Brown, many places in the South actually achieved higher rates of desegregation than were seen in many cities and states in the North. Both Southern and Northern school districts (particularly urban ones) still force poor, often minority children into shoddy public schools, and offer them few ways out.

It has been said that when Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in 1896, codifying the idea of “separate but equal” facilities into law, the actual response in practice was to implement Dred Scott (“the black man had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”). And when Brown was decided, all the states really did was to implement Plessy. The unanimous decision in Brown declared that the states could not trample on individual black students’ rights to equal protection under the law by forcing them to attend racially segregated, usually inferior schools.

It’s already been 50 years; let’s give parents the power to fix things for their children this time, rather than waiting for the courts again.

Eric Wearne, a research assistant at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a PhD student in Educational Studies at Emory University, contributed a chapter on Atlanta’s public schools for Educational Freedom in Urban America: Brown v. Board after Half a Century (Cato Institute, 2004).