BATON ROUGE, La. – It’s been nearly 60 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the subsequent flurry of lawsuits forcing the desegregation of schools. Two recent studies—one from Stanford University, the other from UCLA—say that schools, particularly in the South, are becoming re-segregated after the lawsuits are settled. Louisiana’s East Baton Rouge Parish appears to be part of that pattern.
An old riddle asks,” How do you eat an elephant?…One bite at a time.” In the decade since East Baton Rouge Parish schools were released from the 1956 federal desegregation lawsuit, the school district—like the elephant in the riddle—has been carved up into ever smaller pieces. That has resulted in public school enrollments far different than the parish demographics, which are approximately 45 percent black and 48percent white.
State Senator Bodi White explains why he’s sponsoring legislation to slice a sixth district out of the parish system.
“We’ve been through a lot in this parish in the last 30 years, with desegregation, forced busing,” White says, adding, “There’s a huge distrust in all communities in this parish about the school system.”
The towns of Zachary and Baker formed their own school districts as soon as the desegregation order was lifted in 2003, and White was instrumental in creating the Central Community School District in 2007. He says this is not about race—it’s about economics.
“Probably half of the school-age kids in this parish go to private or parochial school, and it’s become more of a socio-economic concern. Can you afford to go to another school?”
White says residents of southeast Baton Rouge are unhappy with what they see as a need to pay for private education, costing them up to 30-thousand dollars per family.
“We can pay it, but it’s killing us,” constituents complain, according to White. “Can’t put any money in my 401K; I can’t put any money in their higher education fund. I can’t upsize my house as I grow and, you know, you take 30-thousand out of my budget cash every year, it’s crippling us.”
The senator believes parents would take their children out of ptivate or parochial schools, and put them back in public schools if the new district forms.
“They want it better for their children,” White says.
“Better for their children” sounds familiar to Roena Wilford. Now retired from the faculty at Southern University, Wilford was one of the original plaintiffs in the Baton Rouge desegregation case. She says her parents weren’t seeking diversity, per se, but equal opportunity for her and her siblings.
“Our motivations were to be able to have the resources—to have the very best education available,” Wilford says. “And it wasn’t—at that time–so much as being able to merge with other cultures, but that we wanted the best resources available.”
Wilford believes that the smaller districts breaking off from East Baton Rouge Parish are defeating the purpose of the desegregation lawsuit. She says, “The public schools that are offering wonderful programs and the magnet programs, those are the ones that they want to come in and rape.”
When the East Baton Rouge Parish (EBR) lawsuit settled in 2003, public school enrollment was 69% black, 28% white, and 72% poor (defined as students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch). Currently, the EBR public school population is 82% black, 12% white, and 85% poor. If southeast Baton Rouge breaks away and forms its own district, EBR will be left with students who are 86% black, 10% white, and 87% poor.
Those statistics illustrate one of the main conclusions of the Stanford study, which states, “Segregation levels do not rise sharply following release from court order, but rather rise gradually and steadily for 10 to 12 years after release.” (Brown Fades, p.27) The numbers also bear out a conclusion from the UCLA study, which in part looks closely at the South. It says, “In schools across the region, white students make up 30% or less of the enrollment in the school of the typical black student.” (Southern Slippage, p.4)
Senator White defends the breakaway district, which would have student enrollment that is 22% white, 63% black, 7% Hispanic, and 75% poor. He says the residents pushing for the new district are composed of all ethnicities.
“This group that’s put this plan together, they’re men, women, black, white, Hispanic. They’re uh, they’re very diverse.”
Diversity—or the lack thereof—is also a concern for Adam Knapp. The president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce says if the new district is approved, it could prompt federal Department of Justice re-involvement in area schools.
“The Chamber was very, very involved in trying to get past the desegregation suit in the last decade, so to get past it and then to have—potentially—that come back to the community would be an awful thing,” Knapp says.
He bases that possibility on a Chamber-commissioned 2012 study of the potential impacts of forming more independent school districts within the parish. Knapp says revival of the desegregation lawsuit would be an economic development killer.
“It’s something that is a stigma for the community, that it hasn’t gotten past old, old problems of racial disharmony,” Knapp warns.
Senator White doubts the federal government would find the new district to be a problem, since he believes Baton Rouge has moved beyond the racial problems of its past.
“If there was intentional segregation, you might make that case,“ White says, adding, “We have to get past the deseg and the segregation issues, and get back to putting our public schools back together. “We have to get past the deseg and the segregation issues, and get back to putting our public schools back together.”
But Roena Wilford says the end result of creating this new district—making the remaining East Baton Rouge Parish schools more racially imbalanced—shows that people continue to ignore the real elephant in the room.
“So many people are in denial, that there is no problem,” Wilford laments. “But there is a reality of racism that exists, and the impact of that racism happens on a daily basis. And whether or not people want to admit to it, or accept it—it exists.”
Senator White will try this spring to get his fellow legislators to approve the new district. His first try, last year, was approved by the state Senate, but defeated by the full House. Chamber CEO Adam Knapp says he doubts there is the ‘political will” to advance the plan this year. But if it does win legislative approval, the new district would still require voters to support it on the next statewide ballot in 2014.