Sixty-five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in America’s public schools was unconstitutional. But it was not until 1960, when Ruby Bridges walked into the all-white William J. Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, that the ruling began to affect Louisiana.

From there, public school integration in Louisiana has been slow and marked by significant pushback. In Baton Rouge, for instance, only 3,000 black public school students were attending school with any white children in 1969, while the remaining 20,000 black students attended entirely segregated schools.

And today, Louisiana still has a long way to go before its public schools fully reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Far too many schools and districts remain largely segregated, which contributes to poor education outcomes. Students of color in the most segregated school districts are more likely to get expelled or suspended from school and less likely to earn Advanced Placement credit than their counterparts in less segregated environments.

Segregation still pervades our school districts
According to ProPublica’s Miseducation project, 23 of Louisiana’s 69 traditional school districts were under a desegregation order as of 2018- meaning a court has ordered that a school district make systemic changes such as redistricting to be considered legally integrated.

Fifty-six of Louisiana’s 69 traditional school districts  – 81 percent – are rated high or medium on the “dissimilarity index” – a formula used to evaluate school district segregation. Just four districts were rated low, and nine districts could not be evaluated because of their very small student populations. 

These highly segregated districts often have poor outcomes for students of color. In highly segregated districts, black students were nearly four times more likely to be suspended or expelled as their white counterparts. Districts that scored “medium” had mildly better outcomes for black students, as they were 2.9 times more likely to be suspended or expelled.

Academic opportunity also varies by segregation levels. In highly segregated districts, white students are 3.1 times more likely to be enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course. In “medium” districts, this gap is reduced to 2.6 times.

School segregation in Louisiana goes hand-in-hand with poverty. Most public school districts have student populations that are poorer and have higher percentages of minorities than the communities they serve. The average Louisiana school district has a minority student population that is 1.5 times larger than the surrounding community. This could be attributed to racial differences among generations, it could be attributed to a significant percentage of white students attending private schools, or both.

Students attending highly segregated schools live in different worlds
The Brown decision determined that “separate but equal” was not good enough for our public schools. And that remains true today. To look at the ways segregation affects schools and students, LBP compared the 50 public schools in Louisiana with the highest concentration of white students to the 50 schools with the highest concentration of students of color. The results show that 65 years after Brown, separate and unequal remains the rule in many public schools.

The white public schools have much higher teacher retention rates, higher percentages of certified teachers, and are far more likely to be rated A or B than schools with high minority populations

School segregation can take many forms
A major reason why Louisiana public school districts often look different than their communities is because many white families opt for private schools. Louisiana leads the country in the percentage of students in private schools.

In the years after Brown, low-tuition private schools popped up across the South to serve as an option for white parents who did not want their children to attend integrated schools. Many of these “segregation academies” still exist today and typically serve high percentages of white students.

In recent years, desegregation has faced a new challenge: the secessionist movement. Districts that are diverse overall but have high housing segregation are seeing the whiter, more-affluent areas of their district attempt to break off in the name of small government and local control. The secessionist movement has been most prevalent in the South. In October, voters in some unincorporated parts of East Baton Rouge Parish will vote on whether to create the breakaway city of St. George, which is motivated mainly by the desire to form a separate school district.

School segregation is not only unconstitutional, it makes communities less competitive. Studies have shown that school and classroom diversity can benefit all students. Increasing diversity makes students more empathetic, culturally competent, and can improve academic outcomes. It will also make Louisiana’s economy more competitive. Fortune 100 companies such as Apple, Starbucks, Entergy, and Deloitte have gone on record saying that culturally competent employees are vital to a 21st century workforce.

Louisiana and local school districts are putting themselves at a disadvantage by failing to properly address segregation in public schools. If local communities and the Legislature want a competitive workforce, then it is time we have a genuine discussion about what it takes to ensure every child has access to a quality education. This discussion would not be complete without determining the true cost of providing a quality education for every student, as increasing school funding at the state and local level will help schools attract racially and socio-economically diverse families.

-Neva Butkus