The bell rings at Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro, CA, a suburb of Oakland. Twenty years ago, my 6’5", black frame might have shocked Bancroft’s students, but now a flood of young teens pours down the stairs, virtually oblivious to my presence. Hallways that were once filled with young white kids are now filled with kids of every race and nationality.
The racial transformation of Bancroft Middle School and the challenges it faces are illustrative of the bigger picture of public education today. Increasingly, race is the definitive factor in public schooling, shaping the quality of the education students receive and, as a result, their future life opportunities.
As shown in the accompanying sidebar, Just Facts: Public School Resegregation and Racial Inequality, an examination of any dimension of public education reveals stark racial differences. Whether in funding, curriculum, school discipline, or graduation and college enrollment rates, the experiences of students who are African American, Native American, Latino, or recent immigrants from Asia or Latin America are quite different from those of their white counterparts.
Moreover, students of color who graduate from high school are less likely than white graduates to go on to college, in large part because they are steered away from college prep courses—if their high school even offers them in the first place. And, graduates of color who don’t go on to college are far less likely to find a job after high school than white high school dropouts.
Race in Three Dimensions
I visited several Bay Area schools to get a first-hand view of the racial dynamics. While Bancroft has a dwindling white student population, Oakland High School, a 15-minute drive into the Oakland Unified School District, has almost no white students. The majority of Oakland High’s students are Asians who defy the image of a “model minority.” Most are poor, recent immigrants who suffered cruelly during U.S.-induced wars in Southeast Asia and their subsequent immigration to this country. They face daunting educational barriers.
Oakland High is integrated except for the striking absence of white students, who made up only two percent of Oakland High in 1995. Although whites constitute about 30 percent of the city’s population, they are only 6 percent of Oakland’s public school population. Racial anxiety and financial ability have led to an exodus of white students out of schools like Oakland High. Throughout the country, white parents have figured out how to remove their children from urban schools and place them into private schools or nearby suburban schools that are well-funded, “safe”—and virtually lily-white. Some white families picked up and moved altogether, knowing that the Supreme Court ruling in Milliken v. Bradley meant desegregation could never cross district lines.
Next I checked out the schools in Piedmont, CA. Nestled in the hills, it is a wealthy white enclave completely surrounded by urban Oakland. Piedmont has its own police force, tax base, and public school district. As a result, Piedmont students do not share resources or attend school with the low-income, Asian, African American, Native, or Latino kids just down the hill. I peer over the fence of Piedmont Middle School and glimpse the privileges these kids have: pool, tennis court, tree-lined yard—and a big fence to keep me out.
White enclaves and suburbs like Piedmont exist throughout the country, as do schools that are attended mostly by working class whites like the San Leandro schools of twenty years ago. The majority of white kids go to predominantly white schools located in suburbs and small towns, while most children of color attend segregated urban or semi-urban schools.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data, 40 percent of public schools in large cities are “intensely segregated,” meaning more than 90 percent of the students are children of color. And 40 percent of all public schools are “racially exclusive,” with fewer than 10 percent students of color. More than forty years after Brown v. Board of Education, precious few schools in this country are truly racially integrated. In Dismantling Desegregation: the Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education, Harvard sociologist Gary Orfield shows that current racial segregation surpasses that which existed before the landmark Brown Supreme Court decision (1954) that supposedly outlawed “separate but equal” schooling.
Where’s the Money?
Unequal funding lies at the root of many of the problems in public schooling. Lack of materials and training, lack of staff, overcrowding, and crumbling buildings are all results of funding shortages. As long as school funding is linked to local property taxes, and is supplemented by parent donations, schools will continue to be separate and unequal.
As a suburban school with relative wealth, San Leandro’s Bancroft Middle School has, until recently, been able to keep class sizes small. This is now changing. Their building, intended for 750 students, now holds almost 900, with more to come next year. Unless more resources are committed, the orderly flow of busy students will soon become a crush, teacher-to-student ratios will skyrocket, and more students will slip through the cracks.
The halls at Oakland High are already a claustrophobic mess. Oakland High went from an already overcrowded 1,700 students in 1995 to 2,256 in 1997. The classrooms reflect it. One afternoon Spanish class I attended had 54 students. Students were sitting on couches bought by the teacher because there weren’t enough chairs. Students stand at the back of many classrooms. Needless to say, it is almost impossible to maintain classroom order or attention with fifty students. Noise levels are high and attention spans are short. Just in front of me, a young woman puts her head down on the desk, checked out for the day.
Delaine Eastin, Superintendent of California Public Schools, agrees there is a problem. At a recent luncheon with reporters from the ethnic press, Eastin likened some California schools to schools in Apartheid South Africa. She went on to catalogue the funding woes of California schools, complaining, “There are billions of dollars in deferred maintenance.” Not surprisingly, the oldest schools with the greatest need for repairs, and the districts in most need of new schools, are urban and made up of students of color. Public schooling has been divided along race lines into haves and have-nots.
Of course, the lens of class is also crucial in looking at public education. But without the powerful factor of race, that lens is misleading. For example, while many working class whites attend adequate schools in white suburbs and small towns, the schools attended by working class students of color are almost universally substandard. Schools where students of color are 90 percent or more of the student body are 14 times more likely to have a majority of poor students than schools that are overwhelmingly white. Further, almost all rich schools are white schools. Race is a pivotal factor determining the resources available to public schools.
Police in the Schools?
As I walk the halls of Oakland High, the only white faces I see belong to teachers. In fact, if you are a student of color anywhere in the U.S., it is unlikely that you will have a teacher that reflects your racial or cultural heritage. Although 35 percent of all public school students are children of color, 88 percent of all public school teachers are white.
The fears of teachers, administrators, and the greater voting populace have fueled a new drive to criminalize students of color. Safety is a priority in schools, but calling in police, installing metal detectors and video surveillance borders on the hysterical.
Jails have become more of a federal priority than school funding. In California, the state spends $60,000 a year to incarcerate a young person, but only $5,000 per year to educate one. As Carol Bishop of the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment says, “Our kids are leaving elementary school with police records instead of diplomas.” To make matters worse, for many students of color, schools themselves are becoming very much like jails.
Oakland High has security guards at every entrance. I was stopped at a gate by a plain-clothes security officer with a walkie-talkie. Even though I am a total stranger, he readily waves me through. While Piedmont schools are set up to keep people like me out, Oakland High’s security is apparently designed to keep students on campus. Students need a pass to leave school and are always in the presence of security, in the halls, on the field, or in the cafeteria.
Last summer, People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO) and the Applied Research Center (ARC) worked with a group of high school students on exposing institutional racism in their schools as part of ARC’s ERASE program (see sidebar). They listed conflicts with security as a major problem. Students of color throughout Oakland are more prone to harassment and questioning, and girls of color are often sexually harassed by those purportedly hired to protect them. With a little digging, the teens discovered that not a penny out of an annual district security budget of over $5 million was spent on training security guards.
Last school year, nearly 9,000 students were suspended in the Oakland Unified School District. Eighty percent of all suspended students were African American, though they constituted little more than half of all students. Now Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb wants to put the Oakland Police in charge of school security and enforcing anti-truancy laws.
Having police patrol the school hallways is a dangerous nationwide trend. In New York, the central school board just gave the green light to station police inside its 1,100 public schools. Many community members, students, and parents are worried about a possible increase in student arrests and loss of confidentiality. The combination of putting police in charge of school discipline and racially-biased suspension policies may mean a fast track to prison for large numbers of students, especially students of color.
Fighting for the Future
Back in San Leandro, CA, Bancroft Middle School doesn’t feel like the prison that many urban schools do. But that may change. Twenty years ago, Bancroft had almost no students of color, but now they constitute 62 percent of the student body. Yet the city as a whole is still 75 percent white. With increased overcrowding and diminishing white students, how long will it be before the mostly white San Leandro populace abandons the schools or leaves the city all together? Only by addressing the underlying racial and class issues can a school like Bancroft avoid the problems of a school like Oakland High.
The Oakland Highs of the world are not lost causes either. Well-meaning teachers and administrators, along with parents, students, and community members, can make a big difference. But in order to make real institutional change to a system that systematically disadvantages students of color, we have to address racism head on. We must rededicate ourselves to public education and organize to eliminate tracking, equalize funding, and develop safety and suspension policies that are not inherently biased against young people of color.
I step into a class at Oakland High and hear a young Latina student despair, “What am I going to do without an education?” The bell rings and the students pour out the door past me, and I think, “If this is what they call an education, what will you do with one?”
Libero Della Piana is senior research associate at the Applied Research Center working on the ERASE project, and former editor of RaceFile magazine.