Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why Didn't School Desegregation Work? The Case of Baton Rouge

For the past few days, I've been posting case studies of school districts, examining the question of why school desegregation did not create educational equality across racial and ethnic groups or lead to schools that did not concentrate racial and ethnic minorities. If we look at the evidence, I argue, the answer is that the attempt to redistribute students by race assumed that educational quality was something that policy makers could redistribute at will. But the value of an education depends heavily on the clientele of schools. Those who have economic and social resources can create high-performing schools. Those who have these resources also have the capacity to avoid low-performing schools. Unfortunately, social as well as financial resources in the U.S. are associated with race and ethnicity. This means that attempts to redistribute students by race and ethnicity means not only redistributing  advantages, but disadvantages as well. 

Previously, I presented the cases of the supposed "success stories" of Little Rock, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Milwaukee, and St. Louis.  When one looks at what happened in these districts, it becomes clear that these were not successes at all. Now, I'll give cases that are much more common, districts in which school desegregation was obviously disastrous.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana[i]

By the time it ended in 2003, the case of Davis et al. v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board was said to have been the longest running desegregation suit in the nation. It began in 1956, when black parents sued the school board for running a dual school system. During the 1960s, the school board attempted to answer the suit by adopting a “freedom of choice” approach to integrating schools, allowing black and white students to attend schools without regard to race. This resulted in little change in the racial identifications of schools, though, and educational institutions in Louisiana’s capital remained distinctly black and white.

Despite the long existence of the East Baton Rouge (EBR) suit, active, court-ordered desegregation in the district only began in 1981. In that year, Federal District Judge John Parker decided that the school board had been running a dual school system for the previous twenty years. Judge Parker therefore ordered the closing of fifteen schools, and developed pairs or clusters of previously black and white schools that were to exchange students through busing in order to achieve racial balances similar to those of the district-wide demographics.

The response to the 1981 decision was immediate. White families said that they would leave the public schools if it were put into effect. The president of the parent-teacher organization at a majority white school, whose daughter was to be transferred to a majority black school in a lower-income neighborhood, declared, “She will not do that. Private schools are starting up every day.”[ii]  Events showed that these were not idle threats.

In the first year of court-ordered busing alone, the East Baton Rouge public school system lost 7,000 white students. Private school waiting lists grew long and new schools started up almost daily. The percentage of white students in the East Baton Rouge school district who attended non-public schools had been going down from 1965 until 1980, from just under a fourth of white students to well under 20% just before the judge’s decree. From the early 1980s onward, though, this proportion went steadily upward, so that nearly half of the white students in the district were in non-public schools by 2000.

In addition to moving from public to private schools, Baton Rouge area white families also either moved out of the East Baton Rouge school district, or, if they were new arrivals, they settled outside of the school district. Settlement in the adjoining Livingston and Ascension Parishes[iii] had been growing slowly before the 1981 decision, but the proportion of the area’s white population in these nearby areas began to shoot up rapidly just after the decision.

About one-fourth of the region’s white public school students were enrolled outside of the East Baton Rouge district in 1965. By the end of the 1970s, still only about one-third of these white public school students were in adjoining districts. In the two decades after Judge Parker’s 1981 ruling though, the proportion of white public school students in the Capital City metropolitan area that were enrolled in the Ascension or Livingston districts grew to about two-thirds.

A longtime school official in one of the districts outside of Baton Rouge observed that the growth of the district’s population was “almost exclusively driven by white flight and the initial location of new hires for industry in East Baton Rouge who will not live where they work.”[iv]  Readers should note that this was not a matter of whites leaving some blighted central city for the green lawns of the suburbs. Baton Rouge itself consists almost entirely of suburbs, so that this was movement from the suburbs to the suburbs.
Baton Rouge’s loss of white students briefly slowed in the late 1980s. A school system central office administrator with whom we spoke attributed this to a brief experiment with “controlled choice.”[v] This was explicitly intended to restore the confidence of those who had lost faith in the local public school system. It relied on magnet programs and special curricula. The experiment broke down, though, because of shortages in funding and difficulties in maintaining support from school officials.
By 1996, East Baton Rouge had changed from a majority white to a majority black district. Two-thirds of the public school students in the district were black, although the proportion had been roughly constant at about 40% from 1965 until just before the 1981 court order. Largely to stabilize this chaotic, rapidly changing system, the school board and plaintiffs to the Davis case, including the NAACP, reached a court-approved consent decree in 1996.

The consent decree largely ended busing, and sought, instead, to pump large infusions of funds into the school system, including generous “equity accounts” for historically black schools. The $2.2 billion dollar program hit a speed bump when it went before taxpayers, though, since voters resoundingly defeated a tax and bond proposal to raise money for continued desegregation efforts. With much of the middle class now out of the local public schools, members of the middle class had little interest in taxing themselves for a system many had fled.

Racial differences in school performance fed desires by whites to leave the East Baton Rouge public school system. On the math portion of the 1999 Louisiana Graduation Exit Examination, for example, white students in EBR’s public schools answered an average of 72% of the questions correctly. Black EBR students answered an average of less than 55% of these questions correctly.

Among schools, the very few that ranked in the state’s top categories as “School of Academic Excellence” or “School of Academic Distinction” on the 1999 Louisiana Educational Assessment Program tended to be precisely the schools where the remaining white students were still clustered. The one school in the top category was about 80% white and the four schools in the next highest category averaged about 55% white. At the other end, the forty-six schools in the next to lowest “Academically Below Average” category averaged 87% black, and the three “Academically Unacceptable” schools averaged 94% black.
As whites continued to leave the desegregating district, they left the less advantaged black students behind. Deputy School Superintendent Clayton Wilcox observed that, “the school system is getting blacker.”[vi] By the 2002-2003 school year, 73% of the public school students in the district were black, and the proportion was a good deal higher in the elementary grades.[vii]Several years later, in 2009-2010, 82% of the district’s students were black. A little under 12% were white and the rest were Asian or Hispanic. Most of the white students left in East Baton Rouge in 2010 were in non-public schools (59%).[viii]               
In the mid-2000s, East Baton Rouge schools, like schools in Orleans and some other Louisiana districts, began to turn in desperation to a form of official segregation by school performance within the district. In 2003, alarmed by the low level of school achievement in several districts, the Louisiana legislature passed an act to create the Recovery School District (RSD), a special statewide district that would take over consistently failing schools, as measured by student performance scores.  Although the RSD was most active in Orleans Parish following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the statewide district also took over the lowest performing schools in East Baton Rouge, either as schools directly run by the RSD or as charter schools under RSD authority By fall 2013, eight Baton Rouge schools were listed under RSD direction.[ix]
Thus, Baton Rouge had essentially segregated its worst schools from the rest of the district. These schools were also invariably minority concentration schools. For example, the Baton Rouge RSD’s Capitol High School, which received a grade of “F” on the 2011-2012 school report card, had only African American students.[x]

Crestworth Learning Academy, also a Baton Rouge RSD middle school, had only African American and only low-income students. It received an “F” on the 2010-2011 school performance score, the most recently available on the school’s profile sheet.[xi] Dalton Elementary School was 100% African American, 100% low-income. It also received a score of “F” on the 2010-2011 school performance score.[xii]
The RSD may have been a reasonable educational strategy. Desegregation had become impossible. The worst schools were so bad that desperate measures were justified. However the RSD also created a separate internal district of entirely black, entirely poor students within a district of almost entirely black, almost entirely poor students.

`Middle class families with children, both black and white, had already moved out of the core areas of Baton Rouge to the suburbs by the time the Recovery School District came into existence. Concern about the decline of East Baton Rouge schools led to repeated efforts by suburban neighborhoods within the EBR district to break away and form their own systems. The majority black town of Baker became the first to secede in 1999, but Baker contained mostly minority students and saw no improvement in its school system.
Consistent with the argument that being in schools that concentrate advantages pays off, predominantly white breakaway districts had much more success. The Zachary Community School District came into existence in 2003, after residents convinced the state legislature to carve out a new district. By 2011, the Zachary district was Louisiana’s top performing district, as measured by the District Performance Score.[xiii] When the 2013 school results came out in October 2013, the Times Picayune newspaper reported that “The Zachary school system north of Baton Rouge maintained its status as the top-rated school system.”[xiv]
In 2005, the citizens of the Central area voted to incorporate as the City of Central, apparently in order to create a separate school system, which was established in 2007. Central also showed a record of achievement much higher than that of East Baton Rouge, and by 2012 the Central school district was the fourth top ranked system in the state. [xv]
Like Zachary, Central was among the 12 percent of Louisiana school systems that received an “A” in the 2013 school results.[xvi] Residents in the southeast part of EBR mounted an effort to follow the examples of Zachary and Central. Frustrated in their attempts to create a separate school system within Baton Rouge, in 2013 the southeast Baton Rouge organization Local Schools for Local Children began calling for a petition to create a new city.[xvii]
Economists at Louisiana State University estimated that the loss of this middle class, mainly white area, would take $53 million away from the general fund of the rest of the parish. They predicted that the income loss would lead to an increase in taxes in the left over portions. Even with tax increases, the secession of Central would likely result in cuts to police and fire services.[xviii]
The Times-Picayune newspaper gave some insight into the motivations of those calling for the new city of St. George in southeast Baton Rouge. Describing one of the core group of organizers behind the St. George effort, the newspaper wrote:
Norman Browning wants out. He wants out of a school district where students bring guns to school, where cell-phone videos capture fistfights, where two teenagers recently knocked out a bus drivers teeth, where a middle schooler set a substitute teacher on fire. He wants out of a school district that is attempting – and, he believes, failing – to cater to 42,000 children, the majority of whom are impoverished and struggling in school.[xix]

Critics of this newest effort to split off from East Baton Rouge to get away from the district’s school system accused the new city advocates of disingenuously denying the role of race in their desire to leave, and of taking their economic and social resources and leaving low-income, minority students behind. But even if one attributes all of the problems plaguing East Baton Rouge’s district to a history of racial oppression, no parent would want to make penance for the sins of ancestors with the sacrifice of his or her own children to a well-documented climate of violence and failure.

[i] Events in the Baton Rouge case are drawn primarily from books and articles that I co-authored with Stephen J. Caldas, See Bankston and Caldas, A Troubled Dream.; and, Stephen J. Caldas and Carl L. Bankston III, “Baton Rouge, Desegregation, and White Flight,” Research in the Schools 8.2 (2001): 21-32.
[ii] Quoted in Bankston and Caldas, A Troubled Dream, 86.
[iii] In Louisiana, the parish (county) is in most cases identical with the school district.
[iv]Quoted in Bankston and Caldas, A Troubled Dream, 96.
[v] See Ibid., 92.
[vi]Quoted in Ibid.
[vii] Louisiana Department of Education, Annual Financial and Statistical Report, 2002-2003. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Department of Education, 2004).
[viii] Louisiana Department of Education, Annual Financial and Statistical Report, 2009-2010. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Department of Education, 2011).
[ix]Louisiana Recovery School District. “Schools in the East Baton Rouge Parish,” accessed October 26, 2013, Baton Rouge.
[x]Louisiana Department of Education, “2011-2012 School Report Cards, Capitol High School, accessed October 26, 2013,
[xi]Recovery School District. “Crestworth Learning Academy, Profile,” accessed October 26, 2013,
[xii]Recovery School District. “Dalton Elementary, Profile,” accessed October 26, 2013,
[xiii]Zachary Community School District, “Accountability,”accessed October 12, 2013,
[xiv] Danielle Drellinger. “Schools Excel Before Tests Get Tougher,” Times-Picayune, October  26, 2013, 1A.
[xv]Rebekah Allen. “New City Sought for School District,” The Advocate, June 24, 2013, 1A.
[xvi]Drellinger, “Schools Excel,” 1A.
[xvii]Allen, “New City Sought”, 1A.
[xviii] Diana Samuels, “Report Finds Incorporation of New City Could Hurt East Baton Rouge Finances,” Times-Picayune, December 8, 2013, A13.
[xix] Diana Samuels. “In Unincorporated Baton Rouge, Residents Chart Path to New City,” Times-Picayune, November 27, 2013, A1.



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