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Cindy Hyde-Smith's experience is not an outlier: School segregation in America is still a troubling fact today

Nearly 65 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered all of the nation’s schools to integrate, effective segregation remains in the public schools which educate about 90 percent of the nation’s students.
Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks at a Make America Great Again rally in Tupelo, Mississippi on Nov. 26, 2018Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

Cindy Hyde-Smith — daughter of the American South, Republican Senatorial candidate from Mississippi and maker of what she’s described as jokes about a public hanging and making it more difficult for liberals to vote — wasn’t just born to the segregated South. She was reared and educated in the region’s culture of racial apartheid.

Smith graduated from a so-called "segregation academy," one of hundreds of private schools founded by white parents in the 1960s and 70s after courts ordered public schools to desegregate. The revelation from the Jackson Free Press that Hyde-Smith attended this school obscures a larger and pressing truth about America today.

Nearly 65 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered all of the nation’s schools to integrate, effective segregation remains in the public schools which educate about 90 percent of the country’s students. And while private schools accurately be described as highly diverse spaces, the public schools most students attend are shaped by policies and practices which have rolled back integration gains made after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

In fact, as more of the nation’s school districts have sought to overturn desegregation orders, integration levels in American public schools have declined to levels last seen in 1967, according to a 2014 analysis of the nation’s schools produced by The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. (The center’s findings didn’t change when they updated the report again in 2016.)

Segregation is most intense in major cities and their suburbs. For black students, public schools in the South have actually become the least segregated of any region in the country.

“This isn’t a matter of anyone’s imagination or any kind of interpretation,” said Rev. Wesley Bridges, president of the Lawrence County NAACP branch, the area in Mississippi where Hyde-Smith attended high school. “The data speaks for itself.”

Across the country about a third of all black and Latino students attend what the Civil Rights Project classifies as hyper-segregated schools. Those are schools where 90 percent or more of all students are non-white. For white students, the reverse is also true. About a third of all white students attend schools which are 90 to 100 percent white.

“In some ways,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow who researches education policy at The Century Foundation, “what you see with Hyde-Smith’s own education and the education she chose for her daughter is not that surprising because so many students in the United States are in segregated school settings, whether it is private schools or the much more common public school setting. “

The difference between Hyde-Smith’s school and the ones most American students attend today is that segregation academies were explicitly founded with the goal of creating and sustaining all white spaces. Parents, school administrators and the schools they created spoke about the school’s segregation aims openly, even celebrated them, Potter adds.

At Hyde Smith’s Lawrence County, Mississippi, private school, the 1975 yearbook, aptly entitled, “The Rebel,” featured a photo of the school’s cheerleading squad. In it, Hyde-Smith poses with the school’s other cheerleaders surround a mascot dressed in what the Jackson Free Press described as a Confederate general costume, holding a Confederate flag.

“There are many ways today,” Potter tells NBC News, “where policies have created schools where the enrollment numbers do not look much different than those at schools where segregation was a clear and implicit part of why they exist.”

In Lawrence County, where schools remain subject to a court-issued desegregation order, Bridges has seen white parents go to what he described as “extreme lengths,” to get their children enrolled in one of the district schools serving elementary school students. An example of those extreme measures: borrowing or leasing land inside the assignment zone for this particular school, parking a mobile home on it but living elsewhere. The sought after school sits in a county that is about 65 percent white, 32 percent black and 2 percent Latino. But the school's student body is about 87 percent white.

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best education for your child,” said Bridges, who is also a member of the county's school board. “But the problem is that the data shows us that even before those school rankings existed the same school enrollment patterns were there. I want my child to have the best education is really, just the new way to put it.”

What’s happening in Lawrence County offers a small example of much larger patterns.

Much like the parents leasing land and strategically parking mobile homes in Lawrence County, there is a history of white parents being convinced that attending an integrated school amounts to an educational sacrifice. Research shows that they are wrong, said Potter.

Integrated schools tend to produce students with more advanced critical thinking skills and students who demonstrate more advanced leadership and problem-solving skills. Students who attend diverse schools are also more likely to grow up and live in integrated neighborhoods.

In other words, people who have learned in classrooms where there are a variety of perspectives, people and experiences tend to emerge better prepared for life in the diverse country in which they will live. They are also intellectually better prepared for many of the careers which seem poised for expansion, Potter said.

In Stamford, Connecticut, for example, district officials wanted to do something about the district’s racial and ethnic achievement gaps. After a 2007 Supreme Court decision limited the ability of districts to consider race in making school assignments, the district chose a different approach.

Their goal was to balance the number of students who often struggle to keep up with their peers across the district’s schools so that each school had similar shares of struggling and high-achieving students. School assignments made in 2007 put about the same proportion of low income students, those in the process of learning English or living in income-restricted housing in all but two of Stamford’s schools.

Between 2006 and 2013, the share of white and Asian students in the 3rd-8th grades who passed state math, reading and writing tests rose considerably. Achievement gaps also fell by a third between Asian and black students in reading and math. Also, by 2013, more of both low income and middle class students passed eighth grade reading, math and writing exams and achievement gaps between groups declined in all subjects.

“One of the things that I think we need to grapple with in this country,” Potter said, is that supporting the status quo in education is supporting segregation in schools.”

Since a 1974 Supreme Court decision banned almost all mandatory school integration plans involving students from urban and nearby suburban districts, the status quo in most school districts has included assigning students to schools based on the student’s address alone.

It has also included state school funding systems which make no attempt to even out big differences in property tax revenue collected by rich and poor school districts. Some districts have even drawn what Potter called "gerrymandered” school assignment zones where kids from wealthy or middle-class neighborhoods attend one school while kids who live just a block away in public housing get assigned to a different school.

In districts where parents are offered a range of enrollment options, many districts fail to make sure that poor parents working shift jobs who do not own cars or computers have the same opportunities and information needed to make a choice as wealthier parents with listservs, multiple vehicles to make school drop-offs and schedules they control. When that happens, school choice can contribute to school segregation.

“I think we tend to think of integration, school integration in particular, as something historical that happened and also as something that is legal a matter of court orders," Potter said. "If you look at the truth, you really see a small number of districts that are working on this on their own and a vast landscape where segregation is the norm and individual choices are contributing to the problem.”

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