Jan 26, 2011

The Toxic Mix of Race, Economics, and Education

Yesterday I saw this disturbing headline: “Black Mother Jailed for Sending Kids to White School District.” Then I read the article, which explains that a mother living in Akron, Ohio registered her kids in the nearby suburban school district of Copley Township, using her father’s (the kids’ grandfather’s) address. She was charged and convicted for tampering with court records for lying on school enrollment forms, and her father was charged with grand theft for allegedly “stealing” the $30,500 that the school district spent educating the kids. Both of these charges are felonies. The mom has been sentenced to 10 days in jail and 3 years of probation, and if her conviction stands she won’t be able to complete the teaching degree she’s working towards because she’ll have a felony on her record.

I dug around the internets (sic) a bit and found a few more interesting tidbits of info about this case. First of all, the school district apparently tried to get the charges reduced to misdemeanors and settle out of court but the prosecutor refused to negotiate. Secondly, the judge clearly wanted to make an example out of the mom: she explained that she sentenced the mom to jail “so that others who think they might defraud the school system perhaps will think twice.” County officials say they get fewer than 5 cases each year of students registered for schools outside their home districts. I find it pretty horrifying, then, that since this “criminal case is the only one anyone remembers in Summit County,” prosecutors picked a poor black woman living in housing projects in Akron to target. Thirdly, the school district hired a private investigator to follow the mom (and other parents suspected of similar deceptions) around town and track her kids’ movements to and from school. The investigator testified during the trial “that he conducted what amounted to daily surveillance of Williams-Bolar's activities on school mornings, using a video camera to follow the route she drove with her children,” according to news coverage.

But the most striking thing about this is the racial overtones of the situation, reflected in the fact that the original article I saw, which granted was on a website called BlackEconomicDevelopment.com, had the title “Black Mother Jailed for Sending Kids to White School District.” This speaks to the enormous de facto segregation of our schools today: urban Akron schools are, de facto, black, and suburban Copley Township schools are white. America’s schools are more segregated now than they were in 1968, and successful programs that created economically and racially integrated schools have been systematically dismantled. This is true even though lots of studies have shown that kids – including very poor kids – do better in economically-integrated schools than in economically-segregated ones. Do I even need to say that the same is true of racial integration?

Our system of local control of school districts (and therefore local dollars) has long been connected to segregation, and clearly it continues to be so. Historian Matthew Lassiter, in his book The Silent Majorityshows that beginning in the 1970s, suburban white parents zealously defended the racial segregation of their schools by arguing that such segregation was merely the result of natural economic forces, and was therefore constitutional. What they failed to acknowledge, though, was the massive government intervention that had created the suburbs themselves, especially in a former Rust Belt state like Ohio. Why are suburbs so white? Partially because our government failed for decades to enforce race-neutral housing laws. Why are poor black people living in public housing concentrated in declining urban centers, rather than in the suburbs? Because that’s where the government built public housing! Had that housing been built in Copley Township (the suburbs) instead of in Akron (the urban core), this story might look very different. 

I find it appalling that we care so little about other people that we’re unwilling to help pay for the educations of people outside our own town or city boundaries – but, of course, many of those town boundaries were drawn specifically to exclude people of other races or economic classes. Here’s a solution to the Ohio case to consider: if those two school districts just merged, the county could drop its case and provide a good education to all kids, black and white, rich and poor. Too bad it’s just not that simple. 

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