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Broken system of separate but unequal schools: Should districts zone for economic diversity?

The resegregation of schools has been happening across metro Atlanta for the last 40 years. Researchers blame suburban residential housing patterns, but even urban schools in Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton lack diversity. This residential segregation and a parental preference for neighborhood schools have led to far fewer integrated classrooms in metro Atlanta.

Research shows middle-class schools provide better learning environments for all kids. The realities of poverty  --- lack of health care, poor nutrition, housing evictions, job losses, drug and alcohol struggles --- can overwhelm schools. Attendance zones designed to achieve socioeconomic diversity assure that poverty is not concentrated in any one school.

But others argue middle-class parents don't want poor kids in their schools and build all sorts of walls to lock them out. Rather than attempt to storm those walls, why not fix the schools in the poor communities? Why not direct resources into these high-poverty schools and make them excellent?

Here is another swipe at the problem by Bee Nguyen, founder of Athena's Warehouse, a nonprofit that empowers and educates under-served teen girls in Atlanta. Nguyen’s experiences include work with Boat People SOS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and, most recently, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. She graduated from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies with public administration master's degree in 2012.

Co-author Ernest Brown Jr. is a healthcare financial consultant in Atlanta. His prior experiences include internships at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, and the DeKalb County District Attorney's Office. He holds a political science degree from Emory University and was salutatorian of his graduating class at Southwest DeKalb High School.

By Ernest Brown Jr. and Bee Nguyen

In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education legally ended the segregation of public schools, an event that should have ensured educational equity for African-American students, especially those living in the South. What followed this Supreme Court decision was the busing of black students to better, higher-achieving white schools; these pioneers and their heroic narratives represent for us painful victories from the civil rights era, their steps paving the way for what should have evolved into an equitable public education system.

Yet when we fast-forward 60 years to today, public education in the Atlanta region shows a familiar blueprint: a highly segregated system with isolated pockets of poverty and underperforming schools, serving predominantly minority residents and communities in crisis due to lack of access to quality education, food, health care and transportation.

This summer, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its report, “2015 Changing the Odds: The Race for Results in Atlanta.” Maps in the report present startling visual context, forcing us to contend with the ugly reality that when it comes to public education in Atlanta, race matters. In fact, it matters a lot, with black high school graduation rates nearly 27 percent lower than white graduation rates in the Atlanta Public Schools.

Our public education is a broken system of separate but unequal schools, as shown by gross inequities across the metro area, with race being a dividing factor. Access to affordable housing, patterns of white flight, zoning, housing policies and redistricting have restricted access to quality schools for poor black families who live in areas of concentrated poverty. Meanwhile, the predominantly white northern sections of Atlanta maintain a level of affluence that provides access to high-performing schools.

We must reintegrate our schools and create an education system that reflects the diversity of the broader community. Wake County in North Carolina demonstrated its commitment to eliminating high-poverty schools by creating education policies that provide economic equity. No more than 40 percent of students at any school come from low-income households, ensuring no high-poverty schools. Only 12 percent of schools in Atlanta meet this benchmark.

Louisville also adopted policies that bus students into urban areas and out to the suburbs, eliminating struggling inner-city schools. Integrated schools have fostered collaboration between racial and economic groups.

Our obligation to provide quality education should not stop at the border of our catchment zone, school district or any other political boundary. Desegregation has a proven track record of tackling educational inequalities for low-performing students while enabling high-performing students to become better prepared for working with people from different racial and/or ethnic backgrounds. The achievement gap between black students and their white peers fell by half in conjunction with school integration initiatives across the country.

And yet, great schools are now more congruous with private clubs instead of engines of social and economic mobility — and the price to get in is attached to where students live.

The powerful reality is that when low-performing students attend the same schools as affluent and often white-majority students, the entire student population gains access to better-qualified teachers, richer resources and more personal support.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.