Are public schools really diverse?

RiShawn Biddle

Expresso, Nov. 27, 2006


An argument favoring traditional public schools over public charters and private schools is that by nature, the former is far more diverse than the latter: Unlike private schools, which select their own students from the population and charters -- which actually take all comers but are often tagged as doing otherwise by its opponents -- students in public schools must mingle with those of different racial, ethnic, economic and social backgrounds. This enhances their learning experiences, fosters tolerance of others and ultimately, proves to be an economic and social benefit to the community and the nation at large.

The diversity argument would be valid if it were true. But public school data combed from the state Department of Education, along with the history of the civil rights movement and a round of cases before the federal Supreme Court proves that public schools are about as diverse as churches. And as anyone who attends church knows by now, the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. For many Hoosier children -- and children nationwide -- every day is a segregated day when it comes to school.

Washington Township could be considered among the most diverse in the state, with a population that is almost equally divided between Blacks and Whites (40 percent and 43 percent respectively) along with a smattering of Hispanics (9 percent) and Asians (2 percent). Economically, it is also diverse, with only 60 percent of its students not on any sort of free or reduced lunch program.

A closer look at each of the district's schools, however, tells a different story: Just one of Washington Township's elementary schools -- Spring Mill and Nora -- have fewer than 50 percent of their populations dominated by one race or ethnicity. The rest are either predominantly Black (such as Greenbriar Elementary, with a 56 percent Black population) or White (Allisonville Elementary, which is 66 percent White). One of its middle schools, Eastwood, is predominantly White with a significant Black population (37 percent) while the other two are trending predominantly Black with significant White populations. Economic diversity is a different story, with just two elementary schools and one middle school with a paid lunch population greater than 60 percent (Allisonville Elementary, with 70 percent, Crooked Creek with 64 percent and Eastwood with 66 percent).

Another Marion County district, Warren Township, shares a similar profile: Seemingly ethnically and economically diverse on a district level -- 49 percent White and 49 percent Black, with an equal division among wealthy and poor students -- but not necessarily so when one gives a closer look. Just five of its schools -- Warren Central High, Pleasant Run Elementary, Stonybrook Middle, Eastridge Elementary and the Early Learning Center -- are dominated by one racial or ethnic group; the rest, including Creston Middle (61 percent Black) and Liberty Elementary (58 percent White) are predominantly Black or White schools. Economically however, the schools are equally divided among wealthier and poorer students; just one -- Lowell Elementary -- is a predominantly paid-lunch school.

The rest of Marion County's school districts are hardly exemplars of diversity of any kind -- and this is despite the effort to end such segregation through three decades of court-ordered desegregation that began in 1971. A White student has just a one-in-20 chance of encountering a Black coed in Perry Township's Rosa Parks elementary school, making the fact that the school is named after a legendary civil rights hero unintentionally funny. In fact, Perry Township is predominantly White (76 percent) overall, while Beech Grove, Speedway, Decatur and Franklin Township have a similar demographic profile racially. Meanwhile Pike Township and Indianapolis Public Schools are overwhelmingly Black. There is also little economic diversity in these districts, with IPS' population consisting mostly of poor students, while most of the other school districts contain largely middle-class and wealthier populations.

The racial, ethnic and economic segregation is also predominant throughout Central Indiana districts, with nearly all its districts, including that of Shelby County, being predominantly White. Lake County's public schools are also heavily segregated, with students attending either mostly-White schools (in such districts as Hanover Community and Crown Point) or mostly-Black schools, as in the case of those in Gary. Just three districts in Lake County -- Merrillville (largely Black, but with a sizable White population), East Chicago (almost equally divided among Blacks and Hispanics) and Hammond (divided in thirds between Blacks, Whites and Hispanics) -- have some level of racial diversity; economically, the districts are almost all segregated.

How does this diversity stack up against charters and private schools: Many public schools are no more diverse in any way than either such charters as Irvington Community School (86 percent White and 69 percent paid lunch) or Flanner House Elementary (98 percent Black with a 67 percent free-and-reduced lunch population). Or than the Catholic school systems in Indianapolis or Gary, which are mostly White and have a largely paid lunch population. And the latter, for the Catholic schools and private parochial schools, is deceiving: The schools may actually have high numbers of poor children -- and often times with Catholic schools, they usually do -- but because they don't always seek out government school lunch aid, it isn't always reflected in the demographics.

Indiana isn't alone in this segregation: Spend any time in California or other states and the story remains the same. Nor is the segregation limited to the student population: America's teacher corps is mostly White and female, with few males -- especially Black males -- in the ranks. And there has never been a time in American history in which schools embraced diversity in practice: From Horace Mann's efforts to mandate civic education based on White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideals -- the very reason why the modern American public school system was created in the first place -- to the battles over integration in the South, in Boston and in Indianapolis during the Civil Rights era, schools have almost deliberately been segregated, if not based on race or ethnicity, then on religion or thought.

And even if this wasn't the case, the reality may be that most Americans don't necessarily want diversity; after all, this seems to be the case when parents exercise either the traditional form of school choice (if one can call it that) -- move from one neighborhood (and school district) to another -- or in the more efficient forms offered through vouchers and charter schools.

Should schools, be it public or private, be diverse in their populations. From where I sit, they should be. Whether or not that should be a primary goal, in light of the need to stem dropouts and improve academic learning, is a different matter, one which is now being debated in Topeka, KS -- whose school district's policies led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. For Blacks, who have seen integration efforts lead to the worsening of their neighborhood schools, diversity may be less important than improving the quality of schools in their own communities; the same may go for poor Whites, who like Blacks, have few options at their disposal and those who support vouchers and charters. Middle-class parents may also oppose it because they don't think they need it.

But before a discussion of any kind can be had, there must be reminders that public schools arenít the refuges of diversity that some claim them to be.