WASHINGTON – Fifty years after the Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” education, Maryland schools are becoming more segregated, districts remain unequally funded and minority students continue to lag behind whites on test scores.
“There’s no question that a lot of progress has been made” since the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down in 1954, said J. Howard Henderson, president of the Greater Baltimore Urban League.
“But in terms of the public school system, they are probably more separate and more unequal than they have ever been in the nation,” he said.
Advocates say the inequality today is just as likely to be driven by economics as by skin color. And they have high hopes for two sweeping education reform plans, one state and one federal, that could help poor and minority students to catch up — if they deliver as promised.
The Brown decision — which ordered an end to segregation of the nation’s schools — has only delivered some of its promise, they said.
In 2001, for example, more than half the black students in the state attended majority-black schools, making Maryland one of the five most-segregated school systems in the nation, according to a report by Harvard Civil Rights Project.
Baltimore City and Prince George’s County were the most segregated districts that year, said Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor who wrote the report. And they still are: State enrollment figures from this school year showed 88 percent of Baltimore City public school students were black, as were 78 percent of Prince George’s County students.
Both districts also had the greatest number of schools failing to meet federal education standards on assessment tests last year: 82 schools in Baltimore and 19 in Prince George’s County.
Resegregation raises a number of concerns for educators, since assessment test scores tend to split on racial lines. Sixty percent of black and 55 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders failed to earn passing grades on reading tests last year, compared to 26 percent of white students. And math scores were worse: 82 percent of black students and 73 percent of Hispanic students fell below “proficient” levels.
This achievement gap is the “loudest secret we’ve had in education in this country,” said Richard Steinke, deputy state superintendent for instruction and academic acceleration. “We’ve known it, but we’ve not talked about it.”
But desegregating the schools — again — should not be the first priority, he said.
“I think we need to work on improving the schools first and foremost,” Steinke said. “Working to improve the schools in a variety of very specific ways is within our grasp. Changing people’s living patterns are beyond a school’s reach.”
Officials said those living patterns are behind the new segregation, one based on income, not just race.
“In the old days, it would be called white flight,” said Barbara Dezmon, chairwoman of state Education Department committee organized to study minority student achievement. “Now it would be better to describe it as class flight, the flight of the middle class and the upper-middle class.”
And the new economic segregation raises as many concerns as the new racial divides: Last year, 65 percent of eighth-grade students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals scored below proficient on reading exams, regardless of race.
Steinke and others hope the federal No Child Left Behind Act can help eliminate the disparity between the races and income levels. The law requires that schools report the annual test scores of all students, as well as students in racial and low-income subgroups, for reading and math.
“Brown v. Board said there should be equity and equality in education,” Dezmon said. “No Child Left Behind implements it, because it brings in accountability.”
Schools could lose funding under the act if student test scores, including scores from any of the subgroups, fall below the “proficient” level in reading and math by 2014.
Before No Child Left Behind, minority test scores were “subsumed” in other students’ scores, Dezmon said. “No Child Left Behind pulled those children out of the dark and put them on the radar screen.”
But the law also has critics, who fear that its focus on testing will force teachers to strictly teach for the test at the expense of a broader education, and of programs like art or music.
“I think it’s very demeaning to the whole education process that the only thing we’re going to look at and we’re going to value is one score at the end of one day,” said Pat Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
But the bigger problem is that the federal government has not fully funded the act, Foerster said, which pressures schools to improve without providing the resources. The National Education Association estimated that funding fell short about $32 million in 2003.
Foerster and others have more faith in the Thornton plan, a 2002 state law that promises about $1.3 billion to equalize spending between rich and poor districts and help improve education for minority and low-income students. It requires each county to provide a comprehensive plan for spending the funds and improving minority achievement.
Foerster said there has been a consistent “separation of funding” in Maryland between poor and wealthy jurisdictions. Schools cannot get enough funding, she said, “if you fund schools on property taxes . . . and the value of the property is very low.”
The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that studies minority achievement, looked at state and local revenues and found poor school districts got about $1,200 less to spend per student than wealthier districts in 2001. The report, released in 2003, also said school systems with high numbers of minority students had about $400 less per student than districts with fewer minority students.
The report’s author, Kevin Carey, called Thornton a “model for states to use nationwide.”
“I expect that if the Thornton plan is implemented successfully that when we analyze future years, we will see less of a gap,” he said.
Steinke said he hopes the two plans — which look out over the next decade — will help close the achievement gap that Brown v. Board has not been able to eliminate in 50 years.
“The first thing we’ve done, as far as a nation in public policy, is we’ve put it on the table,” he said. “I think it is long overdue, and I think we should fix it. Period. No questions asked.”
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