Florida’s schools — once integration’s great hope — are resegregating

Wednesday, 11 October 2017, 09:23:57 AM. The end of desegregation policies and the influx of Hispanic students have contributed to the rise in segregation, researchers say.

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Students arrive for the first day of classes at a Jacksonville, Fla., elementary school in 2014. (Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union)

In the years after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, many Southern states revolted against school desegregation orders. Not Florida. There, leaders accepted them.

Florida witnessed more dramatic integration than other states, in part because desegregation was allowed — and then embraced — by LeRoy Collins, who was Florida’s governor in the late 1950s. The state’s school systems are also organized by county — encompassing cities and their whiter, more affluent suburbs — making it easier to create demographically balanced schools.

But there is growing evidence the schools in the nation’s third most-populous state are resegregating, according to a report released last month by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

The trend in Florida mirrors what is happening in the rest of the nation. A Government Accountability Office report published last year found that the nation’s schools are resegregating, with the share of schools that are majority black and Latino growing.

“What’s happening is very threatening to educational equity in the United States,” said Gary Orfield, a scholar with the Civil Rights Project. Orfield and researcher Jongyeon Ee co-authored the report for the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University.

The report, called “Patterns of Resegregation in Florida’s Schools,” concludes that schools have grown more segregated since the 1990s, when the Supreme Court empowered federal district judges to undo desegregation and busing orders in their communities. The orders have been lifted in some of Florida’s largest school districts, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties.

This, combined with an influx of Hispanic students in some communities, has led to schools that are racially and economically isolated.  Their research found that the proportion of schools that were “intensely segregated” — meaning more than 90 percent of their students were nonwhite — doubled between 1994 and 2014. The proportion of schools where more than 99 percent of students were nonwhite also grew, from 2.1 percent of schools to 3.7 schools.

Orfield said the trend cannot be explained by demographic changes alone, though the share of Hispanic students in the state doubled between 1994 and 2014. According to the report, this influx was concentrated in certain schools and  communities.

The result: declining academic performance in segregated schools, which tend to have more poverty, less experienced teachers and miss out on a range of other resources available to whiter, more affluent schools. A 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation found that after the Pinellas County school board ended desegregation, some schools grew overwhelmingly poor and black. Teacher turnover increased and test scores plummeted, making the schools some of the worst in the state.

Orfield said there are ways to reverse the trend — including creating regional magnet programs that draw from a diverse set of neighborhoods and communities, and providing transportation funding for students who want to attend schools outside their own communities.

“Desegregation can’t deal with all the problems . . . but it can deal with some of them,” Orfield said, “and nothing has been done.”

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