In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, school segregation is the worst it’s been since the 1950s and it’s because of money. Though the separation present today is a far cry from the days of Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal” schools, the ratio of black to white students has been steadily getting worse. How could this be? We all know that the American educational experience in the mid-20th century was a tumultuous and frightening time for many. Yet, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent decades of legislation forcing schools to integrate, these issues should have mostly been eliminated, at least in the eyes of the law. Schools have become fully integrated with white, black and Latino students, among others, and all facilities are open to everyone, regardless of race or creed. Except, maybe they’re not.
All public schools were once segregated by race in the United States. These practices were outlawed by 1969, but it wasn’t until 1979 that enforceable desegregation laws were passed in Tuscaloosa, requiring the city’s largest high schools to merge and become Central High School. For decades afterwards, Central High became one of the most impressive integrated schools in the country, winning state sports titles, naming dozens of National Merit Scholars and achieving a dropout rate of less than half of Alabama’s average.
However, in recent years, pressure from parents’ groups and school councils was put on courts to overturn enforced integration laws. Over the years, middle-class white families had gradually pulled kids out of city schools, choosing to send them to mostly white county or private schools instead. This slow exodus of the wealthier white students led to an erosion of the tax base, causing a financial crisis for the school district. In short, the city’s leaders decided more flexibility was needed to create smaller neighborhood schools in hopes of luring those students back, which led to the end of laws requiring integration, the beginning of school district gerrymandering and the dismantling of Central High School 21 years after its creation.
The full story of Tuscaloosa’s integration problem is a fascinating read, and I recommend you take a look at the whole, complicated ordeal to get an idea of the history involved. Where in the past, separating black and white students was done on explicitly racial bias, now the division is based on the line between rich and poor, with identical end results. As the article points out, “Black children in the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades.” As a nation, we may believe we’re past dealing with these issues of race and money, but in communities across the country, they remain as difficult as ever.