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Unfinished business: equal education

The school district in my town of Cleveland, Mississippi is drawing some unfortunate notoriety. The lead of our local newspaper summed it up: 

On Friday the U.S. Department of Justice filed its response to arguments made by the Cleveland School District in the school desegregation case that has been ongoing for nearly 50 years.

Read more: The Bolivar Commercial - DOJ blasts school district's response 

The back-and-forth battle has dragged on for decades, until a reinvigorated DOJ began to push the case towards resolution. Now the matter will go back to federal court on Dec. 11th.

The legal issue is the integration of the all-black high school and middle school. The district wants to encourage white attendance at the schools by offering some magnet courses or programs. For many years, students have been bussed between the two high schools to attend one or two classes at the other building. While black students do attend both of the predominantly white schools, no white students are enrolled in the black schools. Cleveland is a town that only has two high schools (one with approximately 550 students, the other around 360) and two middle schools (one with about 360 students, the other with fewer than 200)--all of which are within walking distance of one other.  

The moral issue is that there are long-standing disparities in the allocation of resources among the schools.This in a town where the median income is just over $31,000. Many black parents and community leaders have argued for years that the best way to solve the problem would be to simply build one new high school (both buildings are old) and merge the two junior highs. However, that idea has met with heels-dug-in resistance, since it would almost certainly result in the mass exodus of white students from the public system. Cleveland is the only town in the Delta that still has any significant number of white students in its public schools; in other towns, they have long ago moved to the private academies or to homeschooling.

Meanwhile, our Republican controlled state-legislature voted to merge the other five predominantly Black public school districts in the county around us into two, without any input from the citizens or school boards in those towns, and over the objections of their elected representatives. Among the districts being forced to merge is historic Mound Bayou, Mississippi, (I''ve written about this before) a town established by former slaves. The forced mergers, touted as cost-saving measures, are an interesting government usurpation of local school board authority given how much the Republicans usually rail against such intrusions. Yet, when the Federal government presses Cleveland on its equity issue that's criticized as government overreach. 

That not just Mississippi, but schools systems across the U.S. are still wrestling with whether and how to provide quality education to every American child almost a generation after Brown v. Board Education is a sad legacy, but reflective of just how deep and complex these questions really are and how far we still have to go.

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