“Racial segregation has come back to public education with a vengeance.” — Jonathan Kozol, “The Shame of the Nation”
Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one lagging school district has been ordered to desegregate by mixing kids according to race and class — a policy called Controlled Choice. Black and white parents, alike, are furious about losing neighborhood schools.
By Natasha S. Alford
SOMERVILLE, Tenn. — On a sweltering August morning, 15 protesters have set up shop in front of the Fayette County School District. Orange construction cones mark the streets. A small group of police officers monitors the scene but will likely do no more for the remaining hour. These parents may be angry, but they are polite — this is the South.
It’s the first day of school, and many of the parent protesters have just dropped their children off, some to schools down the street from their homes and others much farther away. Thanks to a 2013 federal court order to further desegregate Fayette County schools just 45 miles northeast from Memphis, Tennessee, neighborhood elementary schools are no longer.
The new order of the day? “Controlled Choice.”
Controlled choice is a system that falls somewhere between mandatory and voluntary desegregation. Parents rank district schools in order of preference; however, there is no guaranteed school assignment for their children. Districts try to give most parents their first choice, but the priority is creating balanced distributions of race and income across all schools. Currently employed in cities like San Francisco and more recently Wake County, North Carolina, an algorithm does the mixing, making considerations for a student’s siblings and school proximity.
Jenny Nicholson, a white homemaker and parent of two, selected Oakland Elementary School for her 8-year-old son Avery. It’s 2 miles down the road from her house and the same school Avery went to last year. She didn’t get her first choice. He has been assigned to Central Elementary School, about 12 miles away.
“On a nice day like this we might walk to the bus stop to be at the end of the cove,” Nicholson says. “But today I have to get in the car and drive 25 minutes away to take Avery to Central School.”
Nicholson, 50, is one of about 100 Fayette County parents who have been reassigned to schools outside of their neighborhoods. While most parents received their first-choice school, the minority who didn’t are vocal and angry. Some don’t understand how or why their children, already settled into neighborhood schools, must be subjected to the vagaries of this out-of-the-blue desegregation order. And they don’t know why race even matters.
“It’s 2014, we shouldn’t be worried about race or color,” says Enjelica Tran, 29, another local mom and homemaker who didn’t get the first choice for her son, Zachary, 7. She is white and her husband is Vietnamese. “My son doesn’t see color.”
The racial representation of students in district schools paints a picture of clear color lines at the elementary level.
Black students comprise the majority of the district at almost 60 percent, with white students being the second-largest group at 37 percent. However, the largest and highest-rated elementary schools, such as Oakland Elementary and Somerville Elementary, have only had blacks comprise 20 to 30 percent of the population in recent years. Some argue racial imbalances like these just reflect the racial makeup of neighborhoods. Others, however, argue schools will never get the opportunity for integration as long as neighborhoods remain racially imbalanced, hence the use of balancing mechanisms like controlled choice. Still others argue mandatory school assignments adversely impact the value of neighborhood schools, with the potential for driving families, particularly middle-class ones, away from public schools. This local debate has shades of a larger national conversation over charter schools, which critics say is a disguised effort to disinvest in neighborhood schools.
Beyond race, Fayette County schools face socioeconomic hurdles —77 percent of its students qualify as economically disadvantaged. The district lags, 125th of 127 Tennessee districts on state achievement tests, according to data compiled by SchoolDigger.com. According to the Tennesee Department of Education’s school report card for Fayette County, only 3 percent of 11th-graders qualify as college-ready based on their ACT scores. It also reported that the graduation rate for white students is even lower than that of black students (61 percent vs. 88 percent).
If it seems odd that Fayette County could still be desegregating six decades after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, one must understand the law that gave the decision more power: Title IV of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. Title IV not only prohibited discrimination on the basis of race or color but also encouraged desegregation of schools by the U.S. attorney general. If a school district would not desegregate voluntarily, Title IV would hold them accountable for doing so.
One year after the law was passed, the Fayette County School Board was sued for not allowing black students to attend school. The plaintiff was no stranger to holding the county accountable for civil rights violations. Before Fayette County ever encountered controlled choice, it encountered Viola McFerren.
“They didn’t want them there …”
In 1975, 21 years after the Brown decision, Fayette County schools still had not integrated. McFerren, a local activist and mother of five had become well-known for her relentless pursuit of civil rights, even in the face of threats and harassment. She was renowned for her role in the 1960s, establishing a “tent city,” a temporary housing site for black farmers evicted for registering to vote. McFerren traveled across the country highlighting their plight. Her work also extended to drafting the proposal for the first Head Start program in Fayette County.
The political became personal, when McFerren sued on behalf of her 6-year-old son, John Jr., to have access to the county’s all-white schools. In an interview with The Jackson Sun, McFerren recalled the abysmal conditions of black schools: “We were just existing then in 1959,” McFerren says. “Schools were shanties.”
James Lofties, a local funeral home director, who is African-American, was in high school at the time and has a similar recollection.
“Black kids had to walk to school,” Lofties says. “Where the other race rode school buses. And they had proper school buildings and textbooks. You had what was left over, had been used. You very rarely got a new textbook.”
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 into effect, including Title IV, which explicitly sought to eliminate “state-sponsored segregation” in districts. Fayette County was right in the bull’s-eye.
Like many school districts across the South, private schools such as Fayette Academy, founded in 1965, were in part built by whites who wanted to avoid racial integration. The few black students who left for all-white public schools were often mistreated.
“They didn’t want them there,” says Vandora Lofties, 62, James’ wife and a retired Memphis City Schools teacher who was a member of one of the last all-black high school classes in Fayette County. “But [blacks] were there because they had the opportunity to go there.”
Fayette County’s initial “freedom of choice” plan left integration up to parents, but change was slow. In late August of 1969, during the first days of class, tensions once spilled over into an angry demonstration, when black students assembled at the still mostly white Fayette County High School. Laura Winfrey, 59, a white local librarian who went to the school, remembers the anxiety: “People kept pulling on the doors to yank the doors open, which they did. Bottles flew through the windows; it was kind of frightening. When you’re a kid, you don’t understand what’s really going on.”
Winfrey recalls on the day of the protest, her father picked up kids, both black and white, and drove them home to safety.
After these protests, the courts handed down stricter orders, requiring the school board to close down The Fayette County High School and the all-black W.P. Ware High School, and open one high school — Fayette Ware Comprehensive High School. By the late 1970s most schools in Fayette County were officially integrated, but in 2008, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division noticed something out of order.
In 1975, the school board had been ordered to close Somerville Elementary School and re-zone students to Jefferson Elementary — but it did neither. The DOJ noted that since 1980, the district had also opened new junior high schools and consolidated elementary schools without notifying the court. In 2008, black students comprised the majority of elementary school students but had become the minority in schools like Somerville and Oakland.
Over the next five years, the battle between the school district and justice officials played out, resulting in a 2013 agreement to implement controlled choice. It included closing two identifiable majority white and black elementary schools, and building a new school, Buckley-Carpenter Elementary. Buckley-Carpenter is symbolically named in memory of two well-respected Fayette County sports educators: Dan Buckley, who was white, and Samuel Carpenter, who was black.
“It seemed appropriate for the school’s name to reflect the coming together of the community,” reads the district website.
Despite a public announcement about controlled choice by the DOJ on Aug. 21, 2012, and five community meetings in 2013, the reasons for the changes went right over the heads of many parents. One such parent is China Lewis, an African-American, who works for a local manufacturer and has a fifth-grader, Amiyah. She hadn’t heard about the court order when she called the district about Amiyah’s new school assignment.
“All they say is they rezoned everybody – and that’s it,” Lewis says.
Compounding the issue is Buckley-Carpenter’s delayed opening. It was supposed to be ready for the 2014 school year but won’t be completed until January 2015. Well into the project, Yates Construction Co. discovered the school’s foundation was built on top of an old high school with asbestos. Until the new school is ready, students will attend Central Elementary School further down the road.
“Not to mention they’re bringing our kids away from schools they live close to, but then they have to go to two different schools throughout one year,” Tran says.
Fayette County Supt. James Teague offered only one statement about the implementation of controlled choice:
“The people that should’ve fixed this are probably no longer alive from 1965,” Teague said. “However, it has fallen upon us to try to solve this. We had never heard of controlled choice until two years ago… We don’t know if there’s any kickback or not. But we do know we’re going to do what we agreed with the judge we would do.”
He declined to be interviewed further.
Despite any perceived missteps on the part of the district, Winfrey, the librarian, still sees the upside of the court order and a need for change.
“I really think the new school is going to be a positive benefit to the entire county,” Winfrey says. “Our children will hopefully be better educated. They’ll all be there. All economic levels. I mean, again, this county is still diverse in economics, so hopefully those children will get the same education.”
McFerren didn’t live to see the outcome to her legal battle for equal education in Fayette County — she died in 2013 at age 81. One thing stands out for Winfrey: She would visit the library and “ask, could we buy another set of books she could read. And she wasn’t just looking for herself, she was looking for others as well.”
Resegregating by race and wallet size
American schools are more segregated now than they ever were in 1968, according to a recent study released by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. In 1988, 44 percent of black students were represented in majority-white schools nationally. However, in 2011, the number dropped to 23 percent. The study also found Tennessee ranks No. 12 of 20 states with the most-segregated schools.
This national trend of resegregation is both racial and socioeconomic, with black and Latino students more represented in schools where the population is considerably poorer, while white and Asian students generally are represented in schools with large middle-class populations.
The UCLA study also found when Supreme Court desegregation orders were dropped in large school districts such as Miami-Dade County in Florida and Baltimore County in Maryland, black student exposure to white students decreased substantially. School segregation has been statistically linked to the kinds of unequal educational opportunity seen prior to Brown v. Board: fewer qualified teachers, substandard facilities and inadequate learning materials for predominantly black schools.
Controlled choice first emerged in the 1980s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as an alternative to forced busing and mandatory assignment plans in the 1970s desegregation era. The chief architect and creator, Michael Alves, went on to help implement the strategy in other cities such as San Francisco and Champaign, Illinois. The DOJ and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York brought Alves on to implement controlled choice in Fayette County.
“Controlled choice is not anti-neighborhood school at all,” says Alves, an educational consultant who co-authored two books on controlled choice. “When you open up the system to choice, each family is going to make the decision best for their child. What controlled choice has become is also a way to create diversity in choice, so you can improve the schools that need to be improved. Over time you end up with the greatest supply of the best schools.”
Alves says after three years of implementing controlled choice in Cambridge, the percentage of students who used public schools went from to nearly 90 percent from 75.
But critics say places such as Cambridge and San Francisco are unique places — liberal meccas in urban cities that don’t necessarily face the same challenges as rural districts like Fayette County. Researcher Christine Rossell studied Cambridge and other cities that have implemented the system: “It is not a true voluntary plan,” according to Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University. “Because if parents do not choose opposite-race schools in sufficient numbers to balance them racially, some children will be mandatorily assigned to a school they did not choose.”
Fran Cronin, a Cambridge Public Schools committee member with a special-needs child in the district, is a controlled choice advocate. But she thinks the next educational frontier lies beyond socioeconomic integration.
“Our minority groups, our African-American students, our Latino students, our low-income students, our special needs students, our students that qualify as ‘English Language Learners,’ their performance has languished,” Cronin says. “We’ve struggled with this, with intent, for the past 10 years, and every time we have an election cycle, the achievement gap is always foremost.”
Alves agrees closing the achievement gap is most important.
“Today, family income is totally explained by family level of education,” Alves says. “It’s not like the past. The achievement gap is generational. The only chance a young child has in their lifetime to break out of that cycle is obviously through education. How else is that going to happen?”
‘That’s $370,000 they can’t spend on Wal-Mart’
Controlled choice may meet resistance in Fayette County, but opponents also have emerged elsewhere. In June, D.C. City Council members tried to slow down Mayor Vincent Gray’s plan to redraw attendance lines and potentially eliminate neighborhood school privileges by using a lottery system instead. The plan’s goal was to broaden choices for parents who didn’t live within neighborhood boundaries of high-performing schools. But the uncertainty of school assignment concerned many D.C. parents, who turned out at board meetings to protest.
Citing similar concerns, opponents in Fayette County also say controlled choice will impact property values, as buyers with school-aged children will seek districts with guaranteed school assignments. By the week of the Aug. 6 protest, Arlington Community Schools, a newly formed municipal district nearby, confirmed 88 out-of-county students had already enrolled — 86 from Fayette County. According to the district spokesman, Jeff Mayo, they also received 25 additional transfer requests during the first week of school that they could not accommodate.
“There’s security in those school systems,” says Pattie Krepela, 38, a mother with two children in the district, who is white, while picking up her son from Central Elementary School. She hasn’t ruled out pulling him from Fayette County Schools entirely.
Out-of-county parents sending their children to nearby Arlington will pay upward of $3,600 to $3,700 in yearly tuition to cover the difference in property taxes. Krepela, also director of the Oakland Regional Chamber of Commerce, multiplies that tuition by the number of students she estimates are leaving.
“That’s $370,000 Fayette County’s losing from parents that are paying that in,” says Krepela, adding: “That’s $370,000 they can’t spend on Wal-Mart, recreation, on local businesses in their community.”
But controlled choice architect Michael Alves says any assertion that property values will decline is patently false: “Those were all attacks that opponents against desegregation used against forced busing.”
He says controlled choice actually broadens opportunity for parents when they move.
“Property values plummet … when you have these attendance areas and all poor disadvantaged kids are going to the same school,” he says.
Lewis, says there is some diversity in the district, but her real concern about controlled-choice centers around busing: “Last year sometimes, she got home at 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening.”
Perhaps the real issue is the question of racial tension associated with desegregation in Fayette County. With black students outnumbering white students in the district, the most vocal white parents say their kids are being moved to create diversity.
“It’s divisive for our community,” says Lynn Shikles, 42, who is white and works at a local hospice. She and her husband say they’re forced to rearrange their work schedules to ensure their children get to school. Besides, both children identify as Native American, but Shikles says the district categorizes them as white to meet the court order’s racial balance quotas.
“It makes people look at each other and maybe go, ‘Well, this is all their fault.’ or ‘They’re the reason why we can’t have this,’” Shikles says. “It makes people as a community not want to come together. I raised my kids to love each other as humans.”
Many parents upset about controlled choice insist race plays no part in their resistance to the change, and that in 2014, the county has progressed beyond the need for outside intervention. However, one resident, an African-American homemaker whose grandchild attends school in Fayette County and requested anonymity due to the controversial nature of the topic, says race can’t be ruled out, citing white flight from Memphis suburbs like Cordova.
There were no African-American parents present at the school district protest on the first day of school, but many were present at a school board meeting the following week, calling for a reconsideration of controlled choice.
Lewis says controlled choice has also inconvenienced her, but she isn’t vocal: “Maybe they [blacks] feel like when you voice your opinion, nothing is done about it. I’m one of the ones who is just quiet and don’t say nothing.” “I feel like if I want to do better, then I need to leave.”
Amiyah’s not the only one with a ways to go
An hour before school ends at Central Elementary, parents are already lined up around the block to pick up their children. Even before controlled choice, many parents insist they don’t like the idea of their kids riding long distances on buses with reputations for being tardy and rowdy. Outside the school, cheery administrators call children out one by one, ensuring they get to the right car or bus safely.
Jenny Nicholson has driven all over Fayette County managing the protest and preparing for the county’s upcoming election the next day, but it’s time to pick up Avery. When asked about his first day of school, he smiles and nods, suggesting it was a good one. It’s a start. Across town, China Lewis waits on Amiyah’s bus, which doesn’t get home until after 6 p.m. Lewis dropped Amiyah off at her new school this morning, but she won’t be able to every day. Amiyah will have to get up at 5:15 a.m. daily to get to school on time.
“I haven’t told her yet,” Lewis says.
Based upon Alves’ experience implementing controlled choice in other cities, he says parents’ opinions often differ between the first day of school and the last.
“When you get the opportunity at the end of the year, overwhelmingly, people just want to stay where they are,” Alves says.