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Workplace Rewind

By Caroline Cataldo

After the ’64 Civil Rights Act, women retrofitted their schedules and family lives to fit in at work. Today, a movement is afoot to makeover work so it fits the needs of America’s one true majority — women.

Each morning, J. Vega and her three boys wake up, eat breakfast and are out the door by 7:15 to make their way by bus, and foot, to school.

Then Vega, a 37-year-old single mother, takes the subway from their home in Brooklyn to the sports club in downtown Manhattan where she works as a customer service manager.

A few months into her job, Vega’s schedule became increasingly unpredictable for unexplained reasons.  When Vega addressed this with her supervisors, they waved her away, saying her hours “were not up for discussion.”

“The changing hours didn’t matter much to some, but even an hour made a difference to me and my family,” says Vega, who asked that her first name not be used to protect her job.

Her 10 a.m. to  7 p.m. schedule allowed her to help her kids with homework, make them dinner and make sure that they got to and from school safely.  Earlier starts or later finishes meant her kids, two of whom are autistic, would miss therapy.

Even though the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned overt workplace discrimination against women, 50 years later there are still subtle practices that hold women back.

Census reports show that on average women earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns — the obvious evidence of gender discrimination.  Experts like Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn say 60 percent of the wage gap can be attributed to things easily measured like a woman’s time out of the workforce due to pregnancy and childcare, and the different occupations and industries in which women tend to find careers compared with men.

But the other 40 percent of the wage gap, experts say, cannot be explained with data and statistics.

Martha Burk at her house outside of Albuquerque, N.M., explains the New Mexico Pay Equity Initiative. (Caroline Cataldo/MEDILL)
Martha Burk at her house outside of Albuquerque, N.M., explains the New Mexico Pay Equity Initiative. (Caroline Cataldo/MEDILL)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC,  which monitors discrimination of all kinds in the workplace, points to gender stereotyping during the hiring process and inflexible workplace policies as two major obstacles facing women, like Vega, attempting to balance their roles as mothers and employees.

Sarah Jane Glynn, the associate director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress, says the unexplained percentage points are the side effects of centuries-old understandings of a women’s place in the family.

In 1964, 11 percent of women held dual roles as breadwinners and caregivers.  Over the past 50 years, that percentage has steadily increased to 40 percent, bringing women out of their homes and into the workforce.

Gender Stereotypes and Inflexible workplaces

In 2007, the EEOC issued enforcement guidelines outlining unlawful treatment of workers with caregiving responsibilities.  Though there are no specific federal laws protecting workers with caregiving responsibilities from discrimination, many claims that women make fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  When caregiving responsibilities collide with gender biases and stereotypes, the EEOC says “employment decisions based on stereotypes about working mothers are unlawful.”

Quoting the opinion of Justice William Brennan in the Supreme Court case Price Waterhouse v.. Hopkins, a famous sex discrimination case in which the court ruled the plaintiff was not promoted to partner in a law firm because she was a woman, the EEOC states that individual workers must not be evaluated by employers based on stereotypes but by their own merit.

“Any time an employer is making assumptions about their workers without actually checking in on them, that’s a problem.  When those things add up, they have really negative impacts,” Glynn says in similar studies she has conducted at the Center for American Progress.

The EEOC outlines those gender stereotyping assumptions, consciously or unconsciously made during the hiring process and throughout employment:

  • Caretaking responsibilities interfere with work;
  • Caring for a child makes women less dependable than male employees, regardless if they are or will become pregnant;
  • Women with young children should not work long hours ;
  • Women are less committed to their jobs as compared to before they had children;
  • Part-time workers care less about their work than those who work full time;
  • Women with children do not want to relocate to a new city, even when a promotion is involved for fear of disrupting their children’s lives.

In addition, the EEOC identifies what it calls the “double bind” that women face as they try to survive in the workforce.

Pamelya Herndon, executive director at the Southwest Women’s Law Center, talks about the issues facing women today. (Jillian Turner/MEDILL)
Pamelya Herndon, executive director at the Southwest Women’s Law Center, talks about the issues facing women today. (Jillian Turner/MEDILL)

According to the EEOC report: “Once female workers have children, they may be perceived by employers as being less capable and skilled than their childless female counterparts or their male counterparts, regardless of whether the male employees have children. These gender-based stereotypes may even place some working mothers in a “double bind,” in which they are simultaneously viewed by their employers as “bad mothers” for investing time and resources into their careers and “bad workers” for devoting time and attention to their families.” 

Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and nationally known expert on work-family issues, emphasizes that asking a woman if she can “have it all” directs work-life balance away from employers’ responsibility to their workers and toward a mother’s ability to be both an employee and a mother.

“Framing this issue as ‘women have to make hard choices’ glosses over the reason why women have to make hard choices,” Williams said.  “If you design the good jobs around a man married to a homemaker, then of course it makes life difficult, not only for women but also for men who are married to homemakers.”

When Vega’s work hours began to shift, she was forced to make hard decisions.  Even taking an hour off to go to her son’s parent-teacher conference put her at risk of losing her job.   She felt stuck, helpless and uncertain about why her employers were unwilling to accommodate her.

Vega says employers should embrace working mothers just as much as any other employee.

“We take our work personally,” she says.  “We embrace our jobs because we know we are working for a greater goal— our families.”

Williams backed Vega’s assertion that employers should be more flexible with  mothers in the workplace.

“The fact that the adult has other important commitments does not mean the adult is not committed to their job,” Williams says, who founded the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

The remaining 60 percent

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington,  says occupational segregation, which is a major factor in the pay gap, occurs when men work in occupations normally held by men and women work in jobs usually held by women.

In an analysis of the 2013 gender wage gap, the institute compared the 20 most common occupations for women and for men.  The data show how the intersection of gender, race and ethnicity affects the wage gap.

The researchers found that for the 20 most common occupations for men and women, a woman’s median earnings per week were lower than the earnings of a man — $706 and $860, respectively.  The report states those numbers have a lot to do with the kind of jobs women tend to hold— the top five most common professions for women, including nursing maids, waitresses, cashiers, and personal care aides earn average salaries that place women at or barely above the poverty  line.  That means 6.8 million women earn full-time wages and are still at the poverty level while 3.7 million men fall into that category.

The Institute for Women’s Policy and Research also compared the average earnings of men and women in two highly specialized fields, requiring a certain level of skill — software developing, a male-dominated field and registered nurses, a field dominated by women.

In both professions, men earned more.  Male software developers earned an average of $1,737 per week versus women at $1,370.  Women earned an average of $1,086 as registered nurses, while men earned an average of $1,236.

Mentors and advocates

When Amy Williams, a consultant physician at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, sat down as a guest lecturer with young female leaders at an annual conference, she asked them what they thought they needed to succeed.

“They told us they don’t particularly want academic mentors, they want career mentors helping them navigate their career and private practice,” Williams said.

“So often, women with education create their own glass ceiling,” Williams says.  “We take ourselves out of the running for jobs and promotions, because we give up too early.  There is an unconscious bias and we have to be attuned to it, encouraging our male colleagues to call it out.”

It is through female mentors and leaders who are willing to help women get a leg up that Williams believes women, especially in her field, will be able to close the gap.

For Vega, change did not come until she was close to reaching her breaking point.  One day, in a “fit of rage,” she combed through Internet searches for an answer to her problem.  There, she found A Better Balance, a New York-based legal center dedicated to helping caregivers balance family life and work without losing their economic security.

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, Phoebe Taubman, the lawyer assigned to Vega’s case, said Vega would be able to apply for leave at the beginning and end of the work day — covering the hours she had to miss so she could get her children to and from school without fear of losing her job.

Changing leave policies

The Family Medical Leave Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, requires employers to provide up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave for employees to take care of a new child, a seriously ill family member, or to recover from their own serious health or medical issue. Because two of her children suffer from autism, Vega qualified for these benefits.

At first, Vega found it difficult to get her employers to assemble the necessary paperwork to apply for the program.  But, after Taubman and Vega explained to them her home life situation, they were much more eager to accommodate her.

Only about 60 percent of caregivers meet the requirements to qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act; and those who do often cannot afford to take unpaid leave, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, a non-profit organization that has advocated for women’s rights for four decdes .

According to a report prepared for the United Nations in 2012, the United States and just five other  countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland — do not have some type of federal paid leave system for new mothers. At the state level, only three states, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have paid family leave laws.

And for this reason, paid leave is a hot topic for Glynn and her colleagues at the Center for American Progress.  Without access to paid leave, women are forced to quit their jobs or are fired, she says.

“[Unpaid leave] creates this system that forces women out of the labor force and keeps them out for extended periods of time,” Glynn says.

And this problem is particularly relevant to women who are pregnant or recently gave birth, she says.

  • The Center for American Progress estimates that between child care, pregnancy and subtle forms of discrimination the amount of earnings lost over a woman’s lifetime could be as much as 37 years of groceries for a family of four or seven four-year degrees at a public university.

Working with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines 

To remedy this, the EEOC has published multiple reports establishing guidelines and recommendations aimed at protecting pregnant women and female federal employees from discrimination.

In 2011, there were 5,797 charges filed with the EEOC and state and local Fair Employment Practice agencies around the country alleging pregnancy discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For the first time in 30 years, the EEOC in July issued new guidelines clearly spelling out that mistreatment of women for current pregnancies, past pregnancies and future pregnancies is illegal under federal law.  According to the EEOC, an employer must accommodate a pregnant woman as much as an employee who is similarly unable to complete a task because of a disability.   This covers everything from providing a woman a place to sit to creating spaces for pumping breast milk.

The guidelines were written in response to increasing numbers of pregnancy discrimination allegations and in an effort to clarify terms of federal discrimination laws, according to the EEOC.

Similarly, in December 2013, the EEOC created a report looking at the obstacles women faced in the federal workplace.

Specifically, the report highlighted inflexible workplace policies, wage disparity between men and women, unconscious gender bias and stereotyping, as well as how women are unable to obtain high level management positions in the workplace.

What’s next?

New Mexico began research in 2010 to monitor and remedy the gender wage gap for state government contract workers.  Though the initiative is still in early stages of implementation, it is the hope of pay equity advocate groups that their salary, gender and job reporting template and analysis techniques can be replicated in other states and cities around the country.

Martha Burk, lead consultant of the New Mexico initiative, says the only way women will find equal footing with men is by requiring state and local governments as well as private businesses to hold themselves accountable for nondiscriminatory hiring and pay practices.

Burk believes the government made some “serious mistakes” with civil rights, pay equity and pregnancy laws in the ’60s and ’70s.

“All of our civil rights laws were incorrectly conceived, in my opinion,” she says.  “Every civil rights statute that we have is complaint driven.”

According to Burk,  that means the plaintiff, in this case a woman, needs to prove she was discriminated against while the employer just has to “sit back and wait to get sued.”

“Instead of being complaint driven, we need to write laws so there is an affirmative obligation to do something,” says Burk, a women’s issues expert  who co-founded the Center for Advancement of Public Policy in Washington.  “Instead of saying, we are prohibiting pay discrimination, we need to say, ‘You must pay women and men equally for comparable work and skill.’ ”

The EEOC, Center for American Progress, Institute for Women’s Policy Research and a variety of other women advocacy groups have outlined recommendations for employers as well as local, state and federal governments to better meet the needs of the more than 66 million women in the workforce.

“I just want laws to start changing,” Vega says.  “We live in a diverse world— all benefits shouldn’t be impossible to fill for mothers, especially as the number of working families increases.

“At the end of the day I’m a mom.  A career cannot deny me that right.”

Control Issues

“Racial segregation has come back to public education with a vengeance.” — Jonathan Kozol, “The Shame of the Nation”

China Lewis, 30, a working mom whose daughter has been rezoned to a new school, 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,” she says of her daughter, Amiyah (JENN STANLEY/MEDILL)
China Lewis, 30, a working mom whose daughter has been rezoned to a new school, 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,” she says of her daughter, Amiyah (JENN STANLEY/MEDILL)

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.

A parent protesting against controlled choice sits outside Fayette County School Board offices with her children nearby.  (Natasha S. Alford/MEDILL)
A parent protesting against controlled choice sits outside Fayette County School Board offices with her children nearby. (Natasha S. Alford/MEDILL)

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, 50, a homemaker and mother of two, is organizing parents against controlled choice in Fayette County. She says she has more than 500 signatures collected for a petition against the school district. (Natasha S. Alford/MEDILL)
Jenny Nicholson, 50, a homemaker and mother of two, is organizing parents against controlled choice in Fayette County. She says she has more than 500 signatures collected for a petition against the school district. (Natasha S. Alford/MEDILL)

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).

Vandora Lofties, 62, (left) a retired Memphis Schools teacher and her husband, James Lofties, 65, a funeral home director, were among the first high school students in Fayette County to witness integration in the 1970s.  They both say progress has been made since then, but the district can always improve. (Natasha S. Alford/ MEDILL)
Vandora Lofties, 62, and  husband, James Lofties, 65, were among the first high school students in Fayette County to witness integration in the 1970s. They both say progress has been made since then, but the district can always improve. (Natasha S. Alford/ MEDILL)

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.