We came to Florida in 1966. Florida was the ‘New South’ thanks to Governor LeRoy Collins. It was to be a model of positive change, and for many years, it was. Florida led the nation in desegregation. Then in the 90’s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions repealed desegregation mandates. The ‘Separate but Equal’ era reasserted itself. Districts–communities–ended bussing and suburban sprawl was the norm. Large, mostly urban pockets of very low performing schools developed due to racially and economically segregated housing patterns.
In a just released study of Florida public education, the bottom line for children is that with whom they attend school matters. The report states: “White, middle-class student enrollment is especially important since these students have access to more challenging courses, peer groups and support systems in strong schools. These educational advantages benefit disadvantaged students in ways that enrollment in predominately minority schools do not.”
Reaching the goal of racially and economically diverse schools is a challenge. Florida’s population has become more diverse and less affluent. The percentage of white/Asian students fell from 60% to 43%. While the percentage of black students in public schools remains about 20%, the percentage of Hispanics doubled to 31%. Are the public schools more diverse? Well yes, on average. We have more multi racial schools– 1/5 in 1994 to 1/3 in 2014. The diversity, however, is not uniformly spread among schools. The percentage of schools that are 90-100% minority has doubled from 10% in 1994 to 20% in 2014.
While exposure to other races and ethnicities has increased over time, the typical student in each group tends to go to schools where the majority of students are like themselves. This is especially true for white students. They attend schools with about one-third minority enrollment, whereas black and Hispanic students are typically in schools where they represent two-thirds of the school’s enrollment. Given the economic differences among racial/ethnic groups on average and the correlation between income and achievement, it is predictable that concentrations of low performing schools are found in low-income areas.
Under the school choice policies initiated by Governor Jeb Bush in the 2000s, parents are offered choices to escape the problems associated with concentrated poverty. Resegregation, as a result, increased. One in four black students attends an intensely segregated charter school. Hispanic students in charters are even more likely to attend a charter school with a predominately Hispanic student body. In Florida, Hispanic students are the largest group attending charter schools. Given that charter schools are counted as public schools, the conclusion that public schools are becoming more segregated is no surprise.
The obvious problem is what can be done that encourages a better cross section of students who can learn from one another. In Governor Collins’ era, the State supported research to design desegregation plans. Florida does have a controlled enrollment option for districts. Lee and St. Lucie counties have implemented this approach to school assignment in order to better integrate its schools. Okaloosa County has voted to go in this direction. Nevertheless, the report concludes that Florida has come a long way since the era of LeRoy Collins, but the integration of public schools is not one of them.