The longest-running schools desegregation case in America ended in 2003. But it was hard for anyone involved to say what, if anything, had been accomplished.
“Today our schools are as segregated as they were 47 years ago,” Jackie Mims, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board's president at the time, was quoted saying.
Mary Ann Pharr, whose name was on the original complaint as a first- or second-grader—she couldn't remember which—expressed a similar sentiment to The Associated Press. “I don't know whether it should be over or not,” she said. “I really don't see that many changes. If you're in a poor district, you just don't have the same opportunities.”
When Davis et al. v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board was filed in 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, local schools were segregated by law. A “freedom of choice” approach to integration was adopted in the 1960s. But de facto segregation continued through the 1970s.
Federal District Court Judge John Parker, fed up with what he saw as a lack of progress in EBR, in 1981 created a plan whereby white and black schools were paired or “clustered,” and students were bused to schools in their cluster in an effort to achieve some semblance of racial balance.
“Parker's desegregation orders provoked massive resistance and an immediate hemorrhaging of white students from the public school system,” write Carl Bankston III and Stephen Caldas in A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana.
Prior to 1981, nonpublic schools had experienced a slight decline in their student counts. But following Parker's order, waiting lists for EBR private schools swelled almost overnight, while new schools began to sprout. Parkview Baptist School, for example, was founded in 1981. Enrollment in nonpublic schools jumped by about 2,000 during that first year of forced busing, Bankston and Caldas say. While most forced busing ended in 1996, most white children are not educated in the EBR public system.
Whites leaving EBR, or choosing not to live there in the first place, drove rapid population growth in Ascension and Livingston parishes, the researchers say. The phenomenon of Capital Region residents working in Baton Rouge but living elsewhere contributed to the suburbanization of the region and adds to traffic issues.
While white racism “undoubtedly continues to be part of the problem,” Bankston and Caldas say, they're sympathetic to middle-class parents who worry about sending their kids to school with poor children. Poverty is linked to lower academic performance, and blacks in Baton Rouge, as in most parts of the country, are far more likely to be poor than whites.
In the late 1990s, the EBR system began to splinter; Baker, Central and Zachary all have their own schools today. In the 2012 legislative session, a group of parents and grandparents from southeast EBR fell a few votes short of putting their own breakaway district on the ballot. They vow to try again next year.
Meanwhile, there are rumblings about another new district in the southwest quarter of the parish, and a state-run “achievement zone” in north Baton Rouge might well expand into a de facto breakaway district. In a recent report, LSU economics professor Jim Richardson and LSU visiting professor Roy Heidelberg say maintaining a unified financial structure, with semi-autonomous zones, might make more sense, financially and academically, than busting up what's left of the EBR system.
As the two acknowledge, the specter of the desegregation battles lurk in the background of any discussion about independent school districts. If the breakup of the system is seen as violating the letter or the spirit of the 2003 agreement that ended the desegregation case, an aggrieved party likely would file a lawsuit. East Baton Rouge's desegregation war, thought to be over after 47 years, might well begin anew.
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The old two-year college try