Great, 'But Not My Kid'
Segregation in Florida schools in 2020
In 2008, Marie-Claire Leman and her husband, Will, moved their family from Montreal to Tallahassee, where he had accepted a position as a history professor at Florida State University. They bought a house on a cul-de-sac in Indianhead Acres, a neighborhood popular with professors and government workers, and enrolled their daughter in kindergarten at the local public elementary school.
Tallahassee is divided north-south roughly along Apalachee Parkway, a sixlane road that dead ends at the Capitol. Here, as in most communities in Florida, housing is largely segregated by race.
Demographically, Indianhead resembles Tallahassee’s northern suburbs, which tend to be white and more affluent. But the neighborhood's location just south of Apalachee puts it on the side of town where the population is predominantly black. Leman soon learned that parents in Indianhead typically sent their children somewhere other than the zoned local school, Hartsfield Elementary, where more than 70% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and about 90% are black or Hispanic. The school’s standardized test scores generally are in the bottom half of state averages.
At the suggestion of neighbors, Leman and her husband initially looked at a charter school on the north side of town. They applied for a spot, but the school had a waiting list, and they didn’t get in until a year later — by which point they no longer were interested. “It wasn’t even a possibility for me at that point,” Leman says. “I was already well aware of how our neighborhood school had lost a lot of students to other schools over the years, and I didn’t want to contribute to that.”
Leman has since become a volunteer advocate for Hartsfield and other Title I schools, which receive additional federal dollars because of their high percentages of low-income students. All three of her children, ages 17, 13 and 11, went to Hartsfield and did well, both academically and socially, she says. Leman’s oldest child, Emma, recently graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at Rickards High school as a covaledictorian and now attends the University of Florida. Leman’s youngest two children go to their zoned middle school.
Leman remains a believer in the value of school integration. “Students have a lot to learn from being around other kids who do not look like them. It prepares them for the world much, much better,” she says. “I think my children are going to be more aware of inequalities and discrimination. They’ve seen it firsthand, and it’s prevented them, to some extent, from being in a bubble. My hope is that they’ll be more just and responsible adults for it.”
Three years ago, Tallahassee-based LeRoy Collins Institute, a non-partisan policy think tank, commissioned a study on segregation in the state’s K-12 public schools. The report, produced by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that Florida’s schools have grown more segregated over the past three decades, making Hartsfield part of a broader trend.
According to the report, Florida’s schools became dramatically less segregated in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Desegregation continued through the ’80s but then stalled:
In 1995, about one in 10 schools statewide was “intensely segregated,” meaning 90% or more of their students were black, Hispanic or Native American. A decade later, one in five schools was intensely segregated.
- Today, the typical white or Asian child attends a school where only a third of students are black or Hispanic, even though black and Hispanic students comprise more than half of all students statewide. By contrast, the typical black or Hispanic child goes to a school where less than a third of students are white or Asian, even though white and Asian students make up 43% of state enrollment.
- Segregation levels probably are even more pronounced on a classroom by classroom basis because of the dynamic created by partial-school magnet programs — specialized academic offerings designed to attract students from white, middle-class neighborhoods to schools that are predominantly black and low-income. Interaction between magnet and non-magnet students is often limited, and the programs can make a school look more integrated than it really is. “A lot of my students teH me, ‘I went through an IB program, but I didn’t really see the other kids in school. We had different lunch times and different classes and just didn’t interact’, ”says FSU political science professor Carol Weissert, who leads the Collins Institute. The resegregation trend is partly a function of demography. There are simply fewer white children and more Hispanic children. In recent years, the Hispanic share of K-12 enrollment more than tripled, from 8% in 2005 to 31% in 2015. During the same period, the white share fell from 68% to 40%, and the black share remained fairly constant at 22%.
The demographic change is most obvious in Miami-Dade County, where white and Asian students made up 9% of public school enrollment in 2014, down from 16% two decades earlier. In Miami- Dade, the typical black child goes to a school where 5% of students are white or Asian, while the typical white child attends a school where three-fourths of students are black or Hispanic (vs. 91% district-wide). By comparison, Orange County schools are 64% black and Hispanic, up from 42% in the mid-1990s. As in Miami, the typical white child in Orlando attends a school with a disproportionately smaller share of black and Hispanic students (52%).
Another factor is residential segregation. Neighborhood schools tend to reflect the racial composition of their surroundings. According to Census data, Miami is more segregated than the typical U.S. city, while Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando fall roughly in line with the national average.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has played a role in the resegregation trend by restoring the primacy of neighborhood schools.
In 1991 — 20 years after the court ruled that school districts could bus white students into black schools (and vice versa) to achieve racial balance — it allowed federal judges to decide when a school system was sufficiently integrated and could return to local control.
In 2007, the court moved further away from busing and integration, voting 5-4 that districts could not use race to assign students to schools for diversity purposes. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the case’s majority opinion.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who cast the decisive fifth vote, recognized that while race-based policies did not pass legal muster, districts had a compelling interest in promoting diversity and avoiding racial isolation. Kennedy endorsed strategies such as redrawing attendance zones to foster diversity and defended integration as a worthy goal, arguing, “the nation has a moral and ethical obligation to fulfill its historic commitment to creating an integrated society that ensures equal opportunity for all of its children.”
Researchers say Leon High School in Tallahassee is a good example of how lines can be drawn to include neighborhoods that vary in racial and economic composition. Located in the middle of town, Leon High draws students from a broad and diverse area and has an A rating from the state. Nearly half of its students are black or Hispanic, and 26% are low-income.
Statewide, as the white share of student enrollment has fallen, the poverty rate has steadily increased. Low-income children, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic, now account for nearly 60% of public school enrollment in Florida, up from less than 40% during the 1990s. This has given rise to something called double segregation: The typical black or Hispanic child at- tends a school where about two-thirds of students are poor, while the typical white child goes to a school that’s less than 50% poor.
In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were inherently unequal and thus unconstitutional, it pointed to funding disparities between black and white schools. The case had been brought by Oliver Brown, a black parent in Topeka, Kansas, who was turned away when he tried to enroll his third-grade daughter in a segregated white school near their home, forcing her to walk six blocks to catch a bus that took her to a black school.
These days, it would be hard to say that schools in minority low-income neighborhoods, particularly those with magnet programs, get fewer public resources. Teachers are paid the same; students get the same books and equipmeivt; and facilities are built to the same standards. And yet, achieving resource equity among schools has proven difficult, if not impossible, largely because of socioeconomic differences between white and minority families. Higher-income parents, for example, generally can provide more support for their children’s schools via fundraisers and sponsorships.
In addition, “in schools that are predominantly white, the white community, because it’s more affluent, will literally raise hell and bring pressure on the district to get whatever needs fixing fixed. When you get into poor communities, those voices tend to be more muted,” says Ricardo Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students in Pinellas County.
When Florida revised its constitution in 1968, it required school districts to be drawn along county lines. This prevented families in white suburban enclaves from carving out their own districts to avoid busing and integration — though they could express their opposition by enrolling their children in private schools. The late ’60s and early ’70s saw a wave of new private schools created by parents opposed to busing. Critics dubbed them segregation academies.
Nevertheless, white flight to private schools leveled off by the mid-’70s and does not appear to be a major cause of the recent upsurge in segregation. Between 2008 and 2018, K-12 private school enrollment in Florida rose from 279,873 students to 335,494, a 20% increase. Data show the majority of the growth came from low-income students who got state vouchers to attend private schools, rather than from affluent families. Charter schools, which are disproportionately Hispanic, also have expanded and now account for nearly 10% of state enrollment.
Over time, both white and non-white parents have grown less concerned with the racial composition of classrooms and more concerned with education quality and student outcomes. It’s worth noting that even as schools have become more segregated, Florida has seen some of the biggest gains in achievement by black and Hispanic students in the U.S. Many believe that accountability — that is, holding schools accountable for the performance of their students on standardized tests — is more effective at improving the outcomes of black and Hispanic children than simply social engineering classrooms to some desired level of diversity.
“It shouldn’t matter how many black or white kids are in a classroom. What should matter is whether all of those children, regardless of race, are being taught,” says Davis, whose organization served as a plaintiff in a 2000 lawsuit accusing the Pinellas County School District of shortchanging black students. The district has since settled the suit and developed a plan to close the racial achievement gap over the next decade.
Davis also raises concerns over teacher diversity and differences between how black and white students are disciplined, noting that black children are more likely to be expelled or suspended than their white peers. Nearly 70% of public school teachers in Florida are white; 16% are Hispanic; and 14% are black, according to statistics compiled by the state Department of Education.
“Some teachers don’t know how to interact with black students coming from a different culture, especially from poor communities. That’s a problem,” Davis says. “There’s a lot of cultural misunderstanding that I think is at the root of why we find it so difficult to teach black and Hispanic children. I don’t think teachers don’t want to do a good job; I just think they’re ill prepared. And on top of that, they’re underpaid.”
FSU’s Weissert argues that lowincome minority children stand to fall further behind academically if they don’t have access to the same resources and opportunities as their more affluent white peers. She says white children also miss out when segregated schools fail to prepare them to live and work in an increasingly multiracial society. “Studies show that children in diverse schools get used to living in the world. They’re more empathetic and understand different races better,” she says. “Part of your education is about learning to be a good citizen. If you’re in a school that’s all black, all Hispanic or all white, you don’-t grow up with this notion of what Florida is or what diversity is.”
Weissert makes a number of policy recommendations to reverse the segregation trend, including encouraging the development of affordable housing near high-achieving schools and drawing school boundaries in a way that promotes racial and economic diversity. Pointing to the current political environment, she says racial disparities related to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic aftermath and the Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the need for better racial understanding. “In this day and age, it’s especially important when you have people talking about racism and white power. It’s hard to believe that someone who had a diverse educational background is quite as susceptible to that,” she says.
But Weissert acknowledges that both black and white parents seem to like diversity only as long as they believe it doesn’t come at the expense of their children’s educations. Parents, then as now, want their children to go to school with other children who they think broadly share their expectations. Adds Weissert: “A lot of parents say, ‘yeah, yeah, I’m really for it, but not my kid.’ ”
Segregation in Florida’s Public Schools
In the mid-1990s, white and black students combined made up 83.5% of public school students in Florida, while Hispanics, Asians and others comprised 14.6%, 1.7% and 0.2%, respectively. Only one in five schools was multiracial 25 years ago. By the mid-2010s, one in three schools was multiracial, reflecting the increased diversity of Florida's student population, but that diversity was not evenly spread across schools. The share of “intensely segregated” schools nearly doubled from 10.6% in 1994 to 20.2% in 2014.
Enrollment in Florida public schools has become less white since the mid-1990s, dropping from 61% white and Asian in 1995 to 43% in 2015. By contrast, the percentage of Hispanic students doubled to 31% during the same period, while the black share remained fairly stable at 22%, according to FSU’s LeRoy Collins Institute, which published a 2017 report titled “Patterns of Resegregation in Florida’s Schools.”
Modern school segregation in Florida is closely tied to housing patterns, with low-income families of color largely concentrated in urban areas. As a result, intensely segregated schools tend to be in the largest cities, data show.
Charter and Private School Enrollment
Enrollment in charter schools statewide has nearly tripled in the past decade from about 83,000 students in 2004-05 to 231,000 students in 2014-15, representing 9% of the state’s total school enrollment. Charter schools have proved especially popular with Hispanic students: In 2015, Hispanic students comprised 40% of charter school enrollment in Florida, up from 27% a decade earlier, according to the LeRoy Collins Institute at FSU. Black students made up 19% of charter school enrollment in 2015, down from 25% a decade earlier. Meanwhile, K-12 private school enrollment in Florida has grown 20% from 279,873 students in 2008-09 to 335,494 students in 2018-19. The number of private school students who received tax credit scholarships because of their low-income status quadrupled from 24,871 a decade ago to 104,091 today. Low-income students now account for nearly a third of K-12 private school enrollment in Florida.
In 1991, under federal court orders to desegregate its public schools, St. Lucie County shifted from a neighborhood school plan to “controlled choice,” a way of assigning students to schools with an eye toward diversity. At the time, the county was focused on race. During the student assignment process, families chose among several schools in their area, and students were assigned based on their preferences and a lottery designed to ensure an even distribution of students by race across schools.
St. Lucie was declared officially desegregated in 1997, and the county revised its plan to achieve socioeconomic rather than racial balance, allowing it to remain legal under a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that struck down race-based student assignment policies.
St. Lucie schools, by and large, have maintained both racial and economic diversity. As of 2014, the typical white child in St. Lucie attended a school where 54% of students where black or Hispanic and 60% were low-income, more or less in line with the demographic composition of the district, according to data from the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University.
Aside from diversity, controlled choice also has enabled the county to manage rapid population growth without constantly having to reassign students or redraw school boundaries, officials say. Assignment priority is given to siblings and to families who live within two miles of a school, and students are allowed to stay in their assigned school until they complete its highest grade. “Unlike many high-growth school systems, we do not have to redistrict when an area grows beyond the capacity of the school in that neighborhood,” the district says on its website. St. Lucie’s K-12 enrollment has grown 59% from 25,679 students in 1994 to 40,848 students in 2019.
It’s not clear what benefit controlled choice has on reducing the achievement gap. In a paper published last year by the Cato Institute, David Armor, professor emeritus in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, analyzed math proficiency rates among poor and non-poor students in St. Lucie and two other Florida counties with controlled choice, Lee and Manatee. He found that between 2002 and 2010, low-income students, on average, gained fewer points in Lee, Manatee and St. Lucie than in Florida as a whole.
One issue may be that all three counties “now have a lot of low-income students”— 60% or more of total enrollment — making it “increasingly difficult to offer a meaningful level of economic diversity,” Armor wrote. “Obviously, the hypothesized academic benefit cannot be offered to most low-income students once a large majority of the students are from low-income homes.”
Read more in Florida Trend's October issue.
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