What happens when students of color become the majority

     Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission sits in Chester, Pa., on May 4, 1964 as it starts a probe into demonstrations and alleged segregation in public schools. African American and other groups have charged de facto segregation and demonstrations resulted in mass arrests and injury to scores. (AP Photo/Warren M. Winterbottom)

    Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission sits in Chester, Pa., on May 4, 1964 as it starts a probe into demonstrations and alleged segregation in public schools. African American and other groups have charged de facto segregation and demonstrations resulted in mass arrests and injury to scores. (AP Photo/Warren M. Winterbottom)

    When American public schools reconvene this fall, they will do so in the shadow of a historical demographic shift: White students will no longer be the majority.

    According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students of color now comprise the bulk of public-school students nationally. About a quarter of these students of color are Hispanic, 15 percent are African American and 5 percent are Asian and Pacific Islanders. Biracial and Native American students make up a much smaller share.

    To some, this may sound like a sign of progress, but I know better.

    Realities in black and white

    When students of color comprise the majority of students in public schools, the schools tend to become a low priority. One needs look no further than Philadelphia to understand that ugly truth.

    In Philadelphia, more than half of the students in District schools are African American, nearly 20 percent are Latino, 8 percent are Asian, 5 percent are multiracial and less than 1 percent are Native American.

    Just 14 percent of the students in Philadelphia public schools are white.

    As white students have disappeared from Philadelphia’s public schools due to white flight, shifting population and good old-fashioned racism, state funding has dried up.

    Is there a correlation between the disappearance of white students and the disappearance of funding?

    I can’t say for sure, but I can say this: For decades, the Philadelphia School District was a strident example of school segregation that gave short shrift to students of color.

    Historical context

    In the early 1970s, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) sued the School District of Philadelphia in Commonwealth Court in an effort to desegregate the District. The litigation lasted for years.

    In 1992, with the School District of Philadelphia still unacceptably segregated, Judge Doris Smith-Ribner found that the District was “failing or refusing to provide … a quality education to children attending racially isolated minority schools.”

    Smith-Ribner went on to blame the state for many of the district’s problems. She tried and failed to get the state to pay for needed reforms.

    It wasn’t until 2009 — just five years ago — that the School Reform Commission voted to end 40 years of desegregation litigation and committed to implementing a plan to improve achievement in the District’s racially isolated schools.

    By then it was too late.

    Damage done

    The vast majority of white kids were already gone, and students of color comprised the majority of district students. That’s when the funding problems, many of which can still be traced to the state, shifted into high gear.

    With a School District where students of color are the majority, it is now seemingly impossible to fund schools.

    Last year, for example, the Philadelphia School District faced a $304 million structural budget deficit prior to the start of the school year. Money was found after a political fire drill but basic positions, such as school nurses and counselors, were cut.

    The pain didn’t end there.

    Twenty-four schools were closed and another funding crisis ensued. And, thanks to the state legislature’s refusal to pass a $2 a pack cigarette tax, Gov. Tom Corbett was forced to step in at the 11th hour with a $256 million advance to open the schools on time.

    The end result

    So, what does it mean to have students of color comprise the majority of public-school students on the national level?

    It means that schools are in danger of following Philadelphia’s example, and falling to the bottom of the priority list.

    When students of color are the majority, school desegregation battles span decades, white students leave the schools, state funding dries up and schools close by the dozens.

    When students of color are the majority, supporting and funding a quality public-education system is no longer a political priority.

    When students of color are the majority, a state like Pennsylvania can spend $400 million to fund a new prison even as the schools in its biggest city are $304 million in the red.

    America’s public schools now mirror Philadelphia’s, with students of color comprising the majority.

    If America is to educate our children properly, it must look to Philadelphia as a cautionary tale, and not as an example to follow.

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