Dispersed and Unequal

New Orleans children are abandoned again, this time in Baton Rouge schools

East Baton Rouge schools, which were 75 percent white when the suit was filed and 60 percent white in 1980, were 72 percent black last year. Tax funding has declined along with white enrollment, and the system is perpetually squeezed for cash—between 1974 and 2002, no new schools were built. In 1996, a system of magnet schools replaced 15 years of busing, and in 2003, the case finally reached a settlement, which involved new formulas for parceling out the few whites who were left.

Jonathan Kozol, who has spent 40 years documenting the disparities in our public school system, has just published a new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, which he called in a recent Salon interview "the angriest book I've written in my life." He finds thatBrown v. Board of Education has failed; schools are now just as segregated as they were in 1968, and black and Latino schools are still dramatically inferior and underfunded, receiving a national average of $1,000 less per student each year. Further, he argues that the inflexible testing requirements imposed by No Child Left Behind create a sense of "siege" in the poorest schools, punishing them by withholding funds and forcing teachers to teach by rote and to the test.

Kozol's work is remarkable among white progressives for its insistent focus on race as the heart of our education problem, and indeed, our society. He told Salon that most liberals prefer to shift the topic to class because it is "less toxic," because "racial injustice has its roots in the sins of American history."

Michael Bowden, 11, Genaro Gutierrez, 16, Joel Bowden, 13, and Marshan Bowden, 15, chill outside the River Center shelter in September.
photo: Anya Kamenetz
Michael Bowden, 11, Genaro Gutierrez, 16, Joel Bowden, 13, and Marshan Bowden, 15, chill outside the River Center shelter in September.

Even within the city's public schools, there is a means of separating many of the white children from most of the African Americans. It is called the Gifted and Talented program. Before my family moved to New Orleans, I attended Baton Rouge public schools in the '80s and early '90s, being tested and designated as "gifted" meant I studied in majority-white, Asian, and South Asian classes within majority-black schools, taking advantage of the best teachers and resources. As of 2004, black students were more underrepresented in the gifted program than any other racial group; they made up 76 percent of all students in the Baton Rouge schools but just 38 percent of students in gifted programs. Whites, 20 percent of all public school students, were 45 percent of all gifted classes. Students make it into the program through voluntary testing, which the parents must request. I remember back in elementary school, the testers accidentally chose a (black) boy named Jackson instead of my (white) friend's younger brother of the same name for testing in kindergarten; the boy ended up qualifying for the program.

Despite the desperate rush to place students anywhere possible, Gifted and Talented students from Orleans Parish have received special consideration, and they're assigned to gifted programs at schools like Westdale.

"With Gifted and Talented, it's state law that we honor that IEP," explains Taifa St. Julien, the one-woman communications department for the East Baton Rouge school superintendent's office. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program, and it denotes the specialized carbon-copy progress reports that must be filled out quarterly on each student designated as either Gifted and Talented or special ed.

Principal Sherry Brock readily admits that the high performance of her new students has made it that much easier to welcome them.

"Immediately, my first concern was testing, my test scores. I didn't know what I was getting [in terms of students]," she says. "But most of the students that we've registered are Gifted and Talented. Our school performance score was 98.6 before; we want to break 100 next year. Now I'm not concerned about the test scores at all."

Worries about accountability may also have played a role in the decision to open brand-new schools rather than add teachers and students to existing schools. That's because President Bush's No Child Left Behind policy imposes sanctions on every school that fails to improve its test standing each year, a requirement known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). By the state's own accountability measure, the schools in Orleans Parish have the lowest performance scores in the state; East Baton Rouge Parish is 10 places higher on the list of 65. The state department of education has already asked federal education secretary Margaret Spellings to limit AYP requirements for 2005–2006 to students enrolled in the same school for two years. "I am reluctant to waive, even partially, AYP or approve broad changes in state AYP definitions at this time," Spellings responded, calling AYP "the linchpin of the No Child Left Behind accountability system."

When it comes to the new schools, however, AYP would be hard to apply. "None of the old students are there. So you can't compare performance," says Meg Casper at Louisiana's department of education. She says the state board of ed has not yet decided whether it will administer its state LEAP tests to the displaced schools at all. The tests are usually done in March, and everyone holds out hope that most schools in Jefferson and some in Orleans Parish will be operating by then. "These things are still up in the air," says Casper.

The experiences of the students sent to Baton Rouge are a test case of Kozol's contention that racial segregation, exacerbated by testing, is the central problem in our public school system. Overt racism does not seem at work; the African-American East Baton Rouge superintendent, Charlotte Placide, is making the direct decisions about the treatment of these students, and Ms. Sherry Brock, Ms. Clara Joseph, and their respective staffs are each obviously working as hard as is humanly possible to teach their students with the tools at their disposal. Yet it is very easy to see how the continued structure of segregation is hurting the chances that something good can come from this disaster, for those who most need a second chance.

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