Dr. Amir Whitaker, a former teacher and an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, appears in the documentary, “The Class Divide”
More than 60 years ago, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling offered the promise that a child’s education would no longer be determined by race. But every day across America, for families of color, it’s a promise unfulfilled.
They’re families like the Walkers in Pinellas County, Fla. The parents have watched their youngsters’ grades plummet. A revolving door of teachers and poor instruction have caused two of the Walkers’ children to be held back a grade. The neighborhood schools are failing their children.
The Walkers live in south Pinellas County—home of five schools that were found to be among the 15 worst public schools in the state. Low test scores, scarce resources and high teacher turnover are a stark reality in these predominantly black schools. It’s a staggering concentration of failure that the U.S. Department of Education, upon visiting Pinellas, called “education malpractice” and a “man-made” disaster.
In contrast, the district’s schools in the northern part of the county are thriving with more resources. Test scores exceed state averages. They’re what you’d want for your children.
They also have more white students.
As former teachers, we sought to understand how student experiences could be so vastly different in a district including some of Florida’s most affluent cities. We took a look beyond the beaches, yachts and golf courses to discover what has gone wrong, and what it means for us as a nation.
We met with school board officials, community members, and parents such as the Walkers, to examine the decisions that have affected the future of children across the county. The story of our investigation is presented in the EPIX original documentary series America Divided. (Our epidisodes will be shown over two nights: Oct. 7 and 14 at 9 p.m. EDT.)
While no one is obstructing the schoolhouse door, the educational system in this country is still separate and unequal. It’s a system that sets up children of color for failure while simultaneously funneling them into the criminal justice system. It’s a process often referred to as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”
The current dual education system in this country was born out of misguided policies that have re-segregated schools. In 2007, the Pinellas school board passed a plan that ended the busing which had integrated local schools. The new plan meant that children had to attend their “neighborhood schools”—forcing students of color into poorly funded, substandard schools that previous generations had fought so diligently to escape after Brown v. Board of Education.
Of course, the familiar shadow of Jim Crow extends far beyond Pinellas County.
Recently released federal data indicates that black students are three times as likely to have teachers who have not met all state certification or licensing requirements. Also, students at predominantly black and Latino schools are more likely to have first-year teachers.
Students of color are also missing out on advanced courses. Over 56% of high schools with low black and Latino enrollment offer calculus, but only a third of high schools with high black and Latino enrollment offer it.
Instead, children of color attend schools where resources are used to hire armed police officers who too often manhandle, pepper spray, handcuff and arrest students for minor misbehavior. What’s more, research shows schools with predominantly black and Latino students are more likely to have law enforcement officers than predominantly white schools.
That’s a dangerous distinction.
When you introduce law enforcement into schools, you completely transform the experience—especially for children of color. Black students are more than twice as likely to be arrested at school or referred to law enforcement as white children.
In Pinellas County, we found 939 students were arrested for “disorderly conduct” from 2010 to 2015. Despite black students comprising less than 20% of Pinellas’ student population, they were more than 70% of disorderly conduct arrests. Records show children arrested for “disorderly conduct” may have engaged in behavior as minor as talking back and knocking over a trash can.
Our investigation revealed the hard truth behind the concerns of so many Americans: The legacy of separate and unequal school systems is alive and well in America. We should not, however, resign ourselves—and our children—to this reality.
In Pinellas County, the community and activists have spurred some reforms. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a civil rights complaint over the discriminatory policing in the county’s schools. Change is slowly coming, but it will only happen in Pinellas and other communities if people of conscience take a stand together.