Over six decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown versus Board of Education decision, which ended the “separate but equal” doctrine, DC schools have been suffering from the consequences of continued segregation based on socioeconomic status and ward disparities.
This problem stems largely from how DC schools initially desegregated themselves. Despite the integration of some black students into white schools, desegregation did not substantially change the racial composition of black schools, which remained 97 percent African American between 1954 and 1960.
Such a divide was created because white, primarily wealthy, students could afford a transfer to private schools, while many African-American students were not financially able to do so.
As a result of the drive to private schools, the DC public school system suffered greatly. Not only were most facilities still underfunded, but academic reports began reflecting a lack of proper education.
In 1967, The Washington Post reported that “reading scores showed that fully one-third of the city schools’ pupils [had] fallen two years or more behind.”
This divide is just as obvious in 2020 as it was in the years following desegregation.
Divide in DC Schools
Present-day society, especially in DC, is often structured to benefit those in power while neglecting those who need assistance. This political and societal system exacerbates the lack of education access in the District of Columbia.
The DC school system prepares white students far better in securing a stable job and a quality home due to better-funded schools, increased access to extracurricular programs, and improved school curriculums.
This implicit bias and institutionalized inequality leads to a sharp contrast with the state of African Americans. Only 2 percent of people in Ward 3, a wealthier area with a primarily white population, did not receive a high school diploma. In Ward 8, one of DC’s poorest neighborhoods with a high African-American population, the figure is 17 percent.
As a result, unemployment is 23 percent in Ward 8 compared to 4 percent in Ward 3. The income of those in Ward 8 is greatly affected, trapping many African-American children in low-quality schools and a cycle of poverty that spans generations.
In a November 2019, DC Public School system report, most of the facilities in wards 7 and 8 were labeled as poor or very poor.
When students do not have the resources they need to succeed, such as high-quality school facilities, test scores tend to fall. This not only decreases the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school, but it also places an enormous burden on teachers who end up purchasing the majority of classroom supplies from their paycheck.
This condition reduces the number of teachers willing to teach in such a district, further damaging access to education.
The Way Ahead
These educational divides among wards are actively contributing to the segregation of DC schools. It is time for DC officials to take action and work to improve underprivileged schools in poorer wards.
Unfortunately, providing funding is nowhere near enough to recuperate these institutions. It does not solve overcrowding issues or account for racial bias. Additionally, funding would neglect the fact that many children have trouble even getting to school. The District needs a comprehensive plan to target all aspects of its segregated system.
DC must ensure that every school holds students to the same, rigorous academic standard to bridge learning gaps. The District should be an example for the rest of the United States, by combatting racial bias and socioeconomic inequality in communities which will translate into school environments.
And finally, DC must place profound importance on teachers as a central force for improvement, beginning with paying them a living wage.
No student should be devoid of opportunity as a result of the community they grow up in or the school they go to. It’s about time DC desegregated. Let’s start with schools.