In the heart of the Mississippi Delta stands a city that has overcome an economy built and sustained on slave labor, a cotton industry built on the backs of field hands, and now a high school that has integrated itself more equitably than any school in the Delta.
But while Cleveland, Mississippi, has transformed itself from the land up, federal government has chosen to make the city’s schools a national example, forcing local schools to consolidate in the name of desegregation. But many local families of all races don’t want that, and they don’t necessarily consider the effects their individual choices to constitute systemic racism.
U.S. courts hold a legal responsibility to eliminate forced integration. So last May, Judge Debra Brown ordered Cleveland’s middle and high schools to consolidate, in keeping with a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice motion “to enforce the previously-entered desegregation orders governing the district and compel the district’s compliance with federal law.”
This meant combining the mostly African-American East Side High with the racially mixed Cleveland High. Yet the demographics of Cleveland schools are due to parent choice, not forced integration, and occurred naturally. The government’s intervention is heavy-handed and far-removed from the reality of life in Cleveland.
The DoJ has resurrected a 1965 case, Cowan v. Cleveland School District, to impose its faraway will on local schools, ignoring the district’s efforts to integrate the education system since the 1960s through school choice instead of government force.
“East Side has an award-winning and highly respected principal—who happens to be white—and many white teachers who prefer teaching there over teaching at Cleveland High,” said Michael Carr, a public defender in Bolivar County and graduate of Cleveland High School. “CHS had a black student body president last year who won top awards at the MS High School Mock Trial Competition and got a full ride to Ole Miss. It’s not just ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We are all mixed up here. And that’s on purpose and how we want it. This lawsuit has just brought race to the forefront when it really was not headline news in our town.”
Local Problem-Solving Versus Federal Race Quotas
Since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, public schools across the country have seen an “alarming” increase in segregation, said Leslie Hiner, a vice president at EdChoice. But Cleveland’s public schools are not following this national trend.
“Fifty years ago, desegregation focused on improving academic opportunities for African-American children who had been forced to attend under-funded, under-performing public schools,” Hiner said. “Today, in Cleveland, African-American children have the right to choose the public school, and public school classes, they wish to attend.”
In other words, forced desegregation was a policy for times in which individuals had less leverage to solve their own problems, before today’s greater access to school choice. Since Cleveland lets families choose which school their kids will attend, the fact that East Side is majority black is only so because families choose to put their children in a school with that composition. The federal lawsuit is telling these mostly African-American families that their choices have created systemic racism that requires federal intervention.
“Cleveland School District has genuinely tried to find ways to continue black and white students going to school together while keeping the character and identity of neighborhood schools,” Carr said. “East Side is a neighborhood school, and that neighborhood happens to be black. It’s the majority race in Bolivar County. It has always been that way since our county was founded.”
Following a series of parent meetings and focus groups prior to trial, the Cleveland school board decided their bottom-up approach to social and racial integration is better than the Obama adminstration’s top-down demands. So on July 11, the Cleveland School Board formally appealed the court’s order.
Atop local choice policies, the state legislature has been attempting to address Mississippi’s long history of offering some of the nation’s worst public schools. Vouchers for disabled students and an education savings account law for special-needs children became law in 2011 and 2012, and have proven popular with parents. Washington bureaucrats descended on the state precisely as these local efforts to offer greater opportunity to needy children materialized, Hiner said.
“Ordering schools to consolidate as a means to desegregate goes against local efforts of parents, teachers, and public school administrators to build an educational culture in the schools that offers greater opportunity for all students, regardless of their school of enrollment,” Hiner said. “If a school’s enrollment remains segregated as a result of the free choice of African-American families, does the government have a right to force these families to send their children to a different school against their wishes?”
Cleveland: A History of Poverty, Poor Education
Black Americans are used to outside entities overriding their education choices. It’s part of Mississippi’s disgraceful history.
“There were a lot of race issues [in Mississippi], and white supremacy dominated the thinking for much of the twentieth century,” said Ellen B. Meacham, a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. “Many of the state’s leaders did not see the point of funding the education of someone they thought was only going to work in the fields.”
Prior to mechanization, farming in the Delta was labor-intensive, and farmers used debt and even force to make it difficult for poorer workers, who were mostly black, to leave, Meacham said. The mechanization of agriculture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including equipment like the cotton picker and harvester, contributed to a huge displacement of workers from 1960-66.
“You had thousands of people working in the Delta who were suddenly put out of work and generations of people for whom the state had been resistant to providing any kind of education for their poor population because they needed them for agricultural purposes, and then suddenly they no longer needed them,” Meacham said. “They hadn’t been educated and there weren’t any jobs left. They were in quite a bind.”
These folks had often received only a third- or fourth-grade education around the cotton season in inadequate schools, many of which had no school books and no school buses, Meacham said.
Today, an Oasis of Choice in the Delta
According to locals, while poverty and uneven funding for public schools still remain, the racism that once dominated Cleveland’s education system is not foremost in the high schools today. In fact, Cleveland parents’ ability to choose which public schools to enroll their children in allows for more freedom than many school districts nationwide, let alone the Delta.
“Cleveland High School is the last truly integrated public high school in the Mississippi delta,” Carr said. “It is literally 50-50. You will not find another integrated high school until you get to the hills, at least a one-and-a-half hour drive in any direction.”
Carr could have attended East Side, but chose to attend his neighborhood school, Cleveland High. Nevertheless, the students in both schools regularly spent time and exchanged classes with each other.
“We also went to East Side every day to take certain classes, like calculus and French,” he noted. “East Side students came to Cleveland High to take drama and Spanish. And we all went to a local vocational tech center to learn trades… They still do it to this day.”
When parents are the ones making the decisions about where their children will attend school, it takes away the worry that racism has influenced someone else’s placement decisions, Cleveland school board attorney Jamie Jacks noted: “Parental choice is a key component in maintaining community buy-in for a school district.”
In fact, the Obama administration’s push for racially gerrymandering schools could make segregation worse.
“From a strict interpretation legal analysis, [Judge Brown’s] ruling is absolutely right,” Carr said. “However, I am concerned this ruling will unintentionally have a negative impact on integration in our school system. I’m afraid that white parents, if their son or daughter is suddenly made into an overwhelming minority group in what is already only a ‘C’-rated high school, with no promise of a new facility, better teachers, or new technology, will place their children in segregated academies. This would perpetuate re-segregation, and would undo all the progress we have made since the 1970s.”
The federal lawsuit makes a race issue out of what is really a funding issue, Carr said.
“The state or the Feds aren’t going to build us a sparkling new school where I can send my kids,” he said. “It would have to be funded by a massive local bond, and we don’t have the tax base for it.”
It could take a year for the district’s legal appeal to be heard and decided.
In this case, “the Department of Justice appears to be arbitrary and unfair to African-American parents, who stand to lose their freedom to choose what’s best for their own children,” Hiner said. “African-American children are being pushed around by bureaucrats in Washington to achieve what the bureaucrats believe is a perfect balance of the races—regardless of the wishes of parents, regardless of the impact on those children and the quality of their lives.”