64 years after Brown: How private religious schools are taking America backwards on segregation


Thursday marked the 64th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 1954 decision, which established legal racial segregation in America as unconstitutional.

It was also a time for reflection for civil rights attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union, which played a pivotal role in fighting the Brown case. The organization continues that fight today, as many schools regress toward being nearly as separate and unequal as they were when the Supreme Court made its 1954 ruling.

“There was a long-fought period of states and school districts fighting back against desegregation,” ACLU Racial Justice Program director Dennis Parker said in a phone interview. “We’re now in a period where a lot of our schools are becoming more segregated. You no longer have the racial explicit limitations, but you have other things that challenge explicit integration.”

These newer anti-integration elements include the maneuverings of some religious private schools and voucher programs — two of the more insidious but lesser-known institutions driving school resegregation today.

School vouchers are certificates of government funding designed for low-income K-12 students that allow them to take the government money that would have paid for them to attend a public school and use it to attend a charter or private school instead. The ACLU has routinely sued states across the U.S. for implementing voucher programs that defund public schools in favor of sending students to private ones.

“One of the sad consequences of a lot of voucher programs has been the increasing of segregation,” Parker said. “Having a voucher is not always enough to get you into a private school. It ends up being a way to give tax breaks to middle-class families to have kids go to private schools. The overall effect is public education funding is used by private and religious schools.”

It’s a problem decades in the making. White communities in the South began establishing non-Catholic Christian private schools in the 1960s to keep segregation alive after Brown forced integration. And today, the fallout is not just a Southern phenomenon. Private religious schools in the Midwest and elsewhere have high tuition rates that disproportionately poor parents of color often can’t afford to pay. As a result, these schools are nearly as segregated today as public schools were in the South during Jim Crow, according to Parker.

Elder High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, was founded as an all-male college preparatory academy in 1912. More than a full century later, the student body was 94.5% white during the 2017-2018 school year, with just 24 black and four Asian pupils out of 898 total students, according to USASchoolInfo.

On Feb. 2, Elder made national headlines after some of its students attending a basketball game against their Greater Catholic League rival, St. Xavier, lobbed racist chants at the opposing team’s black and Asian players. At one point during the game, when St. Xavier student Bobby Jefferson, who is black, took the court, fans from Elder’s student section started chanting, “He can’t read,” “[He] smokes crack,” and “[He’s] on welfare,” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Jefferson’s Asian teammate, Nate Stockman, also was berated with taunts like, “P.F. Chang,’’ “Open your eyes,’’ and “A-sian,” witnesses reported. Stockman and his mother Susan, who attended the game, reportedly went home and cried afterwards.

Bobby’s mother, Mina Jones Jefferson, who also was at the game, told Mic that the hateful onslaught went on for more than half the game, and didn’t end until St. Xavier coach Rick Whitt complained to the referees.

“Usually you have students looking to their parents or teachers before yelling inappropriate things at sporting events,” Mina said during a phone interview. “With Elder’s students, they felt free to do it with adults in the stadium. Clearly that’s just an accepted behavior. This was a culture where this clearly seems to be OK.”

Mark Lennihan/AP

This isn’t just another story about overt racism in Donald Trump’s America. It’s a microcosm of a larger problem. Parker says that placing white students in exclusive education environments like Elder High makes them more likely to develop racist sentiments like the ones displayed at the February game.

And local education policies are only exacerbating the issue. More and more public school districts across the country are using private school voucher programs as an education reform method, rewarding schools and students who are already performing well at the expense of schools and students who are struggling.

Religious private schools often benefit from these policies by receiving public money — even though they are the most segregated in the nation. (Some states, like Michigan, have banned this practice, much to the chagrin of “school choice” cheerleaders like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Elder High School’s demographic makeup may help explain why its students felt comfortable spouting racist rhetoric for an entire half of a basketball game without fear of reprisal, administrators acknowledge.

“Diversity is something that we as a school really need to work on,” said Kurt Ruffing, the school’s current principal, who graduated from Elder in 1981. “From when I was a student it’s improved, but not much.”

According to Ruffing, the school’s administrators recognized they had a problem with diversity even before the incident in February. He said it’s one of the reasons their board voted in favor of joining Ohio’s EdChoice school voucher program in May 2017.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

However, Parker says voucher programs like EdChoice often increase segregation instead of reducing it.

A 2016 Columbus Dispatch report found that Ohio’s EdChoice school voucher system disproportionately benefited white students, who made up 56% of the state’s qualifying impoverished population but 64.3% of EdChoice recipients during the 2014-2015 school year. Qualifying black students made up 29% of the state’s school-age population, but received just 18.4% of expansion vouchers granted over the same period.

Parker said statistics like these are typical for voucher programs throughout the U.S., which often are sold to the public as a benefit to poor kids of color, yet ultimately have been shown to exacerbate racial inequality.

When vouchers are successful, they benefit the few students who receive them, but the failing schools they leave behind lose associated tax revenue and scholastic high-achievers to boost their test score averages. The struggling schools’ remaining students also lose the benefit of attending classes with academic role models, Parker said.

Still, private schools like Elder often provide superior learning opportunities for students of color who can afford them, according to Ruffing. Mina Jefferson said that’s why she chose to send her eldest son and his twin sister to private school programs for high school.

“Our experience at Xavier has been nothing but positive,” she said.

Parker said school choice programs are taking America backwards when it comes to integration.

“Any system that benefits a relatively large number of students at the expense of a large number of needy students, it’s a bad system,” he said. “It’s not a solution. It’s a problem within itself.”