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School desegregation's impact - four decades later

Delaware Public Media

Thirty-eight years after the start of city-suburb busing to desegregate schools in Wilmington and its suburbs, the racial composition of most schools the city has reverted to the majority black ratios that prevailed in the early 1970s.

While discussing their work during the desegregation era, Jea P. Street and Jeffrey A. Raffel, also offered some insights into the current debate over high-poverty schools in Wilmington and its suburbs.

Street, a veteran of the desegregation wars of the 1970s and longtime advocate for Wilmington students, points to four key factors for the reversion to racial imbalances in the city: the lifting of the desegregation order in 1994 and the subsequent passage of three state laws, the Charter School Act in 1995, the School Choice Act in 1996 and the Neighborhood Schools Act in 2000.

The lifting of the court order triggered the end of court-ordered busing and the Neighborhood Schools Act mandated that, barring exceptional circumstances, districts assign students to public schools closest to their homes. In between, the charter and choice laws often served to enable students who had been assigned to majority black schools in Wilmington to enroll in mostly white schools in the suburbs.

Street believes that Wilmington schools have become resegregated, and he blames it on “the diabolical role of the Delaware General Assembly.” He believes the three laws, taken together, represent a more egregious example of deliberate segregation than the passage in 1968 of the Educational Advancement Act, whose provisions were declared unconstitutional in 1975, leading to the desegregation order.

“There has never been any good will on the part of the Delaware General Assembly for black children, children of color in the city of Wilmington, and nothing is going to change until such time as a judge or judges compel them to do so,” Street says.

“I can’t disagree with a number of things Jea has said about the prejudice that leads to the General Assembly … not necessarily doing the right thing,” says Raffel, the retired University of Delaware professor whose book, The Politics of School Desegregation, provides a comprehensive picture of the 1970s court case and its aftermath.

Raffel agrees that the three laws have created the current situation. “Most parents don’t want to send their kids outside their neighborhood except for really, really great schools. That’s part of what is happening in New Castle County. We’re giving people an option and to some extent they’re resegregating themselves.” He notes, however, that “there is tremendous support in the African-American community for charter schools.”

Street has threatened to take the state to court before, but now he says he’s waiting until after the November elections, hoping that the next president will fill the current U.S. Supreme Court vacancy with a justice who would be inclined to support his view, provided the suit he has yet to file advances that far.

Whether a new lawsuit is filed may depend on what happens next with the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission plan, which will be reconsidered next year by the General Assembly. The commission, established last year by Gov. Jack Markell, has proposed moving schools in Wilmington now operated by the Christina School District into the Red Clay Consolidated School District and having the state phase in a system of weighted funding that would provide additional resources to schools with significant numbers of low-income students, English-language learners and children with special needs.

The General Assembly endorsed the idea of taking schools out of Christina’s jurisdiction and making them Red Clay’s responsibility, but complete approval stalled because of the weighted funding issue, for which varying price tags have been given. Some members of the commission have been using a ballpark figure of $15 million for a plan that would phase in weighted funding for schools in Red Clay, Christina and two downstate districts.

“In December, I’ll have 42 years in the arena, and quite frankly I want to get out,” Street says. But he insists that he will continue battling for educational equality for low-income and minority students until three things occur: a reduction in the number of school districts serving Wilmington from four to no more than two; until Wilmington is no longer “the only city in the United States that has no authority for the educational destiny of its own children”; and, if high-poverty schools are to remain, the state provides the additional financial resources to educate the children enrolled in them.

Raffel remains hopeful for the future, but takes a cautious view. “I believe that what Jea is saying, and what [WEIC] said would be a step forward, but I would warn that, while all of it might help, that alone is not going to ‘solve the problem.’”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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