It was seemingly appropriate that White Supremacists marched down on the campus of the University of Virginia last Friday as part of the mayhem and terror they would eventually wage against Black people and other minorities. The long march for equality and democracy in America goes through the schoolhouse door in Virginia as much as in any other state.
While Gov. Terry McAuliffe and state legislative leaders can condemn the bigotry of the Unite the Right participants (as well as the words of the current President of the United States), neither they nor us should forget that there is a reason why they came to Virginia in the first place. It isn’t just because of some statue of Robert E. Lee. The last gasp of legal Jim Crow took place in Virginia, when that state’s government replied to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown with “massive resistance” to school integration. The Old Dominion’s politicians of the time were so opposed to providing equal education (as understood at the time) to Black children that they shut down entire school districts.
The good news is that some things have changed. The bad news? Some things have remained pretty much the same.
Virginia’s Department of Education publishes “School Quality Profiles” on the Internet, easily searchable by school or “division” (district). These profiles include the percentage of students tested as achieving proficiency in reading, math, science and social studies. The results are impressive – if you take them on face value.
For example, the Virginia Department of Education judges that 76 percent of eighth grade students are proficient or advanced in reading. The state broke this down to 84 percent of White, non-Hispanic, students reaching the proficient or advanced level in grade 8 reading during the 2016-17 school year, as did 59 percent of Black students. The 25-percentage-point gap is troubling, but it is nonetheless encouraging that the state’s public schools teach more than half of its Black students to read at the level expected for middle school students.
But do they?
We can perform a direct comparison at the state level between student learning as assessed and reported by the Department of Education of Virginia and the National Assessment of Educational Progress results for eighth grade reading for the state. NAEP is widely considered “the gold standard” of student assessments. If there is a difference between assessments, NAEP is to be preferred.
NAEP’s most recent report on grade eight reading for Virginia show that by its standard 44 percent of White students are proficient and above as are 16 percent of Black students. This indicates that Virginia’s assessments at grade eight for proficiency in reading for White, non-Hispanic, students should be divided in half, those for Black students should be divided by nearly four.
We might, at this point, observe that inflating student learning achievement in this manner is not useful for the students, who are being given the impression that they have skills that half or three-quarters of them do not in fact possess; nor for educators, who look to these assessments for guidance for their efforts; nor for the state legislature and governor, who might wish to use these assessments in their budgetary and other planning.
As a result of these distortions, students may have false expectations for their futures; teachers may base their lesson plans on an incorrect understanding of the tasks to be accomplished; and district administrations and boards of education, as well as the state government, may not appropriate and allocate resources effectively.
As a matter of fact, in regard to how scarce resources are allocated, Virginia ranks 29th among the states in per pupil expenditures on education and 42nd on expenditures in relation to personal income. These are indications of the state’s commitment, or lack of commitment, to education. Virginia shows a similar lack of investment in the provision of preschool education, for which, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, it ranks 29th for both access and spending
As far as educational opportunity is concerned, many schools in Virginia distribute opportunities quite inequitably to their students, basing them first on race, then in accordance with family income. In regards to race, White students are nearly three times as likely to be taught to read proficiently in Virginia’s middle schools as are Black students.
But, it is not enough in Virginia for a student to be White to secure a good education. It is necessary also to belong to a family that is not poor. Using the NAEP standards, we find that White students from Virginia families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, read at grade level at eighth grade just 20 percent of the time, while other White students, from more prosperous families, read at grade level more than twice as often: 51 percent of the time.
These inequities are compounded for Virginia’s Black students: only 12 percent of those eligible for the National Lunch Program read at or above the proficient level, while twice as many, 25 percent, of those from more prosperous families do so.
A White student from a comparatively prosperous family in Virginia is more than four times as likely to be brought to grade level in eighth grade reading than a Black student from a lower-income family. A Black student from a comparatively prosperous family in Virginia is more likely to read at or above grade level at eighth grade than a White student eligible for the National Lunch Program. And even an above-average family income is not sufficient to secure three-quarters of affluent Black students the opportunity to read proficiently in middle school.
Virginia has undergone enormous, and accelerating, changes in the decades since Brown and the state’s “massive resistance” to desegregation and educational equity. It has changed from a uniformly, nearly feudal society, steeped in the heritage of slavery, to one that is highly varied, in parts still agricultural, in others technology-based with a majority of residents who have relocated from the Northeast of the United States.
Educational opportunities are as variable across the state as this picture would indicate. Prince Edward County, in the south-central part of the state, closed its public schools after Brown rather than desegregate them. The state reports that now 43 percent of the reopened school district’s Black students (who are 57 percent of enrollment) read proficiently in grade 8, which would be 11 percent or 12 percent on the NAEP scale. The state assessment is of 59 percent for White, non-Hispanic, students, that is, about 30 percent on the NAEP scale.
On the other hand, Fairfax County, in the northern part of the state, a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., reports 69 percent of Black students (who are just 10 percent of its enrollment) read proficiently by state standards, which would be 19 percent on NAEP, and 81 percent of White, non-Hispanic, which would be 40 percent on NAEP, read at grade level.
In Richmond, the state capitol (and former capitol of the Confederacy), the state reports that 37 percent of Black students (who are 71 percent of enrollment there) and 85 percent of White, non-Hispanic, students read a the proficient or advanced levels, which translate by national standards to 10 percent of Black students and 43 percent of White, non-Hispanic, students: and to 90 percent of Black students who don’t.
It is, then, not unusual in Virginia for a district to fail to bring nearly 90 percent of its Black students to grade level proficiency in middle school by national standards, while succeeding in this fundamental task for 40 percent of its White, non-Hispanic, students. And it is not now unknown for schools in those parts of the state where old times are nearly forgotten to triple learning opportunities for Black students from the level where the traditions of Jim Crow survive.
Black students moving from Prince Edward County or Richmond to Fairfax would nearly double their opportunity to learn to read proficiently. Moving to a suburban Virginia school system would increase the likelihood of learning to read proficiently for a middle class Black student to 30 percent.
Disparate educational outcomes in Virginia are facilitated by two overlapping types of segregation: racial and income. Public schools in Richmond, for example, have a Brown University Index of Dissimilarity of 69 on a scale where 60 or above is considered very highly segregated. The average Black student attends a school in which 77 percent of the students come from poor families and 87 percent are Black. On the other hand, the Fairfax County Public Schools Dissimilarity Index is just 47 and Black students typically attend schools where just 38 percent of their students from poor families. A reasonable hypothesis would be that differing educational opportunities for Black students between these districts follow from these differences in the intensity of racial and income segregation.
But why is it that the quality of education available to a student varies with that student’s race and family income? Part of the answer is that expenditure on that student’s education varies with location and the degrees of segregation found there.
Schools in Virginia, as most elsewhere in the United States, are funded by a locally-based tripartite system of revenue from local, state and federal sources. In Virginia, state funding is higher for districts with lower amounts of local funding (and, as elsewhere, federal funding varies with poverty levels and other special needs).
In Prince Edward County, per pupil expenditure totals $11,300 per year, more than half of which comes from the state, partially compensating for the very low $3,800 per year from local resources. In Fairfax County, per pupil expenditure totals $14,200 per year, more than 25 percent higher than that provided to Prince Edward County students. $10,400 of this comes from local sources (close to the total of Prince Edward County’s expenditure), with just $3,200 from state sources and a negligible amount from federal sources. Almost 60 percent of Prince Edward County’s students are Black, compared to 10 percent of students in Fairfax County’s schools.
Investment in a Black student’s education increases by a quarter if that student moves from Prince Edward County to Fairfax County, both racial and income segregation dramatically decrease and, according to Raj Chetty’s Equality of Opportunity Project, that student’s chances of reaching the top 20 percent of income distribution, given parents in the bottom 20 percent, doubles.
Why should total investments in a student’s education, in this increasingly wealthy state, vary with the amount of local taxation revenues? Equalizing per student expenditures across the state to at least the level of Fairfax County would be a major step toward improving educational achievement for Virginia’s students who are the descendants of enslaved Africans, many of whom would have been brought from Africa and sold into slavery by Virginia-based slave traders.
Another factor restricting educational opportunities for Black students in Virginia is the racial attitudes of some school staff. This can be seen in school discipline data. Research has convincingly shown that disciplinary actions by school-level staff, such as out-of-school suspensions, are much more dependent on the racial attitudes of teachers and school administrators than on the activities of students. The latest year for which state-level school discipline data is available from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is 2011-12.
In that year, five percent of White students and three times that proportion, 14 percent, of Black students in Virginia and were given at least one out-of-school suspension. (This is quite close to the 16 percent figure for Black adults in Virginia who have not completed high school and, perhaps coincidentally, the 16 percent percentage of African-Americans in Virginia who live in poverty.) Throwing a student out of class often begins the process by which that student is prevented from completing their education.
Unequal educational opportunities in elementary and secondary schooling in Virginia culminate in large numbers of Black students being denied high school diplomas. The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate reported by the state for the 2014-15 school year was 79 percent for Black students, but 90 percent for White students. [The graduation rate of Black students in the Richmond schools is 69 percent, that of White students 90 percent. In Fairfax those rates are 82 percent and 95 percent, respectively.] This
Given that only 16 percent of Black students and 44 percent of White students were reading at grade level in 2011, when they were in eighth grade, it appears that 61-63 percent of graduating Black students in Virginia and about half of graduating White students received their diplomas while having serious deficiencies in their reading skills. This is borne out by the fact that just 17 percent of those African-American students who took the SAT in 2015—and only college-bound students would take that test—met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark.
It is not “natural” that the allocation of resources should vary from district to district within Virginia—or any other state—depending on local tax revenues. More equitable systems are not beyond the keen of human intelligence. Nor is it “natural”—must one say this?—that educational opportunities should be greater for middle class White students than for Black students from lower income families.
It is good that one or two Virginia school districts and some suburbs offer greater educational opportunities for African-American students than are offered elsewhere in the state, even if these are simply the by-products for relatively small minorities of Black students of increased investments in the educations of upper-middle class White children.
It is good to take symbolic steps to erase the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow. However, a decision by the governor of Virginia, and its legislature, is needed to change the state’s education system, root and branch, so that educational opportunities are not determined by the color of a student’s skin, by the size of a student’s parents’ bank account, by the location of that student’s school.
Until McAuliffe, his eventual successor, and the state legislature do these things, the responsibility for the lack of educational opportunities for the descendants of enslaved Africans in Virginia remains theirs.