Addressing the Lasting Impacts of Racist Choices on Virginia’s Education System
Diverse learning environments are beneficial to all students, and especially students of color. The widespread benefits include higher academic achievement, increased likelihood of going to college, better workforce preparation, and an improved likelihood of students having the school resources that they need. Virginia students are increasingly racially diverse. More than half of Virginia students are students of color (22% Black, 17% Latino, 7% Asian American/Pacific Islander, 6% multiple races).1 But students have not been able to access the full array of benefits from this increasing diversity, because segregation in Virginia schools remains a significant challenge and is even getting worse by some measures.
Virginia’s long history of passing both overt and covert racist policies has segregated schools and deprived communities of color of educational opportunities and resources. Black Virginians and other groups of color have fought for educational equity and sought to improve their lives through the creation of intellectually rigorous and accessible educational institutions. These efforts led to the creation of public education in Virginia. Yet more than a century of white-led racist policies, including student placement, housing discrimination, exclusionary employment practices, attacks on Black wealth building, school closures, privatization, limits on integration across school district boundaries, and white flight have entrenched racial segregation within Virginia schools.
By some measures, racial segregation has gotten worse in Virginia over the past 15 years. TCI analysis shows three alarming trends:
Black and Latino students are increasingly likely to attend schools that are almost entirely non-white and these schools have fewer resources and course offerings than schools with larger shares of white students.
Black and Latino students continue to attend schools with high levels of poverty compared to white students and the overall student body.
School segregation has increased in many of Virginia’s metro areas.
Diverse learning environments are beneficial to all students, and especially students of color.
Virginia’s long history of passing both overt and covert racist policies has segregated schools and deprived communities of color of educational opportunities and resources.
As history demonstrates, current-day schooling segregation continues to be crafted through a web of overt and covert racist policy choices. “Color-blind” solutions will not address the issues discussed in this report, but instead would ignore and reinforce the racism that exists within the education system. Intentional, anti-racist policy solutions like district rezoning, regional integration efforts, need-based funding, a racial-equity centered school rating system, and affordable housing considerations are strong options that, together, would begin to build a more equitable system of public education.
This project examines the history of school segregation in Virginia, how it looks today, the benefits of well-integrated learning environments, and policy solutions to help ensure a more equitable future for students.
The Commonwealth Institute would like to acknowledge and extend sincere thanks to the following for their expertise, insight, feedback, and guidance throughout this project:
Dr. Claudrena Harold, University of Virginia
Janel George, Learning Policy Institute
Dr. Lauranett Lee, University of Richmond
Mariah Williams, Director of Research and Policy, Housing Opportunities Made Equal
Larry Roeder, Director, Edwin Washington Project
Benefits for Students of Diverse Schools: Inside and Long After the Classroom
Students in Virginia are increasingly racially diverse. Today, students of color make up a majority (52%) of all students statewide — a 30% increase from the 2003-2004 school year. The number of Latino students has almost tripled since then, and the number of Asian American students has almost doubled.2 Increasing racial diversity has widespread benefits for all students and especially students of color, including higher academic achievement, increased likelihood of going to college, better workforce preparation, and an improved likelihood of school resource equity.3
Research has shown that parents of all backgrounds generally agree, at least in principle, that racial and economic integration is important and that they would prefer their children attend integrated schools.4 At the same time, in districts where parents have greater opportunities to choose schools (where integration is not the goal), schools appear to become more segregated, demonstrating that resistance to integration persists today. But there is a comprehensive body of research that makes it clear: diverse learning environments are beneficial to all students, demonstrating the most benefit to students from historically disadvantaged groups. As Dr. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley notes in A Single Garment: Creating Intentionally Diverse Schools That Benefit All Children, “Students of all backgrounds benefit from well-designed diverse schools that guard against second-generation segregation within the building.”5 Diverse schools set the stage for better outcomes, in education and later in life, across the board.
Stronger academic outcomes
One of the many benefits of diverse schools is stronger academic outcomes for students from groups who have historically faced barriers. For students who are Black and whose families have low income, it is especially effective, with benefits including higher academic achievement and better health in adulthood. Studies have shown that Black and Latino students from families who have low income have higher academic achievement across multiple subjects when enrolled in diverse schools. Whereas students who are white and whose families have high income perform well on tests regardless of how diverse their school is.
Greater interpersonal skills
Beyond these benefits, diverse schools better prepare all students for the workforce. Research has shown that when students learn about different life experiences first-hand, they become better critical thinkers, collaborators, and communicators — all essential skills for the workplace and a successful education. And both historically disadvantaged and advantaged students have a wealth of social and cultural resources to impart with peers. Exchange of these resources is necessary for meaningful relationship building, and critical for students who will eventually need to work and live with people who are different from them.
At the same time, growing up in racially isolated schools can lead students to form stereotypes about other races, and further perpetuates racism within education and beyond. Research has shown that school integration is even more effective than living in a diverse neighborhood when it comes to reducing prejudice and forming cross-racial friendships.
More equitable resources: Course offerings, staffing, and funding
Perhaps most importantly, school integration would begin to provide resource equity to students who have been systematically denied resources. One example is that integration has been linked to more challenging course offerings in schools. According to a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office, schools serving 75% or more students who are Black, Latino, and from families with low incomes offer fewer math, science, and college preparatory classes.6
The same is true here in Virginia. Analysis using Office for Civil Rights data shows that high schools with 75% or more students of color are less likely to offer calculus and chemistry classes.7 And only three-quarters (77%) of those high schools offer at least one advanced placement (AP) course. In addition to being denied the chance at more challenging and engaging coursework, these students are denied the secondary benefits: being prepared for future life experiences like college and, in the case of advanced placement courses that earn college credits, financial resources.
Attracting and retaining strong teachers are also part of ensuring resource equity for students. Research has shown that teachers in segregated schools get paid the least, are subject to stringent accountability efforts that counterintuitively create difficult-to-work-in, stressful environments, and turn over frequently.8 The presence of teachers of color in diverse faculties is incredibly important for students of color, because it sends the message that leaders can look like and relate to them. Studies show it produces higher levels of academic achievement and increases student access to advanced programs. One particular study in North Carolina found that, for Black boys from families with low income, having at least one Black teacher in grades 3 to 5 decreased the likelihood of dropping out of high school by 29%. For Black boys from households identified as “persistently low-income”, having one Black teacher decreased their chances of dropping out by 39%.
Lastly, school integration can begin to make funding more equitable. If students of all backgrounds go to school together, it would be harder to deny resources to any particular school. Historical instances, like that of West Charlotte High in North Carolina where a segregated Black school only got improved facilities after it desegregated and enrolled white students, have shown that some are only willing to address resource equity when the fates of white students are linked to students of color. In present day, schools with a high share of Black students and students of color still experience the consequences of chronic underfunding. Just this year, a middle school in central Virginia where over 75% of the student body are students of color gained news coverage for the condition of the facilities. Overheated classrooms, walls in disrepair, and leaky roofs were just a few of the issues that led a teacher to describe the conditions as “inhumane.” Such instances are not unique. In southwest Virginia, Lee County students have been rerouted through hallways during heavy rain to avoid water leaking through the roof. And in Northern Virginia, health department officials have warned that mold found in one school could cause respiratory issues in students with asthma.
While it is true that Virginia’s overall student body is increasingly diverse — over half of students in Virginia are students of color — analysis of school enrollment data has shown that a lot of students do not get the opportunity to attend a diverse school. Creating diverse schools where all students can reap the benefits — and where students of color from low-income families can access the resources that have often been denied to them, past and present — will require intentional policy choices.
More than a Century of White-Led Laws and Policies Segregated Virginia Schools
Despite the benefits of racially diverse learning environments for students, Virginia has a long history of passing both overt and covert racist state policies to segregate schools and deprive communities of color of educational opportunities and resources. Any policy, including laws, regulations, and processes, that creates or sustains racial inequity is a racist policy. Virginia’s history also includes Black families and students, and other groups of color, fighting for educational equity and seeking to improve their lives through the creation of intellectually rigorous and democratically robust educational institutions. Not just in Virginia but throughout the South, Black people have persistently challenged the racism entrenched within public education and other institutions.
As James Anderson notes in his seminal study, “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935”, “…a central theme in the history of the education of Black Americans is the persistent struggle to fashion a system of formal education that prefigured their liberation from peasantry.”9 To understand our current moment, it is useful to revisit the complex and prolonged struggle for educational equity in the state of Virginia.
Reconstruction Period (1865-1877) – Creation of free public schools in Virginia
Black leaders played a central role in the creation of free public school in the United States and Virginia. They regarded the acquisition of literacy and formal education as central to advancing their political and economic goals. This perspective was hardly unique among newly freedwomen and men. As scholar Heather Williams explains in the book Self Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, “In the decade of the 1860s, freedpeople attended schools by the thousands. They rebuilt burned-out school houses, armed themselves to protect threatened teachers, and persisted in the effort to be literate, self-sufficient participants in the larger American society.”10
While the segregated state of current-day schooling can be traced back to slavery, racially segregated schools were not mandated by state law during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.11 In fact, the Reconstruction era saw the formation of the first free public schools in many southern states, and Black leaders in state legislatures played a central role in this change. In Virginia, 24 Black representatives in the General Assembly joined with white Republicans to amend the state constitution to establish a free statewide system of public education. Before this point, state-funded public schooling did not exist. Schooling was reserved for wealthy, white families — Black children and poor white children went without.