What the Data Tell Us
Over six decades have passed since the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education declared racial segregation across America’s education system unconstitutional. Yet modern-day racial segregation largely still exists within schools nationwide.
How does Toledo compare? The numbers suggest not any better. 2019 data collected on student demographics across Ohio reveal a sharp picture of de facto racial segregation—in which legislation does not overtly segregate but segregation nevertheless persists—in Lucas County school districts.
School districts located in the Toledo suburbs, such as Sylvania Schools, Ottawa Hills and Anthony Wayne, have student populations with a clear white majority: 76%, 73% and 94% of students identify as white respectively and Black students rarely make up even 10% of the student body. Meanwhile, public schools in the city of Toledo have a much higher percentage of students of color, with 44% of students in Toledo Public Schools identifying as Black and only 31% as white.
Over the past ten years, many suburban school districts in Lucas County have actually experienced a gradual increase in racial and ethnic diversity. But that trend doesn’t hold true across all racial and ethnic groups, and some of the starkest divides are persisting or even getting worse; while the non-white student population is increasing, the share of Black students has remained relatively flat or declined.
For example, in 2011, the Ottawa Hills School District had a Black student population of 3.2%. Almost a decade later, that number has declined to 1.3%. Meanwhile, the Asian student population has increased by nearly 50%. For another suburban school district, Sylvania Schools, the Black student population remains relatively stable at roughly 4% from 2011 until now while the Latino student population has increased nearly twofold from 2% to 6%.
School districts in the Toledo area may be experiencing “increased diversity,” but it’s a trend that largely only applies to Asian, Latino and multiracial student populations. The district divides for Black students remain largely segregated. Data across regional school districts depicts the lingering effects of systemic racism in the region and nation at large, where de jure and now de facto racial segregation affect Black students specifically.
This problem is not a new topic of discussion in the Toledo region. In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 speech in Toledo to a group of Toledo Public Schools students specifically talked about de facto segregation. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, although federal courts were involved in ending segregation in Ohio schools as late as 1986, many Ohio cities would actually prove themselves relatively successful in integrating across school districts through busing—that is, until public transportation funding cuts reversed much of the progress in the 21st century. Now in 2020, the numbers show us the result of short-lived and unenforced integration efforts since the 1954 landmark ruling.
Race, Income and Education
Embedded in the larger discussion on racial segregation in schools is an inextricable societal link between race and poverty. Sources reveal that de facto racial segregation in schools is derived from income differences, students of color being significantly more likely to attend schools surrounded by fellow minority, low-income peers. The racial achievement gap in education stems in part from the disproportionate socio-economic burdens carried by people of color.
“Racial and economic justice are so interlinked that we really can’t have racial equality if we don’t also address socioeconomic inequality,” Dr. Karie Peralta, a University of Toledo sociology professor whose research interests include education and race relations, said.
This is by no means a Toledo-specific problem. From the Midwest to the South, Sun Belt cities to Rust Belt towns, economic segregation of minorities, especially of Black and Brown individuals, persists nationwide.
A study done by the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity found that in roughly half of the U.S’s largest 100 cities, a majority of African American and Latino students attend schools where at least 75% of all students qualify as low-income, whereas fewer than 30% of white students attend majority low-income schools.
What emerges is a vicious cycle of poverty concentrated in disadvantaged communities. Tax revenues fund resources and services, like schools, that are critical for social and economic upward mobility. High-income neighborhoods greatly benefit from this structure. For example, rich, high-income tax districts can afford to send a steady stream of tax revenue to schools because of large amounts of property taxes collected from residents’ high-value land, while schools in low-income tax districts struggle to provide adequate resources for students.
In this system, districts are essentially insulated from one another; individuals in one district may enjoy well-funded services that serve as fuel for the economic engine that generates more wealth in their tax district, while its neighboring district may struggle just to keep its systems up and running. Without revenue streams to fund the very services that enable upward mobility, poverty is perpetuated in low-income tax districts due to chronic underfunding and an eroding tax base.
Economic segregation of poor populations means additional challenges, such as lack of private sector investment in low-income neighborhoods, poor employment network infrastructure, and higher crime rates, that further exacerbate the intergenerational poverty trap. The gap between the poor and wealthy widens as systemic cycles of poverty and wealth become embedded into neighborhoods and communities.
A specific example of inequality found at the intersection between race, economic disadvantage and education is in the school-to-prison pipeline, where trouble at school translates into punitive consequences in the criminal justice system. This zero-tolerance disciplinary approach exacerbates racial and economic disparities within education, with poor Black students bearing the worst of the consequences.
“We see in a lot of lower income schools, police officers having a presence. We don’t see police officers in predominantly white, middle class, wealthy schools,” Peralta said.
Reinforcing Inequalities: Public School Funding
The key to understanding racial and socioeconomic disparities across school districts lies in how the schools are funded. On average, 45% of a public school’s funding comes from local property taxes. This is problematic because the revenues property taxes generate differ vastly across the nation by each tax district’s economic activity. Areas that have a robust business scene and a profitable economic landscape have valuable property that remains high in demand. Such regions can afford to impose higher property taxes, which yield greater revenue. The opposite is true for regions suffering from stagnant economic growth.
The amount of schools’ funding that comes from local versus state and federal money varies across and within states. Ohio, in particular, funds much of its public schools by local money, which means they are largely funded from property taxes. That’s part of the reason why Northwest Ohio and the state of Ohio at large remain well below the national average for spending per student. In general, the Midwest and South receive much lower amounts of school funding compared to the national average.
With less funding and thus less spending per student, the children themselves are feeling the effects.
“When schools have a high percentage of low income students and so students of color… they’re more likely to have less qualified teachers. These less funded schools have… lower [amounts of] resources, less opportunities for after school programs. Programs like music, art, those kinds of creative outlets for students,” Peralta said.
Historical Foundations for the Modern Racial Wealth Gap
It’s no coincidence that economic barriers often fall along racial lines; while racial discrimination and segregation long predated 1934, one form of race-based economic segregation was effectively institutionalized through passage of the National Housing Act, which established redlining practices across the country.
Passage of the act enabled racial discriminatory lending practices in government-backed mortgages; neighborhood demographics with a high minority presence, particularly of Blacks, Jews, and Southeast Asian and European immigrants, were disproportionately marked “hazardous” and “undesirable,” making it extremely difficult and expensive for people of color to access home ownership loans. And when home and property ownership is a key factor for wealth accumulation and upward socioeconomic mobility, we see how the historical mistreatment of minorities prepared an era of contemporary inequality from the get-go.
Redlining is but one of many practices that set the stage for the modern racial wealth gap we see today, where the net worth of a white family is nearly ten times that of a Black family. A history of racial oppression, inequality and discrimination targeting Black people means economic wellbeing has been and continues to be racially skewed in favor of whites and at the suffering of Blacks. Such policies reinforce the economic segregation of minorities into high-poverty neighborhoods, effectively also segregating students by race and school district.
An important step forward, according to Peralta, exists in local dialogue and community action—voting being one prominent example.
“We could all say support [for] anti-racist policies, but if those policies don’t actually get put into place, then they’re still going to be institutional and structural barriers to living in a racist-free society,” Peralta said. “And so we need to vote. Our vote is really important. We need to vote for people who truly believe in public education. People who are willing to invest in public education.”
Peralta also emphasized the importance of community-centered solutions, noting community members as the ones who are “experts on the issues they face” and that approaching systemic change “all begins with respecting local knowledge.” Eventually, she hopes for Toledo to take the lead on implementing real reform to address racial inequalities in education and beyond.
In the wake of recent social unrest spurred by the death of George Floyd, some regional school systems have begun to address issues of racial inequalities. For instance, Dr. Romulus Durant, superintendent of the Toledo Public Schools, released a statement acknowledging the widespread presence of racism in the Midwest and their school district, recommitting to hosting more open forums for students and parents alike to voice their concerns or needs. The district also hopes to bolster various programs that provide students a platform to make change, and in April passed an equity policy addressing diversity and inclusion. While these initiatives are far from addressing the systemic divides present in Northwest Ohio and beyond, they’re a start.
“I often think, you know, why can’t Toledo be at the lead of some new, revolutionary idea, as well? Why can’t we work on these larger social change issues and perhaps be an example for other cities?” Peralta said. “What’s stopping us from trying something new?”