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Steve Hinnefeld: Black Legislators in Indiana Were Right to Talk about Race

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Veteran blogger Steve Hinnefeld writes about education in Indiana. In this post, he describes a controversy in the Legislature about whether a portion of a district should be allowed to secede in order to join a “whiter” district.

Some Indiana House Republicans lost their cool last week when Democratic colleagues dared to raise the issue of race. According to the Indianapolis Star, the Republican legislators “shouted down and booed Black lawmakers during floor debate on a bill that some see as discriminatory.”

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, became emotional and walked off the House floor when Republicans interrupted his attempt to speak, the Star reported. Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, began talking about his own experiences with racism and “was met with ‘boos’ from several … GOP lawmakers.”

But Porter and Smith were right. Lawmakers were debating House Bill 1367, which would allow Greene Township in St. Joseph County to secede from South Bend Community Schools and join John Glenn School Corp. Greene Township’s population is 98% white, according to census data, while nearly three-fourths of South Bend students are Black, Hispanic or multiracial. John Glenn’s enrollment is 90% white and less than 1% Black. How can you debate a bill like that and not talk about race?

Indiana’s Legislature is encouraging school choice, of course, despite the fact that these choice policies are desegregating schools across the state. Black legislators are outraged, as they should be.

When legislators promote laws that make schools more segregated, their actions should be scrutinized.

The same should apply to Indiana’s state-sanctioned open enrollment policy, in which families may transfer their children from the school district where they live to another, provided there’s room. The policy accounts for about half the “school choice” in the state. In theory, it lets parents choose the public school that best fits their children’s needs, as long as they can provide transportation. In practice, families are leaving racially diverse urban schools for mostly white suburban or rural districts.

Muncie Community Schools, for example, where 57% of students are white, lose nearly a quarter of their prospective students through inter-district transfers. Many go to nearby districts where over 90% of students are white. Figures are similar for Marion Community Schools, where 48% of students are white and many leave for districts that are 80% or more white.

The resegregation that is occurring across the nation, especially in the South, has been hastened by the secession of white families who want their children to enroll in a whiter district.

The VOX article continues:

In one recent case in Alabama, white families in Gardendale–a suburb of Birmingham–attempted to secede from the Jefferson County school district. A lower court judge approved their request, but it was overturned by an appeals court.

While the Gardendale plan was ultimately halted, other school secessions have been allowed to occur, the secession study authors note. “It’s hard not to look at many of these instances of secession and see them as a modern-day effort by Southern whites to avoid diverse schools,” Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a study co-author and an associate professor of educational leadership, policy, and justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a press release. “This is especially true given the obstacles to comprehensive cross-district integration policies.”

As these efforts continue, and in some cases accelerate, the study authors caution that more attention needs to be paid to the impacts of school secessions, which they call “a new form of resisting desegregation amid the growing diversity of the South’s public schools.”

“Secession has weakened the potential for greater school integration across the South’s broadly defined communities,” the researchers note, “fracturing White and Black and White and Hispanic students into separate school systems.”

The secession movement in the South has reached Indiana, where it appears to be gaining traction. Will the courts stand by the Brown vs. Board decision of 1954?

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