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Unitary Status

Black teachers in New Kent, Virginia
Dunbar High School
Integrated elementary schools students on bus in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Continuous resistance to integration in some school systems caused district and federal courts to issue court orders enforcing integration. With these orders, districts had to have plans for integration strategies approved by the courts. 

 

Many of these plans included geographic attendance zones paired with sub zones in the inter city, providing busing from sub zones to geographic zones, and opening magnet schools.

 

Once a district proves that they no longer operate a dual segregated school system, or dual opportunities for different groups of students, they may attempt to be released from the court orders and gain unitary status. 

 

Lynchburg City Schools is currently trying to gain unitary status and rezone for close-to-home neighborhood schools. This sounds, and how the district has presented it, like there are equal opportunities and experiences for all students meaning there is no need for the desegregation order. This is not the truth. Lynchburg’s residential segregation continues to influence the educational quality and opportunities at at-risk schools.

 

This page explains the role of pivotal Supreme Court cases in shaping court orders, the strategies used to follow the orders, and the trends in education after the orders are released. We finish by introducing reasons we believe the city has not met the requirements for unitary status.

Supreme Court justices from 1968 to 1971. The judges were a part of the Green and Swann rulings

Supreme Court justices from 1968 to 1971. The judges were a part of the Green and Swann rulings

Supreme Court Decisions

Resistance to Brown v. Board of Education delayed integration in many districts. After nearly a decade passed since the original decision, the Supreme Court still received cases about segregated school systems due to residential barriers.

 

The courts made multiple rulings that expressed their frustration at districts' delays to integration and allowed more extreme measures to be taken to achieve integration. These rulings changed the landscape of what measures were legally allowed for integration, and finally led to progress in resistant districts.

After these rulings, district courts and appellate courts began declaring rulings and orders that mandated integration plans and strategies.

Green v. County Board of Education in New Kent County (1968)

"One of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions since Brown v. Board of Education.” - Oral History Review

 

The Civil Rights Act 1964 had a major impact on the fight for integrated schools. It threatened to cut off federal funding to localities that refused to develop a plan to integrate their schools. This act created an opportunity for the State Conference of the NAACP to compel the integration of public schools in Virginia through litigation against local school boards. 

 

During a meeting in Richmond, NAACP attorneys asked for determined and courageous individuals to sponsor lawsuits against their local school boards. Dr. Green of New Kent County immediately volunteered. 



The NAACP and local parents requested the New Kent School Board to take steps to integrate in 1965. When they refused a lawsuit was commenced on behalf of Dr. Green’s youngest son, Charles.

 

The case, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in March 1965, challenged the school board of New Kent County’s failure to develop any desegregation plan and its maintenance of schools that remained one hundred percent segregated ten years after Brown. The lawsuit specifically attacked the county’s 1965 “freedom-of-choice” plan.

 

Attorneys and parents kept their resolve in the face of defeats in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in 1966 and the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals both of which ruled that the freedom-of-choice plan gave every student the option of freely choosing the school he or she wished to attend met the integration mandate of Brown I and II.

The Supreme Court disagreed, and in 1968 rendered its third landmark decision that clearly set forth the mandate of Brown II, 391 U.S.430, 437-438:

 

“School boards such as the respondent then operating state-compelled dual systems were nevertheless charged with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch.”

 

In their ruling, the Supreme Court held the ‘freedom of choice’ plan cannot be accepted as a sufficient step to ‘effectuate a transition’ to a unitary system.”  

 

Instead, the Court found that “[r]ather than further the dismantling of the dual system, the plan has operated simply to burden children and their parents with a responsibility which Brown II placed squarely on the School Board.  The Board must be required to formulate a new plan and, in light of other courses which appear open to the Board, such as zoning, fashion steps which promise realistically to convert promptly to a system without a ‘white’ school and a ‘Negro’ school, but just schools” [391 U.S. at 441-442].

 

The decision resulted in "Green" factors being used to determine whether a desegregation plan was acceptable. To assess unitary status while respecting flexibility and school authority, the Green Court created a non-exhaustive list of factors that must be equal for all students and schools: (1) student assignment; (2) faculty; (3) staff; (4) transportation; (5) extracurricular activities; and (6) facilities.

 

In most southern school districts this meant that more effective techniques, such as geographic zoning or busing would be required.

This is the first page of the NAACP's suit against New Kent School Board (1965)

This is the first page of the NAACP's suit against New Kent School Board (1965)

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971)

After the Green decision, the landscape of desegregation cases shifted in favor of the NAACP. In 1968, the NAACP took the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to court for its failure to desegregate. In response to the NAACP, the board drafted a new plan for desegregation.

New York Times front page from April 1971, reporting the Swann ruling

However, this plan still resulted in large numbers of African American students in all-Black or nearly all-Black schools. Consequently, a federal district court enlisted an expert, Dr. John Finger, to produce an alternative desegregation plan. Finger’s plan called for the busing of African American elementary school students in the inter city to suburban schools.

 

Although the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board adopted the Finger plan, it asserted that the plan was unreasonable. A federal court of appeals upheld the district court’s ruling, and the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. 

New York Times front page from April 1971, reporting the Swann ruling

On  April 20, 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of the NAACP in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. This case declares busing and gerrymandered attendance zones as constitutional means for desegregation. 

Tools for Desegregation

Green and Swann were landmark decisions that changed the framework of integration throughout the South. Now, school boards are responsible for ensuring that residential segregation and 'freedom of choice' plans do not continue to perpetuate racial segregation in schools. 

In the Swann ruling, the Supreme Court does give suggestions of some specific tools for districts to create an integrated system, and they declared busing as a constitutional measure. Afterwards, voluntarily and in response to court orders districts began implementing new zoning strategies, providing busing for students, and opening magnet schools.

Zoning

Dr. John Fingers' plan paired geographic zones with sub zones in the inner city. This plan was approved by the federal district courts and supported by the Supreme Court ruling.

"A student assignment plan is not acceptable merely because it appears to be neutral, for such a plan may fail to counteract the continuing effects of past school segregation. The pairing and grouping of noncontiguous zones is a permissible tool; judicial steps going beyond contiguous zones should be examined in light of the objectives to be sought." Pp. 402 U. S. 27-29 

Busing

In order for students in inter-city sub-zones to attend schools in further geographic zones busing is needed. This was supported by Justice Burger in his opinion on the Swann ruling.

 

In his opinion, Burger stated that busing was a suitable "remedial technique" for achieving desegregation. The District Court's conclusion that assignment of children to the school nearest their home serving their grade would not effectively dismantle the dual school system is supported by the record, and the remedial technique of requiring bus transportation as a tool of school desegregation was within that court's power to provide equitable relief. Pp. 402 U. S. 29-31.

Busing was very contested, especially under President Nixon's term. In the South, many white families claimed their acceptance of integration, but strongly opposed busing their children into previously predominately or all-Black schools.

"I would not object my child going to a school if it was integrated by 'freedom of choice' but for him to be picked up and bussed across the county I will not do." - Taylorsville man

 

Anxieties of white families really had little to do with busing. The real institution White parents sought to preserve was the White neighborhood school.

Protests opposing busing students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg 1971

Protests opposing busing students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg 1971

In many areas, this meant the burden of busing was forced onto Black families. This created different inequities because it limited the access Black families had to the children's schools. 

In districts like Lynchburg, the burden of busing is continuously unfairly placed on Black students. There were and are protests from Black families emphasizing white students can also be bussed.

Magnet Schools

The purpose of a magnet school grant is to eliminate, reduce, or prevent racial isolation. Magnet schools are public elementary or secondary schools that seek to achieve voluntary desegregation through parental choice, rather than through student assignment, by offering specialized instruction and innovative academic offerings.

Lynchburg City Schools

As discussed on 'LCS Integration History,' Lynchburg was one of the last districts in Virginia to integrate. After the Fourth Circuit's ruling of Jackson v. the School Board City of Lynchburg in 1963, planning for desegregation lasted seven more years. The Green and Swann rulings established new precedent and informed the policies Lynchburg implemented in 1971 under a court order from the Western District of Virginia.

1971 Court Order

As stated by the Western District Court, "The purpose of this plan is to effectuate and maintain constitutionally appropriate unitary school system which will, to the full extent of the capacity of the system, provide quality education and equal education opportunities for all pupils, without regard to race or color."

The order discusses how the district should assign students to attendance zones, how they should provide transportation to pupils, and the necessary racial balance of faculty assignments and employment.

Lynchburg City Schools busing trial run on August 26th 1971. News and Advance archives.

Lynchburg City Schools busing trial run on August 26th 1971. News and Advance archives.

Implemented Plan

The district court finally issued a decision in which the School Board was “hereby mandatorily enjoined to implement” a full integration plan by the beginning of the 1971-72 school year (Jones, 2023). This mandatory desegregation order for elementary schools divided the city into 13 attendance areas, 12 geographic zones with a 13th in the inter city.

The 13th attendance was a combination of “paired zones” with the other 12 attendance areas. Students living in this attendance area were divided geographically into “seven or more” sub-attendance areas. The students in each sub-attendance area were then assigned to a school in one of the other 12 attendance areas. Students were assigned from these sub-attendance areas to other schools in order to create better racial balance within each school. These paired zones were required by the court.

The creation of these zones meant the city needed to implement busing to transport students from the sub-zones to the geographic zones. Before 1970, the district did not own any buses. To fully integrate the elementary schools they purchased 37 buses (NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, May 1972).

T. C. Miller School of Innovation in 1993

Another tool the city used to increase racial diversity, the quality of education, and access to opportunities were the district's magnet schools. In the 1990s, Lynchburg converted T.C. Miller and Dearington into magnet programs as schools of innovation.

These schools offer students opportunities they would not naturally have access to and abide by the fact that “genuine education equity will be achieved only when schools serving low-income children mirror the options that affluent parents can afford .”

 

Still relevant today, equity in education, not equality of programs, is the only thing that will address the achievement gap which is a stated goal of many school board members.

T. C. Miller School of Innovation in 1993

Together, these tools made progress towards integration. However, the city is still facing remnants of structural discrimination causing disparities in the quality of education, availability of opportunities, and access to resources. By removing these tools, there will be trends towards resegregation which are historically proven to cause further disparities in funding and resources between schools.

 

Depending on the exact specifics of the rezoning there is the possibility the revisions will not keep with the court order's mandate that "attendance areas and the schools serving the same will have to be changed or modified to properly and effectively utilize the school facilities in keeping with the intents and purpose of desegregation in this plan."

“School integration didn’t fail,” Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson, who has conducted some of the most far-reaching research on school integration, recently argued. “The only failure is that we stopped pursuing it and allowed the reign of segregation to return.”

Resegregation

As discussed on 'Integration History', Lynchburg is largely residentially segregated by race, economics, background, and environmental exposures. Rezoning close-to-home will resegregate schools. In this section we discuss this trend in other districts that gained unitary status, researchers' analysis, and the impacts this status typically has on the funding of at-risk schools. 

There are common trends towards resegregation after districts are released from their court orders. According to a nationwide study by Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis released in 2014, courts overseeing desegregation in public schools released 45 percent of school districts under court oversight between 1990 and 2009. As schools were released from court oversight, levels of segregation in public schools began to rise (Orfield et al., 2014). The rate of resegregation is much larger in elementary grades, in large districts and districts with larger black enrollments, and in districts where pre-dismissal school segregation levels were low or where residential segregation levels are high ( Greenberg et al., 2011).

 

Resegregation doesn't just reduce diversity, but it also impacts funding for marginalized schools. U.S. Department of Education data shows that segregated black schools receive inferior resources just as they did before 1954 (Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, 2017). 

“If you’ve got resegregation, it’s not only going to resegregate bodies, but also budgets, buildings and every basic building block to high-quality, constitutional, diverse, well-funded public education.” - Rev. William Barber, president of the NAACP North Carolina State Conference in 2011 

 

Given the fact that Lynchburg administrators have stated they know diversity will decrease at all schools, the city is underfunding the school district (national trend as a city increase the percentage of students of color and economically disadvantaged students), and the district is facing a deficit, we belief Lynchburg will follow the same path toward funding disparities (Holley-Walker, 2012).

Teachers on strike in Little Rock, Arkansas on November 12th 2019. This strike is in protest to potential resegregation that will occur if the district is granted unitary status.

Teachers on strike in Little Rock, Arkansas on November 12th 2019. This strike is in protest to potential resegregation that will occur if the district is granted unitary status.

Do we still have remnants of discrimination efforts in the district?

To attain unitary status, a district must show they do not have remnants or the lasting impacts of its previous segregation. 

The dual experience is from differences in education quality (inferred by percentages of certified teachers and the experience of teachers), in resources schools have, in advancement opportunities for students and representation in those programs, and an expanding achievement gap.

 

We further discuss these influences, their impacts on education, data explaining analysis, and trends from the past 30 years on 'Continued Inequities'.

The trends towards resegregation after unitary status coupled with a pattern of disparate funding afterwards, is why we are opposed to the court order being lifted in Lynchburg today. Under Lynchburg's current landscape of defunding education and favoring a neighborhood school system we are concerned how unitary status will negatively impact marginalized students' success, well-being, and opportunities.

 

Until administrators and the school board publicly present a plan that addresses the achievement gap, educational inequities, resource inequities, anti-equity sentiments in Lynchburg, and they guarantee proactive action towards actual educational equity we will continue to oppose unitary status.

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