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Separate But Unequal: School Segregation in Los Angeles

A close look at the history of segregation and education inequality in Los Angeles.

 Photograph shows a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias.
Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. (via Upsplash)

I love the city of Los Angeles, along with its many diverse communities. As protests grew over the past few months, I reflected on the deep inequities in education within Los Angeles, and how the city is at the center of the systemic injustices we’ve been fighting. Access to education can be a great equalizer, and lack of access to education can be the most significant obstacle to growth, opportunity, and achievement. Nowhere is the discrepancy of the quality of public education more prevalent than in Los Angeles.

The education system in Los Angeles has disadvantaged Black and Brown children. A lack of opportunity can make a generation feel like education isn’t an option.

Now with the pandemic, and future learning losses the pandemic will cause, the most vulnerable students in Los Angeles are ever more susceptible to future systemic injustices. These students are climbing uphill in a mudslide.

The public school system in Los Angeles isn’t a system of equal opportunity, but instead is a system of haves and have-nots. It’s as if two separate school systems support two different opportunity systems. One system is for the lower-income minority population, and the other is for the affluent.

You see the differences in schools that are just freeway exits apart. These differences are by design, and aren’t accidental, but instead systemically engineered. In the LA school system, zip code and socioeconomic status determine the quality of education Angelenos receive.

Students in Los Angeles are segregated based on poverty, language, and ethnicity, and this isolation threatens their future economic opportunities. Low-income families are thrown into an underfunded and overpoliced system, and the affluent can buy their way into private schools or move out to suburban school districts.

Over the past sixty years, there has been a very deliberate and conscious choice by white families to abandon LAUSD. The middle class did it by moving away, and the affluent by putting their kids into private schools.

The city’s demographics and the demographic of populations that attend public or private schools are prime examples of the two separate systems. However, to understand why the two systems exist, you have to take a look at the history of Los Angeles, especially redlining, white flight, and busing.

After Brown v. Board of Education, the South was forced to integrate, but desegregation never came to Los Angeles. In fact, the state constitution was changed to block a desegregation plan.

In 1967, the Los Angeles Unified School District was 55 percent white, and the California State Supreme Court demanded the school board take action to integrate. This was also at the height of white flight from inner cities, such as Watts, Compton, Inglewood, and Baldwin Hills, to suburbia, which accelerated school segregation in Los Angeles.

As whites abandoned the city and public school system, they removed further resources from inner-city schools and communities.

Few issues divided Los Angeles more in the 1970s than school desegregation and busing. Busing was the LAUSD’s response to the court-ordered plan for mandatory desegregation, and a solution for white flight. White parents across the city immediately revolted by pulling their children out of public school or moving to suburban districts. In 1979, California voters approved Proposition 1 to stop mandatory integration and busing.

Today, although Latinx people account for half of the city’s population, they are over-represented within LAUSD. On the other hand, while whites make up 28 percent of the population, they are incredibly under-represented within the district and account for only 10 percent of LAUSD students.

The demographics in Los Angeles private schools look a lot different from those in the public school system. In total, around eight percent of Los Angeles students attend a private school. According to the California Association of Independent Schools, private schools have an average tuition of $32,000, and about 42 percent of private school students are white, five percent are Latinx, and 3.5% are Black.

I am a part of that 3.5 percent. It’s a huge reason I am writing about this issue, as I’ve benefited from the other system and recognize my privilege. I went to grade school in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. I then had the opportunity to attend one of the top private all-boys schools in California, Loyola High School, by virtue of a generous financial aid package. I quickly learned that I had privilege when one of my friends in middle school said that “I made it out.” But truthfully, I didn’t understand it at the time. I didn’t think I was privileged because I was fighting my disparities in a predominantly white, affluent school, but I had earned privilege.

It was a Women and Gender Studies class in college that made me realize that privilege. During the first day of class, the professor asked who here is privileged? No hands went up. She immediately said that all of our hands should be raised because we were sitting in that classroom.

That moment made me reflect on the opportunities that I’ve had that many kids of color in Los Angeles don’t get. I saw this with my cousins who were sent to charter or magnet schools because the public district schools in Los Angeles weren’t an option for their academic success.

Although going into Loyola, I was coming from a good district and thought I was smart enough to belong, I quickly realized how behind I was. My classmates came from a pipeline of private schools across the city that prepared them for Loyola’s rigorous academic curriculum. Being one of the few students from public school, it was a new world for me and I had to play catch-up quickly. I remember one of my white freshman classmates approached me after I had a poor performance on an initial exam in English class, and almost in disappointment said, “I thought you were smarter than that.”

During the admissions process is when I first became aware of the gap between the public school system that I came from and the private school system that I was now entering.

The admissions process to get into Loyola was more intensive than both my college and graduate school applications. Getting admitted to Loyola was also something that most of my classmates who entered from private schools prepared and planned for as early as kindergarten.

I didn’t even know about the prestigious all-boys school until the summer before my eighth-grade year and surprised my Mom with the words, “I want to apply to this high school near downtown, it’s called Loyola.” I thought of it as an alternative to the public high school in Santa Monica, which at the time was plagued with racial tensions between Black and Latinx students that fueled a race riot on campus.

After my freshman year at Loyola, I realized that the issue wasn’t that I was not competent enough to do the work. Instead, the issue was that, under the two separate systems in Los Angeles, my classmates had access to resources and support systems that many students that go to even the best public schools don’t get.

Going to school in one of the best public school districts in the Los Angeles area didn’t adequately prepare me to compete with students who benefited from knowing how to succeed in the system.

Even as a student of color within the Santa Monica-Malibu School District, I was overlooked and unsupported. My mother had to fight for my education, so much so that students thought she worked at the school. As I recall, her battle with SMMUSD to provide me with an equitable education started when my second-grade teacher recommended me for special education because of my speech impediment at the time, which was caused by my two front missing teeth.

A teal wall with the words #Education Is Not A Crime written in white
(via Upsplash)

In Los Angeles, your skin color and zip code determine your academic and economic success or failure. There are hundreds of thousands of kids being left behind, and not through any fault of their own, but because the education system is built on inequity. This system doesn’t offer all Angelenos the same resources and opportunities that affluent students receive.

Students of color are at a disadvantage due to the concentration of highly segregated and poverty-ridden schools. These schools are underfunded, over-policed, lack mental health and social resources, and are designed to fulfill the school-to-prison pipeline.

Studies have consistently found that students in high-poverty schools are less likely to succeed academically, and black students are five times more likely to attend highly segregated schools and twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools as their white counterparts.

You may be asking: what difference does desegregation make?

It isn’t about integration, or particularly diversity, for that matter. Instead, it’s about access and distribution of resources along with increased school funding. No matter your race, going to a well-funded school, where students go to college, where some experienced teachers and administrators care about your well-being and preparation for the future, makes a difference in educational outcomes afforded to you.

We need teachers who are not only experienced but prefer to work in our communities. We need changes in our housing policies. We need funding for childcare and pre-K. We need community and after-school programs. We need integrated mental health services in our schools.

We need to overhaul our school systems in terms of funding, so that your zip code doesn’t dictate your future and class mobility. Because if you come from a high-poverty zip code and go to poorly funded schools, research shows that the odds aren’t in your favor — but that’s the way it was supposed to be, right America?

As we talk about reforming our justice system, let’s also take a look at overhauling our school system and recreating it, so it provides equitable opportunities to all kids, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

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