California's Public Education System: A Hushed Modern Apartheid

An abandoned school in Los Angeles County. (David Crane/Southern California News Group.)

An abandoned school in Los Angeles County. (David Crane/Southern California News Group.)

In 1945, eight-year-old Sylvia Mendez and her brothers attended Hoover Elementary School in Westminster, California. Hoover, mandated to be the sole public school for all Latino children in the area, was a two-room wooden shack secured by a rusting chain metal fence with a decrepit plot of browning grass lining the exterior, located in the city’s Mexican neighborhood.

One mile away, white residents of Westminster attended 17th Street Elementary, where egg-white pillars connected to sloping, thatched roofs on one end and a neat brick and concrete facade at the other, with rows of palm trees and a well-trimmed grass lawn lining the exterior.

Gonzalo Mendez, Sylvia’s father, realized that 17th Street offered superior educational benefits and books for their students. But when he sent Sylvia to accompany her aunt, brothers, and cousins to enroll, Sylvia was told that only her lighter-skinned cousins would be allowed to attend. She and her brothers would not.

The Mendez family waged a legal battle against the Westminster School District, and two years later, the ninth circuit court of appeals ruled against the district’s segregatory practices. In explaining the legacy left by the case, Sylvia remarked how her parents taught her “that we are all human beings... that we all have the same rights, the same freedom”.

But 72 years later, our schools maintain this principle in little more than theory. Latino children continue to experience mass segregation, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the 1940s, and the divide continues to grow with each passing year. They languish in schools that are comprised of ¾ low-income students, resulting in a steep disparity between Latino and white students in standardized test scores, access to honors and AP classes, college counseling, funding for extracurriculars, and virtually any other metric one could suggest. Despite making up the majority of the California student population, most Latino students are not proficient in standardized measures of English and math. Within the US, California is the state where Latino children are the most segregated.

Decades after Mendez’s victory over formalized racism, we continue to be proprietors of a system that tosses Latinos to the curb. A system where they have less access to pre-K and daycare programs, even though their families subside on salaries amounting to just over half what an average non-Latino family brings in. One where they drop out of high school more often and earlier than any other ethnic group. One where, even when a district throws the occasional bright Latino student into a school with white peers, they are almost certain to report having experienced discrimination and feelings of disconnect by their sophomore year.

For generations, Latino students have been left behind to wallow in defunded schools that afford them little to no opportunity to rise above the self-fulfilling prophecy that they will not, and cannot, succeed. De facto segregation has birthed a hushed modern apartheid. How did we stray so far from Mendez’s aspirations of a California free of color lines drawn in brown paint?

White California suburban residents, particularly those in the most segregated areas (Bay Area and Los Angeles) vote overwhelmingly liberal. They support progressive policies and promote an egalitarian agenda. Without fail, they vote on the side of equality.

But in a disturbing twist, it seems this attitude holds only at the voting booth. When forced to reckon with what a progressive world actually looks like, white families find that it is not one where their child deserves more than any other. They consistently express outrage or leave for whiter pastures when faced with ethnic diversity in their neighborhoods, creating a common trend of housing segregation that reinforces school separation. School districts decide the populations of their schools based on division by neighborhood, allowing these condensed white and Latino populaces to maintain segregation both in residency and education.

Even when mandated to enroll their children in public schools diverse in both ethnicity and income, parents often manage to avoid this circumstance by sending students to private schools. By resorting to alternatives to public school, white families create an even greater achievement gap between their children and those of color. If they do allow their kids to attend public institutions, parents then donate inordinate amounts of money to their child’s school, exacerbating already acute economic inequality and creating public-private programs.

“Groups like Boosters Clubs or PTAs often generate plenty of extra income for schools in wealthier communities,” related Alita Acianoh, a fifth-grade teacher at Meadow Homes Elementary, an almost entirely Latino and low-income school. “Without that support, having autonomy to pay for extra teachers to reduce class size, or increase collaboration, or even afford basic classroom supplies just isn't reality.”

As any observant cynic would expect, California politicians have taken note of this persistent hypocrisy in their loudest and most active constituencies. Legal efforts to integrate California schools have been ignored, delayed, half-implemented, or actively reversed. Additionally, most revamp efforts at the national level, in particular the now-defunct No Child Left Behind program and the recently implemented Common Core curriculum, have relied on standardized education practices to promote accountability and equality. This catch-all practice, proven to be an outright failure time and time again, reinforces a subtle but crucial fact. When white families make the choice to remain segregated, our government does the same and meets any and all protests with antiquated solutions and political apathy.

Racism has endured. Rather than disappearing as civil rights laws slashed the blatant formal policies enforcing racial hierarchies, prejudice learned to take more subtle forms. Its practitioners, once empowered to speak freely in favor of discrimination’s necessity, now hide their segregationist leanings beneath concern for their children. Although they would never acknowledge it as such, these sentiments are no better than those expressed by the growers who abused Cesar Chavez and his compatriots in the grape fields of Delano, or the border patrol officers who train their tear gas and batons on the backs of immigrant men and women, or the district officials who told Sylvia Mendez that her skin was too dark to read the same books as her white peers.

Quiet prejudice has persisted in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our government. The purported milestone achieved by Mendez seems to have resulted in nothing but a shift from the obvious to the subtle.

What makes this situation even more distressing is that integration can work. States could implement incentives for districts to foster racial and socioeconomic diversity by redrawing district maps. Funding that districts gear towards improving teacher quality could instead be diverted towards dual language initiatives and transportation resources. Extracurricular activities and daycare programs could be emphasized in majority-Latino schools.

Despite white outrage at the possibility of their children being dragged down by lower achieving Latino students, research has shown that high-income children in low-income schools rarely suffer. Rather, their presence serves to bring others up with them.

Initiatives like the Local Control Funding Formula have funneled money into low-income schools and achieved some measure of success. But true integration will require a systemic overhaul, which necessitates recognition of the quiet racism pervading California society and legislation. Once we are willing to accept that, we can start moving past it.

In an interview last year, Sylvia Mendez proclaimed that segregation is worse now than it was in 1945. For her and for millions of Latino students across California, progress has yet to show its face. The choices we make will determine whether Latino children join their white brothers and sisters beneath palm trees and eggshell pillars, or if they’ll continue to watch with hushed lips and silent eyes through rusting chain metal fences.