Time International - 02.03.2020

(Jacob Rumans) #1
Time March 2–9, 2020


Almost everyone in St. Joseph is white.
Almost everyone in Benton Harbor is
black. Nearly half the people in Benton
Harbor live in poverty, and the median
household income is barely $20,000. Ac-
cording to the nonprofit EdBuild, the bor-
der between these two school districts is
one of the 10 most economically segre-
gated school boundaries in America.
But if the differences between Ben-
ton Harbor and St. Joseph are especially
obvious, the forces that drive them apart
are hardly unique. There are hundreds
of American school districts like Benton
Harbor: financially imperiled, academi-
cally challenged, in communities where
bright futures are hard to see. There are
hundreds more like St. Joseph: stable,
prosperous and secure, educating the
winners in the modern economy.
Sixty-six years and counting after
Brown v. Board of Education, Benton
Harbor and St. Joseph are illustrative:
American education remains highly seg-
regated by race and class, perpetuated in
part by a patchwork of school districts—
invisible lines that carve up the country,
carefully separating the rich from the
poor. EdBuild calculates that, annually,
$23 billion more goes to districts serving
at least 75% white students than to those
with 25% or fewer, even though the total
numbers of students are about equal.
Some states are better than others,
sending additional money to districts
with high levels of poverty. But overall,
students who live in poor districts get
poorly funded schools, and rich students
get rich ones. Well-off, well-educated stu-
dents go on to college and promising ca-
reers, marry one another, have children
and move into well-resourced school
districts, starting the cycle over again.
Instead of bringing Americans together,
public schools—and the district lines that
sort kids into them—increasingly accel-
erate the process of pushing them apart.
In some states, altering district lines
requires amending the constitution, mak-
ing better borders difficult to achieve. In
others, parents are trying to secede from
established districts into wealthy white
enclaves that preserve tax revenues for
themselves. Ultimately, school districts
are choices about what children deserve.
Burton believes the students of Benton
Harbor deserve to keep their school and
to receive a better education than they’re

getting today. That’s why, last year, she
brought a group of them together to speak
in the best way they knew how.

Benton HarBor HigH was a mar-
vel when the current building opened
in 1921, including a 1,200-seat audito-
rium with full equipment for theatrical
lighting and staging. When black fami-
lies moved from the South to the indus-
trialized North during and after World
War II, in the Second Great Migration,
Benton Harbor was a desirable destina-
tion. Firms like Superior Steel & Mallea-
ble Castings, Michigan Standard Alloys
and the Upton Machine Company, which
became the appliance behemoth Whirl-
pool, offered steady jobs. A 1958 yearbook
photo of more than 30 students at Hull El-
ementary School shows a fully integrated
class, roughly half white and half black.
But that moment of prosperity and in-
tegration proved brief. The Midwest soon

began a wrenching deindustrialization as
many firms went bankrupt and others like
Whirlpool sent blue-collar jobs overseas.
Black workers were often the first to be
laid off, and the community around the
school steadily hollowed out. The hospi-
tal moved across the river to St. Joseph.
So did the newspaper and the YMCA. The
city’s police cars were repossessed. The
Benton Harbor school district, which re-
lied at the time on property taxes, saw its
revenue dry up. Today, Benton Harbor
High School is badly in need of work. The
district has a $50 million repair backlog,
almost twice its annual operating budget.
But this economic transformation did
not happen in a vacuum. In the 1960s,
white parents in Benton Harbor pushed
for new school buildings in white neigh-
borhoods that would have effectively seg-
regated the district. In 1967, a group of
black parents filed a lawsuit against the
school district, with the backing of the
NAACP, noting that black students were
often tracked into less rigorous classes
and black teachers were never assigned
to white-majority schools. White families
began moving to neighboring districts,
spurred in part by block-busting real

VIRAL VIDEO Benton Harbor
resident Traci Burton, 25, left,
helped promote a music video
featuring high schoolers including
tuba player Cameron Gordon, 16


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