Decades after desegregation, problems remain in local schools

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It’s been decades since court cases and laws across the country required public schools to desegregate

However, segregation in Shelby County Schools is far worse today than it was 60 years ago.

That is according to data from the Tennessee Department of Education.

More than half of Shelby County Schools are 90 percent African American.

FOX13’S Jeremy Pierre spent weeks breaking down the numbers and exploring why education professionals said segregation in Memphis is the worst they have seen.

Many of them said you would have to be color blind not to see what Frayser Community Schools founder and CEO Dr. Bobby White sees.

"Segregation has been a problem in Memphis City Schools since the beginning of times,” White said.

Leaders with the Southern Poverty Law Center see it, too.

"As far as the city of Memphis specifically, I can't reemphasize enough how shocking it is to see this statistic in writing that a city is more racially segregated than it was decades ago,” Southern Poverty Law Center Attorney Victor Jones said.

FOX13 broke down the racial demographics of all seven school districts in Shelby County.

Right now, 91 percent of the more than 100,000 students in Shelby County Schools are minorities.

Almost all of them black.

Jeremy discovered between 1954 and 1961, the percentage of black students in the then Memphis City School District ranged between 42 and 45 percent with blacks in none of the white-only schools.

Jones, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, specializes in children education rights.

He’s seen it all but the situation in Memphis gave him pause.

"It is rare, however, to find a city in which schools are even more segregated than they were before, and that is the case in Memphis,” Jones said.

And it’s not just the Shelby County School District that is experiencing a massive racial imbalance.

Other districts in Shelby County have issues, too.

Take for example, Frayser Community Schools, in the Achievement School District, where 98 percent of the more than 10,000 students are black.

So how could court-ordered desegregated schools end up even more segregated than they were before the Supreme Court stepped in?

"Our city is segregated in our neighborhoods and communities as a whole, and because we have zone-enrolled schools, kids attend school where they live,” White said.

"What is unique is the creation of these six suburban districts that have broken off essentially from Memphis,” Jones said.

Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington broken off as a result of the merger between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools in 2013.

According to former Memphis City Schools school board members the move was meant to create a universal and more diverse school district, which failed.

"As soon as the merger took place there was a demerger of the municipalities within months, whereby class and race decided to separate,” White said.

Jeremy took the problem to University of Memphis Law Professor Daniel Kiel.

He is responsible for collecting much of the data involving the racial divide in public education in Shelby County.

"We definitely have gone from a moment from where schools were segregated legally, where students had to go school based on their race to a situation to where schools are no longer legally segregated, but they still are what we call racially isolated,” Kiel said.

Kiel said that’s largely because in 2011, two pieces of legislation reversed a law that prohibited additional school districts in Shelby County.

Municipal districts became known as special school districts, according to Senate Bill 25.

And according to state leaders FOX13 spoke with, changing it back ―creating a single, all-inclusive district ― is something that even if put forth in Nashville, has no chance of passing.

Still, people like Kiel said you never know until someone tries.

"It’s hard to know in our environment today if we are going to get to a different outcome than what we got,” Kiel said.