Column: Lifting up public education bolsters desegregation

Segregation is alive and well in Tulsa-area schools. Though no longer enforced by law, the shameful history of Jim Crow continues to take a heavy toll on our city’s marginalized groups.

This legacy of discrimination has left much of the Hispanic community — one of the fastest growing populations in the nation — in concentrated poverty. Growing up in poverty can have damaging effects on child well-being, impacting all aspects of health from access to a doctor to lifestyles and behaviors. Inexplicably, it seems that there are more obstacles to economic success than there are ways to overcome these challenges, with no clear path to prosperity.

Frequently, education is thought to be the way out of poverty. However, the harsh reality is that a quality education is not a right available to all but a privilege extended only to a few.

Government inaction and institutional barriers have resulted in poor educational outcomes for too many of our students. The 2022 Kids Count Data Book ranks Oklahoma 45th in public education nationwide — a long way from a top 10 state. Unacceptably, many of our Hispanic students bear the heaviest burden.

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Though the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education prohibits school segregation on the basis of race, schools today are segregated along poverty lines. Consider state funding of public schools:

Oklahoma ranks near the bottom nationwide and last in the region, according to data from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. How can we expect our students to receive a quality education if we don’t pay for one? Again, this question disproportionately affects our Hispanic students.

While the state funding formula was written to allocate enough revenue to schools irrespective of property tax revenue, experts agree that improvements are needed.

Earlier this year, the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency reported that the outdated formula does not provide enough funding to address concentrated poverty or growing numbers of students learning English as a second language. As Hispanic students are more likely than white students to live in concentrated poverty, school funding has become a matter of race and ethnicity.

When concentrations of poverty grow in their neighborhoods, affluent families switch to different schools, leaving behind Hispanic families who can’t afford to follow. Within the Tulsa metropolitan area, Hispanic students have become increasingly segregated since 1980, as other students switch from Tulsa Public Schools to private schools and other school districts.

As debate about school choice is heard in our state Legislature, understand that these negative trends will continue if we further defund public schools.

The consequences of concentrated poverty and segregation in schools are well understood. A single student living in poverty is more likely to miss school, and a student who is not in the classroom is a student who is not learning. Absenteeism in early years is a strong predictor for poor academic performance in later years.

But when entire schools are filled with students in poverty, these outcomes are amplified, and the negative effects impact entire schools.

There is no single solution to this complicated problem, but we have an ethical and moral obligation to address it.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has expressed that the Hispanic community is important for the future of our state, and he’s right. Let’s do right by our communities and provide the equitable opportunities that they deserve.

While fully funding and prioritizing quality education for all won’t solve every issue, we won’t make progress unless we start somewhere and act now.

Alec Camacho is a second-year medical student at the University of Oklahoma-University of Tulsa School of Community Medicine and is a fellow in the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Program.

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