White Teachers Flee Black Schools ; Some See Exodus in South as a New Form of Segregation

Article excerpt

Certain neighborhoods in the South are weathering a new version of an old phenomenon: white flight.

Across the region, white, often middle-class, teachers are leaving schools dominated by African-Americans almost as fast as they arrive. Many are moving to school districts with smaller populations of blacks, new studies show.

Critics see the exodus as a new form of segregation, encouraged by court rulings that no longer enforce racial diversity. But teachers say that cultural and economic barriers, not racial ones, are fueling the trend in a region where more than 40 percent of the public school population is black.

At the very least, the growing shortage of white educators is creating a dilemma for black schools from Picayune County, Miss., to Decatur, Ga. Right now, there aren't enough black teachers to go around, either. "All the stars are aligned for white teachers to leave," says Gary Orfield, an education professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "It's a combination of poverty and racial segregation, added to cultural differences, that all makes it tough for suburban teachers to figure out the black and Latino cultures."

In Georgia, the trend is as pronounced as anywhere: A new study from Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta says that 32 percent of white elementary school teachers left their posts at predominantly black schools in 2001 - up from 18 percent in 1995. Moreover, they left well-to-do black districts at about the same rate as poorer ones.

Recent studies in Texas, California, and North Carolina reach the same conclusion. The effect, critics say, is that black students aren't getting an equal shot at good schooling. The reason: As white teachers leave, many blacks are fleeing the profession, too, leaving a dearth of qualified teachers of any kind. "As a result, we have lots of classes being taught by substitute teachers, who don't usually have degrees and aren't licensed to teach anything," says Tom Clark, a former superintendent of the Picayune County, Miss., schools.

Other factors are contributing to the exodus. A recent school building boom in Georgia created more job options for teachers - many of whom wanted to work closer to their own neighborhoods. What's more, many qualified teachers tend to leave lower-performing schools at faster rates.

But the authors of a new Harvard study on the "resegregation" of the South believe the flight is rooted in something more ominous. They see it an inevitable result of a backsliding society where white and black students increasingly go to different schools. They trace that divide, in part, to recent federal court decisions outlawing civil rights-era protections, such as busing and affirmative action in college admissions. …