You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Washington's Segregated Schools

Do as we say, not as we do.

Walking along a tree-shaded avenue "west of the park" in Washington, DC, you would not guess that three-quarters of the people in the city are black. In the narrow slice of real estate above the Potomac River and west of Rock Creek, you can find the city's best houses, many of the best restaurants and virtually all of the good schools. Most neighborhoods are reasonably well off, and some are glaringly white. Yet the city's public schools, even in this far northwest section, are quite different. Ninety-six percent of the children in the full system and ninety-seven percent of those in senior high schools are black. Most of them never meet a white classmate. The whites, quite simply, have gone elsewhere for education.

This is one of Washington's miserable secrets. The city that decreed that schools in Detroit and Birmingham and Boston would have to mix blacks and whites in mathematical proportions to achieve equality maintains in its home nest one of the most thoroughly segregated systems in the country.

At the bottom are the public schools, badly administered, badly taught and widely avoided by parents who care about education for their children. About 125,000 children come under the public school category. Individual schools, of course, are better than others, elementary schools being a safer bet than the rest. And there are a few upper-middle-class white parents—Jimmy Carter and Senator Henry Jackson, to name two—who continue to send children to the public system. But they seem to do it to make a point, not to give their children a good education. Even the city's sole elected congressman, nonvoting "Delegate" Walter Fauntroy, does not use the public schools.

On the next tier are the Roman Catholic parochial schools. About 12,000 children use this system, according to the National Catholic Education Association. The schools vary widely in the quality of instruction they provide and in racial composition. But the system as a whole is the most successful at integrating the races: 71 percent of the Catholic elementary school children and 48 percent of the high school children are black. Father Ray Kemp, pastor of an inner-city church and former member of the school board, calls it "the best buy in the city." The average tuition for a child in elementary school is $380, and in high school it ranges from $600 to as much as $1500 if one includes the private, independent Catholic schools. Costs are considerably greater. The system is subsidized by each parish and to a small degree by the diocese. The cost is held down in addition by keeping salaries low: a nun receives $4375 a year and a lay teacher receives about $7500 to start. By contrast, starting salaries in the DC public system are around $10,000 a year, and the public school teacher's salary (including benefits) is $17,300. That is part of the reason why the cost of operating the DC system is $1900 per pupil, one of the highest rates in the nation.

According to Father Kemp, who is in charge of one of the elementary schools, black families have been turning to the Catholic system in growing numbers because they cannot abide the public schools any longer. For this reason, nearly a third of the students in Catholic elementary schools are now non-Catholic. The attraction of the church schools, Kemp said, has less to do with academics than with the strong emphasis on discipline and the individual attention given to each family. The public schools are insensitive and bureaucratic by comparison. They tolerate absenteeism, delinquency and cruelty on a grand scale.

On the top tier are the remaining private schools, a category that also includes the best Catholic schools. A list published by the Washingtonian magazine includes about 40 such schools in the city, with tuitions that range from around $900 to $2700 a year. Several thousand children attend these schools. There is no central source of information, but 1 gather from my own experience at one of these schools that their racial composition is at least as extreme as the public schools'—but in reverse. Probably 97 percent of the children in these schools are white. Most come from wealthy or well-to-do families. There are a few scholarship students, black and white. This list would not be complete without the suburban public schools just outside the city limits in Maryland and Virginia. Although they are not legally linked with the District system, they are the other half of the story. Not so long ago, Montgomery County, Maryland was the richest in the nation. (Now it is merely near the top.) Its schools are said to be the best in the area, and they are remarkably white. When the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare last made a civil rights survey of school districts, in 1973, only seven percent of the students in the county's schools were black. The system has come so close to resembling a private one that it now takes in about 125 students from outside the county, provided they pay a tuition fee that ranges from $1740 to $2000. Needless to say, the trend irritates the private schools, which would like to have the students themselves. At the time of the last HEW survey, the county east of Montgomery—Prince Georges—had a black student population of about 28 percent, and the county to the south—Fairfax, Virginia —reported that only four percent of its students were black. These statistics give a crude outline of the barriers that have been erected in and around the city to preserve the status quo.

Washington's school arrangement may have grown and developed haphazardly, but in the last few years it has acquired a clear purpose. This is to isolate the children of upper level bureaucrats, lobbyists and congressmen from the hard knocks of city life. The Catholic system in the inner city provides the same service on a less ambitious scale for black parents who want to keep their children as far as possible from the liberated zone for crime and drug dealing that exists in many public schools. They must pay for the privilege of getting out. The tragedy is that most children in the District have no choice; they must submit to a system that seems to have lost its grip.

The decline began, Father Kemp said, when the schools were saturated beyond rescue with poor immigrants from the South. Several years ago, a survey revealed that 45 percent of the children in the public system were living with only one parent and 46 percent were poor enough to qualify for a free lunch. Poverty and instability in these doses were deadly. The system went into shock. Those who could afford to get out did. Having left, the escapees did not want to look back. Father Kemp finds some hope in the fact that the immigration from the South has stopped; the schools may soon begin to devote less time to managing the crisis and more to academic improvements.

While the private schools managed to keep their academic facades propped up during the storms of the '60s, they did not entirely escape the tidal wave of change that swept the decade. The minor scandals that always afflict small schools simmered along all the while. These ordinary vices were augmented by the problems of the age. Drug and alcohol dependence grew. Ennui and alienation claimed many victims. In fact, the best private schools had all the symptoms of distress the others had, but in a form less crippling to the careers of the students involved.

Great efforts were made to keep the bad news locked up in the family to protect reputations all round. Shouting and scuffling went on behind closed doors, but only rarely did the facts get out. The reason is that parents, like the schools themselves, have an interest in keeping the discussion of problems as bland and neutral as possible. They often seem as trapped by their investment in a high-priced institution as the poor are trapped by their dependence on the city bureaucracy. Both systems are well dug in and unresponsive to change. They don't like to be jostled, and few parents are able or interested enough to push.

Washingtonians have dealt with the city problems of the last decade as other people have, by putting up barricades and running. What's different in this city is that the federal government has made no attempt to break up the structures that have been erected. If one scans the statistics in HEW's 1973 survey of the 100 largest school districts, Washington stands alone with a black school population of 96 percent. The only ones that come near are the Atlanta city schools (81 percent black), Orleans Parish (77 percent), Richmond city (73 percent), Gary (72 percent) and Newark (72 percent). How has Washington escaped having a desegregation plan imposed on it?

A civil rights office spokesman for HEW explained that his department is permitted by law to look at only one school district at a time and attack discrimination within the district. Since Washington's schools could be integrated only by bringing in other districts, HEW cannot get involved. The Justice Department, which could sue and ask for a metropolitan desegregation plan mixing students from several districts, has not done so because the law as interpreted these days doesn't provide a foothold. In order to make such a case, the department lawyers would have to show that the counties outside the city had intentionally kept blacks from entering their schools—something the lawyers cannot do. For this reason, Washington has slipped away relatively unscathed by the school desegregation forces it unleashed on the rest of the country.

This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine