The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a relatively new creation led by veteran journalist Jerry Mitchell, missed the bigger story.

It exposed this past week a tactic, long used by the Brookhaven School District, to maintain white enrollment in its schools. The publicity could prompt the U.S. Justice Department to challenge Brookhaven’s informal “parental request” policy that allows parents, black and white, to ask for specific teachers in the elementary grades.

The result of the policy in a school district where black students outnumber white students 2-to-1 has been partial integration within individual schools. Some classrooms, according to the story, are racially balanced while others are nearly all black.

It’s not shocking that this has been happening. Since the court-ordered desegregation of Mississippi’s public schools 50 years ago, a number of Mississippi school districts where whites have been in the minority have tried different strategies, including bending the rules, to avoid or slow white flight. The Justice Department, once it gets wind of these accommodations to white parents, usually objects and forces the district down a path that ultimately produces nearly total segregation — with most black kids in the public schools and most white kids in private ones.

The story that Mitchell’s group should investigate is how well the Justice Department’s insistence on desegregation purity has fared. By my count, it’s been mostly a failure. As proof:

• A decade ago, the superintendent of the McComb School District was grouping white elementary kids in the same homerooms in order to appease parents’ misgivings about their children being racially isolated. The Justice Department sued to stop the practice and prevailed. The district’s white enrollment, 20 percent just 15 years ago, is now less than 5 percent.

• Walthall County was ordered by the Justice Department in 2010 to stop clustering white students into the same classrooms. Although the percentage of white students has stayed at around 35 percent in the district, enrollment overall has plummeted, dropping 28 percent, a rate that is four times greater than that county’s overall population loss.

• Cleveland has been one of the only districts left in the Delta with a sizeable white enrollment. It had pulled that off by operating dual high schools and junior highs, but with open enrollment policies so that African-American families could put their kids in either the schools that were racially balanced or the ones that were predominantly black. A Justice Department lawsuit prompted a federal judge’s order that forced the consolidation of the schools. Two years into the merger, although white flight has not been dramatic, the trend line is troubling. For more than a decade, Cleveland’s white enrollment had hovered around 30 percent. This year, it’s down to 23 percent in a city whose population is roughly equal between the races.

• Then there’s Greenwood, which tried to keep its high school racially balanced into the 1980s by allowing white children who lived just outside the city limits to enroll. The Justice Department stepped in and stopped the illegal zone-jumping. Greenwood High, which in 1985 had more than 1,100 students and a nearly 50/50 racial mix, today has 650 students, of which only a handful are white.

Certainly there have been other factors than just the Justice Department’s crackdowns to explain the resegregation and enrollment declines in these areas of the state. But it seems indisputable that wherever white flight was already occurring from the public schools, the Justice Department’s insistence that the law allows for no accommodation to slow or reverse the trend has only exacerbated it.

The price of this ideological purity has been severe for everyone who lives in these communities, regardless of race.

School districts that have become predominantly black struggle with community support and recruiting teachers. Communities whose public schools are not seen as a viable option for whites have a hard time holding onto the companies and families they do have, much less attracting new ones. The local economies suffer, the communities get smaller and poorer, and the quality of education declines with them.

It leaves one asking, What was the point?

The philosophical basis of the Brown v. Board of Education decision was that racial segregation inescapably produced disparate academic results, with black children getting the short end of the stick. In areas, though, where whites were the minority population, the challenge was how to desegregate public education in a way that would last.

Open-minded leaders in these communities concluded the only way possible was to accept half a loaf: namely, that schools and classrooms could be desegregated partially, but not completely. The Justice Department not only disagreed initially, it continues to disagree, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary.

Unless the feds have finally learned their lesson, Brookhaven will be the next victim of their good intentions.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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