From Desegregation to School Choice: How the Civil Rights Era Influenced the Cleveland Schools of Today

Featured Audio

For millions of children across the country, where they go to school is largely determined by where they live. Public school districts have historically assigned students to schools located in or near their neighborhoods.

Cleveland is trying a different approach by integrating school choice into its district model, but you could say the city’s school choice movement began in the 1960s, a time of racial tension that led to the Cleveland school system we see today.

Cleveland Leadership in the 1960s

George Forbes is one of the most prominent names in modern Cleveland history. Elected to city council in 1963, Forbes was one of several black politicians who led Cleveland through the nation’s Civil Rights Era, and through the fall out of desegregation in the city’s schools.

“I hadn’t been in office, but three or four months and we were confronted with this big issue of equality in schools,” Forbes said.

At the time, there were nearly 135,000 students in the district. Black schools throughout the city were overcrowded, but instead of integrating school populations, the district chose to build new ones – keeping black children isolated.

“The Board of Education had taken the position that they were going to build new schools and decided that Stephen E. Howe was one of the places they were going to build schools,” Forbes explained.

During its construction, Stephen E. Howe Elementary School, in the Glenville neighborhood that Forbes represented, became the site of protests led by civil rights activists.

On April 7, 1964, 27-year-old white protestor Rev. Bruce Klunder was killed as he and others laid themselves in front of and behind the tracks of a bulldozer at the construction site.

Klunder’s death slowed the school’s completion, but it didn’t stop it, and racial tensions grew, Forbes said, as African Americans protested and boycotted more black schools.

“It came from people, the groundswell,” he said. “We don't want the school. We're not going to go there.”

More than a decade later, a federal court ordered Cleveland to bus kids into other neighborhoods to achieve racial balance in the schools.

School Choice Comes to Cleveland

Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon said the decision resulted in the first instance of school choice in the city: white flight and wealth flight from the district into the surrounding suburbs.

 “It was a tough form, right?” Gordon said. “I had to make a choice as a parent whether I would send my child to the assigned school across the city for integration purposes, or whether I would choose to pay for a parochial or private school, or whether I would choose to move out of the city.”

“It was absolutely a form of choice,” he added.

The exodus of white, middle income families led to a massive decline in enrollment in Cleveland schools. Between 1980 and 1990, CMSD went from 92,000 to 69,000 students. That decline strained resources and concentrated poverty in the district.

After years of mismanagement and financial turmoil, legislation in the mid-90s led to the introduction of school vouchers in Cleveland—one of the first cities in the country to incorporate the form of choice that give children public funds to attend a private school.

Then came charters, which Gordon said led to the departure of another 10,000 kids from the district.

“All while the school district was saying we will assign you to xyz school,” Gordon said. “You don’t have any choice inside the district.”

Then Comes ‘The Cleveland Plan’

Gordon’s tenure as CEO and the implementation of a new education reform plan—known as The Cleveland Plan—marked a change in that culture.

Implemented five years ago, The Cleveland Plan allowed parents to send their children to any school in the district, including CMSD-sponsored charters.

District enrollment is up for the first time in 40 years, Gordon said, to 39,000 students and achievement is starting to follow.

“Families were choosing. They had been choosing for decades. The only place they weren’t choosing was CMSD because we were saying you shouldn’t be allowed to choose and we were saying we will assign you where you will go to school, very much like traditional school districts across the country have always done,” Gordon said.

“Our notion was, if families are choosing, let’s get into the choice game, let’s compete, let’s be part of the choice,” he added.

Does Choice Lead to Academic Success?

In the majority minority district, CMSD’s scores on state report cards are up, but its overall grade is an F.

The four-year graduation rate has increased and so has the number of K through 3rd grade students reading at grade level, but when you break down the scores by race, the numbers tell a different story.

A quarter of African American students in the district are meeting English Language Arts learning goals compared to about half of their white peers. The rates are almost identical when it comes to math, and only marginally better for the district’s Hispanic population.

Dr. William Sampson of DePaul University does not believe choice leads to academic success for minority students. Nationwide, Sampson said vouchers, charters, and other forms of choice have resulted in a new surge of segregation in the education system that’s fueled poor academic outcomes.

White, middle-income parents have the means to take advantage of options, he added, leaving minority and low-income students behind, students who need more resources to succeed.

“It’s not that the presence of white kids has some sort of magic power over the quality of education,” Sampson explained. “Unfortunately, white folks aren’t that great.”

“It’s that the resources typically follow white kids, whether they be financial resources, [or] student support services.”

Choice and Competition in the Classroom

But it’s not just the loss of resources that Sampson said hurts minority students in this era of school choice. It’s the loss of opportunity for a child to compete, Sampson said, and overcome the racism and the inferiority they’re taught by society.

“When you grow up next door to a kid, or in the next classroom or the next row in a classroom, and you’re a black kid and you’re doing better in class than that white kid, then you start to question whether or not you are inherently inferior,” Sampson explained.

“You realize that you can do just as well as this white kid,” he said. “That dispels that self-hatred, and that’s critical in our society.”

That’s what black Clevelanders wanted in the 1960s, Forbes said, a mixing of races in schools that would help all children learn they were more alike than different.

But Forbes said the city’s first experience with school choice—the white flight of the Civil Rights era-- is still evident in Cleveland public schools today.

Did Integration Work?

The current state of the district makes it difficult for Forbes to believe that minority students are any better off than they were when he attended a segregated Memphis school during his youth, either because of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown versus Board of Education decision that ended legal segregation in public schools, or the fight he helped lead for integration.

“It didn’t work,” Forbes said of Cleveland’s desegregation struggle. “If I had to do it again, I would not have done it.”

“But this was part of the times,” he went on. “It was happening all over the country. Education was at an apex and that was what black folks demanded, but we did not get…we got the Supreme Court decisions. We got those things, but when you look back at it, it is what it is.”

Gordon disagreed with both Sampson and Forbes. With Sampson on the outcomes Cleveland children are achieving, and with Forbes on the success of the city’s Civil Rights struggles.

“Have we achieved the outcome yet that we desire for every kid? No,” he said. “I would say that the system that I’m running is not yet what I want for every child, a black child, a white child, a Hispanic child.”

“But,” he added, “we are actively working on it because of the really tough decisions that George Forbes and his peers made decades ago.”

Gordon said choice works for Cleveland, but the legacy of segregation, of inequity in the school system is a battle the district could face for years to come.

Support Provided By