Fifty-seven years after black parents first sued to desegregate the Dougherty County district in southwest Georgia, a judge has ruled that the 14,000-student district has reached “unitary” status and no longer needs to be monitored by the courts to eliminate racial discrimination.
Dougherty County made the request for unitary status, saying that court supervision has kept the school district from operating efficiently. For example, the court has needed to approve any changes to school boundaries.
The school district, which serves Albany, Ga., and surrounding communities, has been at the heart of one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the country. As of May 4, more than 120 Dougherty residents have died, a number on par with Atlanta and Fulton County, which has more than 10 times the population. The confirmed case rate, about 1,746 per 100,000 people, is among the highest in the state.
Closed since March 13, the district has been working to support its students, nearly two-thirds of whom are economically disadvantaged.
The April 29 ruling doesn’t mean the district’s population is a demographic match with the surrounding community. Dougherty County is about 71 percent black and 26 percent white; the school district, in contrast, is 89 percent back and 5 percent white. But the school district is no longer engaging in segregation under power of law, said U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands Sr.
"[I]t is clear that current racial imbalances in DCSS are not due to any de jure violations but are the result of demographic shifts outside of the school board’s control,” Sands wrote.
Dougherty County is a part of the “Black Belt,” of the South, a multistate grouping of counties with a largely black popluation. Back in 1980, the date of the most recent desegregation order, the school district’s population was 55 percent white and 45 percent black.
But since then, white residents have left the public schools for private schools in the county or left the county entirely; the neighboring 6,200-student Lee County district to the north, for example, is 67 percent white and 23 percent black; 29 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Milliken v Bradley, prevents disegregation efforts that cross district boundaries. The organization EdBuild has said that such school district boundaries, particularly in the Rust Belt and the Deep South, serve to wall off wealthy areas from poorer neighborhoods.
It’s difficult to say how many school districts remain under court supervision for desegregation because of sketchy record-keeping, Education Week has reported. For the 2011-12 school year, more than 1,200 districts reported to the U.S. Department of Education that they were subject to a desegregation plan. For the 2013-14 school year, that number plunged to 17, and for the 2015-16 school year, 334 districts reported they were under desegregation orders.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Dougherty County Superintendent Kenneth Dyer gives a press briefing on the district’s plans to provide instruction while schools are locked down.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.