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Changing Racial Dynamics May Be Undermining Desegregation Efforts

Nearly six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled "separate but equal" education intrinsically unequal, American schools remain deeply racially segregated, and approaches to fixing the problem have not kept pace with the changing dynamics of segregatation.

That was the crux of the argument last night by Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, at the American Education Research Association's 10th-annual Brown lecture in education research (named for the seminal civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education).

Orfield, an education, law, and political science research professor, traced the intertwined histories of education, jobs, and housing initiatives of the Brown era that have not yet closed racial gaps: nearly two out of five black and Latino students attend deeply segregated schools, and schools with on average twice the poverty concentration of the schools of white and Asian students.

Moreover, Orfield said education researchers and policymakers today still hold an outdated and overly simplistic view of race and segregation in schools.

"In the 1960s we were 90 percent white, 10 percent black, less than 5 percent Latino, and ... Asians were an asterisk in our data tables," he said. "We have policies developed for a two-race country, mostly in the South, and we now have a four-race country or more, with west of the Mississippi a totally different picture."

"We need to think about what segregation means in our society now; it's not just isolation from whites," he said, but isolation racially, economically, and in some cases linguistically. Moreover, schools with no white students often still deal with racial and cultural tensions from black, Latino, and Asian students, but these issues, he said, often are not taken into account when discussing school race issues.

Orfield said magnet schools and charters may hold promise for creating more integrated schools, but only if the choice plans are constructed to prevent racial or economic stratification. For example, districts should enroll students "based on their interest, not their test scores," he said. "Schools don't get the right to choose; students get the right to choose."

Even this can be problematic, as recent research on the New York City school matching system have found students generally choose to attend schools near their homes, so simply giving them the right to choose a new school didn't necessarily ease the concentration of poverty, race, or academically struggling students.

Orfield called for cities and their suburbs to take a more regional approach to integration, planning school siting and public housing and transportation systems to make more integrated communities. "It has to deal not just with public schools and not just with central cities. It has to be metropolitan," he said, and cover preschool through college and career preparation.

The full speech will be posted on AERA's website in the future.

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