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Are Schools Resegregated?

When the Government Accountability Office released a report that schools across the country are increasingly segregated by race and income, it was seized upon as evidence of how little progress has been made since Brown v. Board of Education ("Mississippi District Ordered to Desegregate Its Schools," The New York Times, May 18).  According to the GAO, the number of public schools that were poor and racially segregated has risen from 7,009 in the 2000-01 school year to 15,089 in 2013-14.

Although this evidence is disturbing, it is not as clearcut as it appears. Schools are considered to be integrated when their enrollment patterns mirror a stipulated pattern.  For example, white student enrollment dropped from 80 percent in 1968 to 51 percent in 2012.  But in this same period, the share of Hispanic and Asian students grew, while that of black students remained constant.  As a result, there was an increase in the number of public schools that failed to be called integrated.

Yet the dissimilarity index of schools, which measures how out of line schools' enrollment patterns are from the national student population, actually fell 15 points from 81 in 1968 to 66 in 2012 ("Are U.S. Schools Really Resegregating?" Education Next, Spring).  The index is 0 when there is total integration, and 100 when there is total segregation.  Therefore, which data are to be accepted as evidence of resegregation of schools?  Or is there a difference?  Read the next paragraph to understand the confusion.

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court in Green v. New Kent County invalidated the school desegregation plan in New Kent County, Va. because there was insufficient statistical racial balance in the student body ("The Persistence of Racial Myopia on Education," The Wall Street Journal, May 17).  In other words, opening schools to students of any race was not enough to end a segregation policy.  School boards had an "affirmative duty" to actively integrate. Or to put it another way, there is a legal difference between desegregation and integration. Now I know why I'm not a lawyer.

That led a group of black parents in 1972 to file a class-action lawsuit alleging segregation in St. Louis schools.  Three years later, a race-conscious transfer program was implemented that ironically has kept black students from getting the education they deserve.  Only black students living in the city are permitted to transfer to schools located in the county, and only non-black students living in the county are permitted to transfer to schools located in the city. Is it any wonder why confusion abounds?

When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, court-ordered busing in 1980 led many middle-class, white parents to pull their children out of the district and enroll them in private and religious schools.  I can't possibly speak for all of them, but at the meetings I attended the No. 1 reason was not prejudice.  Instead, parents were deeply concerned about the erosion of academic standards and disruptive behavior.  Slowly, this led to the high school where I taught to be labeled a Title I school, which is indistinguishable from high schools in the inner cities.

I believe that what transpired at my school is not much different from what happened elsewhere. Despite its good intentions, any plan to engineer a stipulated racial balance has unintended consequences for all students. That is particularly the case for minority students.  Parents of all races want the best education for their children.  Denying them choice will ultimately prove counterproductive, no matter which definition is used.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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