By Julianne Hing, Colorlines
Today marks the 57th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the
landmark Supreme Court decision that declared racial segregation in U.S.
public schools unconstitutional. Also today, American schools are more
segregated than they were four decades ago.
If eradicating racial segregation in education was the original civil
rights battle, it continues to be the most enduring one. A court
decision that called "separate but equal" schools unlawful led to a
couple hopeful decades of racial integration. But today most U.S. kids
go to schools that are both racially and socioeconomically homogenous.
Around 40 percent of black and Latino students in the U.S. are in
schools than are over 90 percent black and Latino, according to a 2009
study by UCLA's Civil Rights Project. The schools that black and Latino
kids are concentrated in are very often high-poverty schools, too. The
average black student goes to a school where 59 percent of their
classmates live in poverty, while the average Latino student goes to a
school that's 57 percent poor.
And it's not just blacks and Latinos who are racially isolated. White
students go to schools that are 77 percent white, and 32 percent poor.
The Obama administration, which is leading an aggressive school
reform agenda, knows what's going on. In a major speech calling for the
overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2009,
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged in understated terms the
re-segregation of U.S. schools, as well as the fatigue with everything
that's been attempted to address it.
"Most minorities were still isolated in their own classrooms," Duncan
said of students growing up in the civil rights era, adding, "Many
still are today, and we must work together to change that."
"We've had five decades of reforms, countless studies, watershed
reports like 'A Nation at Risk,' and repeated affirmations and
commitments from the body politic to finally make education a national
priority," Duncan said. "And yet we are still waiting for the day when
every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or
her for the future."
But the Obama administration has been otherwise silent on
re-segregation in schools, even as its reform policies have targeted
poor communities of color where the lowest-performing schools are
located. Twenty-first century racial homogeneity in U.S. schools is a
product of decades of regressive court decisions as well as residential
"There are no significant state or federal programs and little
private philanthropy addressing policy to either produce better
integrated schools with more racial and economic diversity or to train
teachers and students about ways to more effectively run impoverished
multiracial schools," wrote the UCLA study's author Gary Orfield.
Part of it comes from collective fatigue. The initial, post-Brown
push for integrated classrooms gave way over the years to wars over
busing and several Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s that forced
schools to drop race as a consideration for dealing with school
assignments. The Court's 2007 decision limiting Seattle and Louisville
school districts from implementing desegregation policies completed its
long slide away from Brown v. Board. Meanwhile, education advocates
shifted their calls from demands for integration to calls for equity.
Alongside that shift, a numbers and testing obsession was taking hold,
catalyzed by the 1983 "A Nation at Risk" report Duncan named. That
obsession now dominates education reform.
Integrating schools is still a worthwhile goal. Researchers have
found that desegregation, while always thorny politically, is one of the
most direct methods for raising the education achievement of students
of color, especially those that are poor. Columbia University
researchers found that when they controlled for other outside
socioeconomic factors, students in schools where black and Latino kids
were isolated from kids of other races had fewer math and literacy
skills -- that their educational development was in effect limited by the
racial composition of their schools.
And researchers at the University of Connecticut evaluated new
strategies like those popularized by North Carolina's Wake County school
district. There, students in wealthier neighborhoods can attend magnet
schools in poorer neighborhoods, while students in poorer neighborhoods
attend schools in wealthier neighborhoods. Student achievement improved
in the system. As an added bonus, researchers also found that allowing
kids of different backgrounds to hang out with each other improved
students' racial attitudes about each other.
Still, courts and tea partier-dominated school boards have continually hampered integration efforts.
Today, the major thrusts of education reform, echoed and pushed in
Obama administration policy, are teacher accountability through testing
and charter-school expansion. In this iteration of the school reform
saga, race is everywhere -- acknowledging the existence of the achievement
gap is an uncontroversial statement these days. But actually naming, and
addressing, the roots of educational inequities is passé.
As the Economic Policy Institute's Richard Rothstein told me when I was researching the impacts of the recession on education in communities of color, "Everybody acknowledges differences in achievement but nobody wants to address the inequalities that produce them."
Indeed, the discourse today is schizophrenic in many ways. Teachers,
for instance, are singled out as both the ultimate solutions to and the
biggest culprits for our nation's education woes. Duncan and his
colleagues, the celebrity school reformers like Michelle Rhee and Joel
Klein, and the big-city mayors who've backed their reforms often laud
and eviscerate teachers in the same breath.
The Obama administration has made adopting punitive teacher
accountability policies that evaluate teachers based on their students'
test scores a requirement for states that want some federal education
money. Through Race to the Top, Obama's marquee education reform
project, states have been asked to adopt merit-pay schemes that also tie
teachers' jobs to their students' performance on standardized tests.
States have also been asked to lift caps on charter schools and
designate failing schools for takeover by, among other entities, outside
States are not, however, rewarded for adopting the integration
policies that education researchers have found to create such change.
"What's missing from the debate is a recognition that teachers and
schools alone are not the most important influence on a child's
achievement," said Rothstein.
A coalition of race-conscious reformers are promoting a plan they've dubbed the Bolder, Broader Approach to Education,
which pushes for a racially explicit and holistic approach to
addressing education inequity. There's noticeably no mention of teacher
accountability schemes in the three-point version of that plan. It
instead calls for high quality early education for all kids, starting
from birth and going all the way up through pre-kindergarten. It also
calls for high-quality and consistent after school and summer programs
for kids, and routine and preventative health care for kids.
"Low-income children have 30 percent more absences than middle-class
kids just due to health alone," Rothstein said. The idea is to mimic the
supports that middle-class kids have regular access to. "Unless we do
something there's still going to be something that's much more important
influencing kids' education than the quality of their teachers."
It's not simply a matter of misplaced priorities. Where educational
inequities are concerned, the diagnosis has always been easier than
deciding on the course of treatment. Nearly 60 years after Brown v.
Board of Education, we've yet to resolve the fundamental question of how
to deliver high quality public education to kids of all races.
And after decades of wrangling over possible fixes, the de facto
re-segregation of American schools is something that the education
reform movement, including the Obama administration, have all but given
up on addressing. If integrating public schools was once the answer to
bringing equity to the classroom, these days, most people are too
fatigued and frustrated to even try.
But now more than ever, mustering the energy to address, head-on, the
roots of educational inequities is an issue of utmost urgency. Students
of color are 44 percent, and growing, of the U.S. public school system.
Racial segregation is a legacy we've yet to shake off, nowhere more
than in American public schools, where students of color are educated in
schools that are today both separate and unequal.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration)