School Segregation in America 65 Years after “Brown v. Board of Education”

Today, May 17, 2019 is the 65th birthday of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Marking the anniversary is the publication of a new report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA on the state of racial integration in the public schools. Rucker C. Johnson at the University of California at Berkley has also published a new book: Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works.

Johnson, an economist, examined massive data sets as the basis of his unequivocal support for racially integrated schools: “What follows is not an impassioned argument about diversity and integration…. Instead, this book uses data to show the power of integration and related efforts. Contrary to popular wisdom, integration has benefited—and continues to benefit—African Americans, whether that benefit is translated into educational attainment, earnings, social stability, or incarceration rates. Whites, meanwhile, lose nothing from opening their classrooms to others. And overall, society benefits from a decrease in the kind of prejudice that, in the past several years, has threatened to tear us apart.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarizes concisely an update on our nation’s changing demographics in the Civil Rights Project’s report: “Public school enrollment stands at nearly 50 million. White students are less than half of the student population: 48.4 percent in 2016. Latinos are 26.3 percent of the student population; blacks 15.2 percent; Asians, 5.5 percent; multiracial, 3.6 percent; and American Indians, 1 percent.  Despite the increase in diversity, segregation has intensified and expanded. Over the last three decades, black students have been increasingly segregated in intensely segregated schools (which are defined as being 90 to 100 percent nonwhite). By 2016, 40 percent of all black students were in schools with 90 percent or more students of color. New York, California, Illinois, and Maryland are the four states in which a majority of black students attend intensely segregated schools. New York remains the most segregated state for African American students, with 65 percent of African American students in intensely segregated schools. California is the most segregated for Latinos, with 58 percent of those students attending intensely segregated schools… White students continue to attend schools in which nearly seven out of 10 are also white, a much higher percentage than their overall share of the enrollment.”

In the report itself, the Civil Rights Project highlights an important overall change in the population of our nation’s public schools during the 65 years since the Brown decision: “When the nation last focused seriously on racial segregation of our schools, we were a country largely white with about an eighth black students and were at a historic low point in immigration. As we have become a country without a majority population, an absolutely central question for our future is how well are we managing our diversity?… The driving force of our social change since 1970 has been an enormous increase in the Latino population… We have few tools for bringing people together across racial and ethnic lines—basically the laws and court decisions of the civil rights era—but some of those have been reversed and others are under attack. These policies were designed for what was basically a two-race society with a substantial white middle class majority, and did not take into account what have become very large Latino populations and rapidly growing Asian numbers.  We now have a four-race society and a much higher share of families who are poor enough to be eligible for free school lunches.”

The Civil Rights Project’s report adds: “Researchers in several disciplines, including massive analysis by economists, are showing us the cost of double segregation by race and poverty, which is now the typical experience of African American and Latino students.”

Neither Johnson’s book nor the UCLA Civil Rights Project’s report envisions a clear or easy path to addressing school segregation. Both make suggestions. Nobody wants to go back to forced busing, which produced an intense backlash, resulted in the massive elimination across the South of black teachers, and placed the biggest burden for integration on the vulnerable African American children who did the most traveling to sometimes unfriendly places. Johnson describes what happened: “School busing failed in the 1970s because it brought children across the border without confronting the existence of that border in a way that was honest, explicit, and in the end, conciliatory.” (Children of the Dream, p. 256)

Johnson describes positive strategies used in some of the school districts that were integrated back in the 1970s. For example, in Jefferson County, Kentucky—metropolitan Louisville—the countywide plan heavily enriched the very poorest neighborhood schools and turned them into magnets. The Civil Rights Project also attributes success to district-wide as well as interdistrict public magnet schools with enrollment plans designed to promote integration: “Schools of choice have played a greatly increased role in public education. There was a huge growth of intentionally integrated magnet schools in the 1970s.”

The UCLA report continues: “Since the early 1980s, few federal funds were available to support voluntary integration and even those voluntary local efforts were undermined by the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2007 Parents Involved case.” Johnson describes the impact of this decision written by Justice John Roberts, a decision which declared: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  Johnson explains: “It is not hyperbole to say that Parents Involved is the greatest legal barrier to integration in the modern era. The decision rendered all race-based admissions policies the same, equating racism (segregation) with attempts to end racism (integration).” (Children of the Dream, p. 188)

Unlike the magnet programs designed to promote racial integration, charter schools have promoted racial and economic segregation. The location of these privately managed and publicly funded schools is too often chosen by the sponsor without any control by the school district. Neither does the public school district control charter school enrollment policies, transportation policies, curriculum or discipline policies—all of which can affect the eventual choices parents make. The Civil Rights Project bluntly describes the resulting enrollment patterns: “Since 1990, most of the desegregation requirements in choice plans have been dropped, and there has been a vast expansion of charter schools, which are schools of choice. Typically they have no integration policies and are even more segregated than regular public schools….” “School choice plans without equity policies and strategies often end up with the best-educated and connected families getting the best choices, actually increasing inequality. All school choice programs need voluntary goals, policies, and practices that foster diversity and integration… Particularly in larger districts or inter-district choice, the provision of transportation is essential for choice to be a reality for many families, not just available to those who can transport their child to their desired school.”

Neither Rucker Johnson nor the authors of the Civil Rights Project report believe that public schools by themselves can equalize opportunity for children or serve as the sole institution expected to integrate our society. Johnson stresses the need for accompanying school funding reform to reduce tragic opportunity gaps among public schools, where today the poorest children attend the least resourced public schools.  Based on his previous research he is also an emphatic supporter of Head Start and universal pre-Kindergarten programs like the one recently introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City.  He also advocates for wraparound health and social service to support the poorest families and thereby support their children.

Johnson emphasizes the inherent connection of segregated schools to segregated housing policy: “As we’ve seen, housing segregation did not happen by accident; nor did it only happen in those parts of the country where racism was openly celebrated.  Instead, housing segregation was a strategic means to ensure segregation in every other part of American civic life. It was rooted in the devastatingly prescient insight that if people did not live together, and raise their children together, they would have little incentive to cross the color line in any other aspect of life, whether in the schoolhouse or the workplace.. .Any solution that attempts to address schooling without addressing housing is bound to fail.” (Children of the Dream, pp. 256-257) The Civil Rights Project’s report concludes: “Implementing the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, and partnering housing and school integration efforts are essential.”

As we mark the anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, I want to add my own concern about state policies driving school segregation today in Ohio and other states. Neither Johnson’s book nor the Civil Rights Project’s report describes the racial and economic injustice being driven today by No Child Left Behind-style, test-and-punish school accountability.  For over 60 years, research has documented that neighborhood and family poverty correlates with low school achievement as measured by scores on standardized tests. Today, Ohio and many other states rank their schools and school districts; based on schools’ aggregate test scores the states award letter grades—“A” through “F.” In the public mind, the state’s school rankings merely brand the poorest school districts. These policies encourage families not to seek a diverse,  mixed income community but instead to find the wealthiest school district the family can afford. After all, the districts earning “A” grades are all homogeneous wealthy outer suburbs while the districts with “F” grades are urban or inner-ring suburban school districts. Currently, my state also seizes those “F” school districts, declares them as places in academic emergency, and takes them over. My state and many others redline particular communities by branding their schools as “failing.” It is an appalling practice which blatantly drives racial and economic segregation.

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School Segregation Persists Across the States: Public Schools and Charter Schools, North and South

It is hard for me to write about school integration. As white parents, my husband and I made the choice to educate our own children in a racially integrated, majority African American public school district, and we believe the setting where they went to school was a valuable and essential part of their education. But I know that for personal reasons, many white and African American parents make a different decision, and it’s been clear to me for a long time that our decision was, quite simply, our own decision.

It is a little easier to think about racial and economic integration of schools from a public policy point of view. Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist, has been showing for years now (here and here) that our society is resegregating economically, and that that segregation is hurting the educational opportunities of students who are increasingly concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. Much of the educational inequality that accompanies racial and economic segregation directly results from the unequal funding associated with wealth and power. Racial and economic segregation are wound together in most places, and when local, state, and federal funding are combined, our society spends far more on the education of our nation’s highest-income children. The money buys smaller classes, more counselors, more music programs, and an enriched curriculum.

In their new report on the privatization of public schools, the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Network for Public Education present a profound endorsement of racially, ethnically and economically integrated public education: “The required inclusivity of the public school setting provides more opportunity for students to learn in culturally, racially, and socioeconomically integrated classrooms and schools, and that promotes a variety of social-emotional and civic benefits for students.  At a time when there seems to be more emphasis on community divisions in our social and political settings, attending a public school can provide students with more opportunities to encourage relationships and friendships across group lines, thus eliminating false barriers of separation. And yet our nation has embarked on a troubling course that steers us toward school privatization, exclusivity and division.”

The contribution of school privatization to the racial segregation of children at school is the subject of Emmanuel Felton’s profound report for the Hechinger Report and NBC News. Felton describes the mostly white Lake Oconee Academy charter school in Greene County, Georgia: “At Lake Oconee Academy, 73 percent of students are white. Down the road at Greene Country’s other public schools, 12 percent of students are white and 68 percent are black…. In all, there are at least 747 public charter schools around the country that enroll a higher percentage of white students than any of the traditional public schools in the school districts where they are located.  The differences between the charters and the whitest nearby public schools ranged from less than 1 percent to 78 percent.”

So, how did Lake Oconee Academy charter school make itself into a publicly funded segregation academy? “In its early years, Lake Oconee Academy created a priority attendance zone for the gated communities that surround it. This is legal in several states, allowing charters to pick the neighborhoods they want to serve. While these schools usually hold randomized admissions lotteries open to everyone in their school districts, families in preferred attendance zones get first dibs… The case of Lake Oconee Academy doesn’t just illustrate how charter schools can segregate a community, it also underscores how charters can give well-connected individuals outsize influence on local schools. The charter was the creation of a real estate development company that is also the county’s largest employer, Reynolds Lake Oconee. Company officials and their allies sit on many of the county’s most important boards.”  While the school does set aside some places for children who don’t live in its economically exclusive attendance zone, at Lake Oconee, there are other disincentives for families without resources to invest in their children. The school requires uniforms purchased from Land’s End.  And it does not offer any kind of transportation to school; parents have to drive their children—a burden for parents whose work schedules make it difficult to provide school transportation.

Felton concludes: “The proliferation of racially identifiable white charters in some states but not others can be attributed in part to differences in state laws. In addition to allowing charters to draw their own attendance zones, Georgia doesn’t require charter schools to provide school bus transportation. The four states with the most racially identifiable white charters—Michigan, Arizona, Texas and California—also don’t require charters to offer transportation or to address the issue in their charter applications. And in North Carolina, which had six such charter schools in 2015, lawmakers have discussed allowing charters to give priority to children whose parents work at corporations that have contributed at least $50,000 to the school.  In June, lawmakers passed a bill that lets four mostly white and affluent Charlotte suburbs open up charter schools that would give preference to their residents.”

School segregation is not by any means limited to charter schools. Nor is segregation limited to the South or to Republican all-Red states like Michigan and Arizona. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a report identifying New York as the state with the most racially segregated schools in the United States: “New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.”

The news has been filled this month with stories about racial segregation in New York’s exclusive specialized high schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio has now pledged to address the problem, but even in New York, doing something about racial segregation is a tough problem. The New York Times addressed the shortage of black and Latino students in New York City’s elite high schools in an editorial on Monday: “Opposition has been swift and fierce, much of it from alumni of the specialized schools, who have said the mayor’s plan would somehow lower the quality of education or ‘set kids up for failure.’ The very intensity of the response underscores how formative an experience it is to attend a specialized high school—an experience that for years has been unfairly denied so many black and Latino New Yorkers.”

Here are the stunning and deplorable statistics: “Black and Latino students make up nearly two-thirds of the city’s 1.1 million school children. Yet, of the 5,067 offers of admission to specialized schools this year, 51.7 percent went to Asian students and 26.5 percent to white students.  Latino and black students received 6.3 and 4.1 percent of the offers respectively. At Stuyvesant, the most sought-after of the schools, just 10 of the 902 students offered admission were black.”  The Times Editorial Board continues: “New York’s elementary and middle schools do not prepare children for the test, all but ensuring that students seek out extensive test preparation.  Many Asian and white students have done so for thousands of dollars apiece. Black and Latino students are likely to walk in with little or no test preparation.”

In 1971, the state legislature established in a state law known as Hecht-Calandra that students would be chosen for New York City’s specialized high schools based on scores on a single test, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Even now as Mayor de Blasio has proposed expanding the admissions criteria: “Perhaps the biggest challenge to the mayor’s full plan is political, since it will require overturning Hecht-Calandra. That would take forceful lobbying from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has so far signaled only lukewarm support.”

Mayor de Blasio has suggested a plan clearly based on academic merit. It is hard to believe his idea would be controversial: “Mayor de Blasio has vowed to replace the test with a system, to be phased in over three years, that would eventually admit the top 7 percent of students from every middle school, based on a combination of grades and performance on state exams. City officials say that if the plan is implemented, the specialized high schools would be about 45 percent black and Latino.”

Dante de Blasio, the mayor’s biracial son and a graduate of one of New York’s specialized high schools, Brooklyn Tech, just had an opinion piece published in the New York Daily News on the subject of racial segregation in New York’s elite high schools. Now a rising senior at Yale University, Dante de Blasio writes about his experience as a black student in a school where he was in the minority: “When I went to Tech, it was clear that people were missing. Fort Greene, the neighborhood that houses the school, is majority black and Latino, and I remember the constant discontinuity of walking through this neighborhood of black faces in order to enter a school where hardly anyone looked like me… Let me tell you what I appreciated most about Brooklyn Tech. The school takes people from all across the city—many of them from immigrant backgrounds and who will be the first in their families to go to college—and offers them a quality of education that many public schools can’t. But the way these schools choose students is offering them another education: a distorted lesson in who belongs in the upper reaches of education in this nation, and who does not.”

New Jersey Civil Rights Attorney Says School Reform Must Consider Real Issues: Segregation and Poverty

On this day as we reflect upon the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, an article by New Jersey civil rights attorney Paul Tractenberg is a sobering reminder that in public education we have a long, long way to go.  Tractenberg describes what he calls the two school systems of New Jersey:

“One, the predominantly white, well-to-do and suburban system, performs at relatively high levels, graduating and sending on to higher education most of its students.  The other, the overwhelmingly black, Latino, and poor urban system, struggles to achieve basic literacy and numeracy for its students, to close pernicious achievement gaps, and to graduate a representative share of its students.  These differences have been mitigated to a degree by Abbott v. Burke‘s enormous infusion of state dollars into the poor urban districts, and some poor urban districts like Union City have been able to effect dramatic improvements.  But neither Abbott nor any other state action has done anything to change the underlying demographics.”

Tractenberg describes a new report he co-authored, released jointly by Rutgers University’s Institute on Education Law and Policy and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, that focuses on apartheid schools “with 1 percent or fewer white students” and intensely segregated schools with “10 percent or fewer white students.” According to the report, “almost half of all black students and more than 40 percent of all Latino students in New Jersey attend schools that are overwhelmingly segregated” —falling into one of these two categories. “Compounding the problem is that the schools those students attend are doubly segregated because a majority, often an overwhelming majority, of the students are low-income.”

Tractenberg depicts the school reform strategy of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf as a radical agenda that ignores segregation and poverty: long-term state takeover of school districts; closure of so-called “failing” schools; privatization; attacks on teachers unions; evaluation of teachers based on students’ test scores; and promotion of vouchers. (Newark’s schools have been under state control since 1995.  Just this past week, Newark’s state-appointed overseer superintendent, Cami Anderson, fired four principals for speaking up at a public meeting to oppose her plan to close a third of Newark’s public schools.)

Tractenberg concludes: “‘evidence’ regarding the Christie/Cerf agenda shows that: long-term state operation of large urban districts is an unmitigated disaster; private-for-profit operation of public schools, public funding of private, mostly parochial schools, and most public charter schools have produced little or no substantial and sustained improvements in student achievement; replacing existing public schools with experimental “turnaround’ schools is no assurance of substantial and enduring improvement; and school vouchers have been overwhelmingly rejected by the public every time they have been put to a referendum.”

Tractenberg suggests that his own ideas —merging smaller school districts, creating county-wide school districts, creating a magnet school program modeled on Connecticut’s—are no more radical than the Christie/Cerf agenda.  He would acknowledge, however, that developing the political will for policies that will challenge power, privilege and attitudes about race and class is going to be as difficult today as it was when Dr. King tried to undertake a campaign against poverty toward the end of his life.  Tractenberg suggests we need an informed and thoroughgoing public discussion about racism and poverty and school segregation, a conversation that almost nobody is having these days in America.