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.