In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, unanimously striking down state-ordered racial segregation in schools as unconstitutional. In the majority opinion, Earl Warren argued, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Therefore, according to Warren, even if the separate facilities were of equal physical quality, segregation still inflicted significant social and psychological harm upon black students, inhibiting their educational development. Activists lauded the decision as a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement, one that would pave the way for complete integration.
Today, over 60 years later, America has failed to achieve the type of integration that the plaintiffs of Brown v. Board envisioned. In 2013, Richard Rothstein, an education analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, declared, “Racial isolation… has become a permanent feature of our landscape.” American schools are more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s, when the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights first began enforcing desegregation orders. Data published by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that during the 1968-1969 school year, approximately 77 percent of black students and 55 percent of Latino students attended public schools that were comprised of over 50 percent racial minorities. In 2009-2010, the percentages shifted to 74 percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students, with over 40 percent of black and Latino students attending schools that were more than 90 percent minority. Meanwhile, the typical white student attends a school where more than three-quarters of his or her peers are also white.
Even within racially diverse schools, racial mixing is not guaranteed. In October 2014, the Department of Education published a press release that lambasted the process of “tracking”—or placing students on separate educational tracks based on ability—as a form of modern day segregation. Higher income students, most of whom are white or Asian, are more likely to get tracked into high-level classrooms, while poor children, many of them black or Latino, are left behind in lower-level classes with more students, less experienced teachers, and less rigorous curricula. Lisa Darling-Hammond, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, notes that even when grades and test scores are comparable, black students are more likely to be assigned to lower-track, nonacademic classes. Furthermore, school districts disproportionately and often improperly categorize minority students as needing special education, further perpetuating racial isolation in schools. African American children are almost three times more likely than white children to be labeled “mentally retarded.”
At the same time, new hope for racial integration has emerged through school assignment plans that emphasize socioeconomic diversity and school choice—ironically, repurposing some of the same mechanisms by which white students avoided integration in the last century. After a series of disappointing Supreme Court cases that restricted policymakers’ options for racial integration, as well as the rise of the school choice movement, school districts are turning to other innovative solutions to facilitate equal educational opportunity.
Revisiting Brown: What Went Wrong?
Concerned with political turmoil, the justices on the Warren Court initially postponed the Brown decision to deliberate how to best desegregate schools. In the end, their decision failed to provide any concrete method for remedying racial segregation in schools.
It was not until Brown II, a follow-up decision by the court, that the justices delegated the responsibility of desegregation to district courts, ordering them to do so “with all deliberate speed.” Martha Minnow, author of In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Educational Landmark, observes, “‘All deliberate speed’ was the compromise offered by a Court preoccupied with white resistance to racial equality.” The phrase’s ambiguity allowed states and local districts to stall desegregation through a combination of avoidance, delay, and resistance. The most notable example occurred in 1963, when Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocked the front door of the Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from entering. Obstruction politics consumed much of the South in a similar fashion, causing serious delays in implementation. In Greensboro, North Carolina, for instance, the school board declared it would abide by Brown, but did not transition toward integration until 1971—17 years later—after numerous demonstrations and lawsuits.
Forced busing of students to assigned schools—authorized by district courts to ensure racial diversity—caused white families to flee to the suburbs or private schools, leaving urban schools with higher concentrations of low-income and minority students. White and minority schoolchildren, originally divided within school districts, became separated across them. After Nixon assumed the presidency and changed the political balance on the Supreme Court, the judiciary gradually retreated from school desegregation suits and curbed the ability of school districts to pursue integration. Two court cases in particular limited school districts’ options: Milliken v. Bradley and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1.
Milliken and Parents Involved: Two Steps Back
Although Brown struck down state-authorized racial segregation, it not address indirect segregation resulting from residential housing patterns and private choices. The 1974 Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley clarified the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation, establishing that school systems were not responsible for desegregation unless segregation was an explicit policy of the school district.
In the case, the Supreme Court prohibited cross-district bussing as a remedy to de facto segregation in racially balkanized neighborhoods. The NAACP had charged the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit with enacting policies to increase racial segregation in schools—including redlining and exclusionary zoning—highlighting the relationship between discriminatory housing practices and educational segregation. While the Court agreed that the city of Detroit had violated the constitutional rights of African American students, the court held that the scope of the remedy should match the scope of the violation. Since they found no inter-district violation, they ruled that suburbs could not be included in plans to rectify urban segregation.
The second Supreme Court case that restricted policymakers’ ability to promote racial integration in schools involved the Seattle School District’s use of a “racial tiebreaker” in school assignment decisions. The District was one of several school districts that pursued voluntary school integration plans to combat racial isolation. It allowed students to apply to any high school in the District, using certain characteristics as deciding factors in admissions if schools became oversubscribed. If a school’s population deviated a certain number of percentage points from the total student population in Seattle, the racial tiebreaker would go into effect.
Parents Involved in Community Schools, a non-profit education group from the area, sued the Seattle School District for its use of the racial tiebreaker. The case went to the Supreme Court in 2007. In a three-way split (4-1-4), the Court struck down Seattle’s school assignment plan, arguing that racial balancing does not constitute a compelling state interest. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts famously declared, “the way to top discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
New Hope for School Integration?
In February, the White House announced that President Obama’s proposed annual budget includes a $120 million “Stronger Together” grant program, which would double federal funds supporting school integration. President Obama’s approach differs from previous federal integration efforts in two aspects. First, it emphasizes integration across socioeconomic strata instead of race. The grant program would reward school districts that voluntarily attempt to break up large concentrations of poverty. Second, it seems to rely on the idea that new integration programs prioritize voluntary choice over compulsion. Instead of forcing students to integrate by redrawing attendance zones, school districts can foster diversity by creating fiscal incentives for students across various socioeconomic strata to mix.
The White House proposal reflects a general shift in focus toward socioeconomic integration. In “A New Wave of School Integration,” Halley Potter, Kimberly Quick, and Elizabeth Davies of the Century Foundation report that 91 district and charter networks across the country use socioeconomic status as a factor in school assignment, over double the amount in 2007. These school districts and charter schools enroll over 4 million students and span 32 states. One notable example is Cambridge Public Schools and its Controlled Choice Policy, which requires that the percentage of students at each school who qualify for the Federal Free & Reduced Lunch Program must be roughly equal to the School District’s averages. Originally pushing a race-based integration policy instead of one based on income, the Cambridge City Council amended the policy in 2001 to focus on socioeconomic status.
Given the historic connection between race and class, socioeconomic integration policies can indirectly produce racial integration, with less restriction. While using racial indicators in school assignments is prohibited due to Parents Involved, using socioeconomic indicators is not, making these plans legally advantageous.
Many school districts attempt to promote income diversity by redrawing school attendance boundaries, but an increasing number of integration programs rely on voluntary choice. These programs can be district-wide, such as the Controlled Choice Plan in Cambridge. Families rank their choices of schools, and then get placed based on a combination of family preference, diversity considerations, and programmatic factors.
Magnet schools with special pedagogical foci incentivize families to apply to schools outside of their neighborhoods. At the same time, families who wish for their children to attend a neighborhood school can reflect that preference. Some individual charter schools and magnet schools directly consider socioeconomic diversity in admissions, and use recruitment strategies to facilitate integrated enrollment.
Over 60 years after the Supreme Court struck down state-authorized racial segregation in schools, America has yet to achieve integration on any meaningful scale. But even as the United States reaches a level of segregation higher than that of the late 1960s, there are signs of promise that we are crafting the tools necessary to fight racial segregation in education.
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