Are Schools Back to 'Separate But Unequal'?

Jessie Gooding, a 50-plus-year resident of Dayton, Ohio, remembers the hostile early days of court-ordered school desegregation in his hometown.

Back in 1975, tempers flared violently and an Ohio State University professor tapped to draw up Dayton's desegregation plan was shot and killed at his desk. Busing began the next year, anyway, and the long march to eliminate a dual school system unfair to blacks began.

An era came to an end last week when the NAACP agreed to a settlement, paving the way for the Dayton school district to be declared "unitary," releasing it from desegregation orders.

"We have to give the [school] board a chance," Gooding, president of the Dayton NAACP, said.

The NAACP — the civil-rights group that aggressively pursued school desegregation in the 1960s and '70s — doesn't have much of a choice anymore.

Since the early 1990s, courts began making it easier for school districts to comply with desegregation orders. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court showed it would not reverse that trend when it decided not to hear a historic case from Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C. — officially ending the nation's oldest court-ordered busing program.

Indeed, more than four decades after the high court ruled in the landmark case Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. that racially separate schools are inherently unequal, courts are now the leading force in dismantling desegregation programs.

Last week, a federal court in Seattle went one step further, banning a voluntary desegregation program that involved using race as a tie-breaker to decide which students got admitted to popular high schools.

Is racial integration in the schools a relic from a bygone era?

Returning to 'Separate But Unequal'?

Even with the massive desegregation effort during the last few decades, U.S. schools are still very much divided by race.

More than 70 percent of the nation's black students attend predominantly minority schools, according to an analysis of 1998-99 school data by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project. More than one-third of Latino students attend intensely segregated schools. White students attended schools where less than 20 percent of the other students are from all other racial and ethnic groups combined.

With the dismantling of desegregation programs, Harvard education professor Gary Orfield says, schools will only continue to divide by race, putting minority students at risk of separate and unequal educations — just the problem the Brown ruling sought to remedy.

Research consistently shows that segregated schools are usually isolated by both race and poverty, and offer vastly unequal educational opportunities, Orfield said.

"The basic framework pushing the country toward resegregation is set," he said.

Other desegregation experts, though, say dismantling programs such as forced busing is not in itself responsible for racially separate schools.

Segregating By Choice

Christine Rossell, a Boston University professor who has analyzed hundreds of school district desegregation efforts, says the percentage of white students in the average minority student's school — a measure called "interracial exposure" — began declining even before courts started ordering desegregation.

"White flight" accounts for some of the decline, Rossell says, but the relatively quick drop of the white birth rate factors even more heavily.

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