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.

Instead of leading to resegregation, Rossell says, years of court-ordered desegregation have trained school districts to maintain some racial balance on their own. "Since the civil rights movement has been successful in changing the hearts and minds of white Americans to the point where they believe racial discrimination is a sin, I think what's happening when they achieve unitary status is the school districts begin to subtly maintain some racial integration," she said.

Critics of court-ordered desegregation programs say that even if schools do resegregate, as long as it is not by the design of the government it is constitutional.

"If people choose to live in areas by real choice, you end up with enclaves of people who identify by race, and that is a choice they have a right to make," said Bill Helfand, a Houston-based lawyer who represented white parents in the historic Charlotte case.

"Kids learn best who learn in their neighborhoods," Helfand added. "When you shuffle kids all around a large district for some educational experiment it is very offensive. It's also unconstitutional if you do it by people's race."

Is Economic Integration Next?

In some expert circles, achieving racial diversity for its own sake is even being questioned as a legitimate academic goal.

A small but growing trend in school districts is to diversify not by race, but by socioeconomic status. Some academic experts say economic factors are more reliable indicators of school performance than race.

"If kids from impoverished backgrounds attend schools with middle class students, their attendance rates tend to go up and they have higher expectations," said Maree Sneed, a Washington, D.C.-based education lawyer and former school administrator. "Middle class students learn 'poor kids are just like us, they also have hopes and dreams.'"

An added bonus for the diversity-minded is that because race and class overlap so closely, mixing students by economic status will also produce at least some racial integration.

Some school districts are looking for ways to integrate through public school choice rather than through methods such as forced busing. For example, some middle-class parents might be more willing to send their children to a school that specializes in smaller class sizes in a tough neighborhood if their child would benefit from a more intimate class setting.

"You have to build in incentives for middle-class parents to buy into integrated schools, otherwise they will either move or send their kids to private schools," said Richard Kahlenberg, an advocate of economic integration and author of All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools Through Public School Choice.

Already, about a dozen districts have signed on to the economic integration model. In Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, officials recently announced that they will begin placing students in schools according to their parents' incomes.

San Francisco schools use a "diversity index" that takes into account such factors as economic status, mother's education level and languages spoken in the home. School systems in Wake County, N.C., Manchester, Conn., and La Crosse, Wisc., are trying similar approaches.

Kahlenberg says more districts are likely to take similar approaches as courts pare down programs based on race.

"A lot of educators realize the value of integration and are looking at alternatives [to race-based programs], which is why we're seeing a move toward economic integration," he said.