Despite 50-Year Effort, Schools Become More Segregated

Published March 1, 2002

Half a century of attempting to improve the academic achievement of African-American students and better integrate American society through the desegregation of public schools has proven largely disappointing.

The achievement gap between black and white American students remains wide and glaring. Moreover, according to an August 2001 Census Bureau Report, the black population in the U.S. remains highly concentrated geographically.

Supporters of school choice contend relatively new and non-compulsory reforms, such as charter schools and publicly financed voucher programs for low-income students, are already proving better able to serve minority students and create more integrated schools. Others believe the goals of desegregation should still be pursued, and can be attained, through the traditional K-12 public education system.

And one small group of education policymakers is shifting to an altogether new tack: to desegregate schools on the basis of income, not race.

Achievement Gap

While the debate over the value of forcing school desegregation continues, the lingering achievement gap between black and white youngsters is indisputable.

Almost 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregating schools, research reveals today’s African-American high school seniors perform at the academic equivalent of white eighth-grade students. Black students are more likely than white students to be labeled “learning disabled,” and less likely to graduate from high school than their white peers (54 versus 78 percent nationally).

The high hopes for desegregation policies to improve black students’ educational success were mitigated over the last few decades partly due to a “white flight” that left some cities’ schools with a diminishing tax base and higher concentration of minority families. Additionally, white families who remained in cities may have been given a free pass from local school officials responsible for integrating city schools, who placed the primary responsibility of integrating schools on black children and their families.

Busing Burdened Blacks

Such was the case in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, according to Dr. Howard Fuller, founder of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning and the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Fuller’s 1985 research showed the Milwaukee Public Schools system (MPS) deliberately limited the number of white students bused involuntarily and placed the greatest burden of busing on African-American students. His findings were explicitly confirmed in 1999, when the officials who designed Milwaukee’s school busing plan in the early 1970s publicly admitted the plan had been set up for “white benefit” at the expense of black children.

The then-superintendent of MPS confessed it had been “an issue of how do we least disrupt the white community.” By 2000, the issue of Milwaukee’s desegregation was “largely moot because of the scarcity of white students [enrolled in MPS],” according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Segregation Has Increased

A July 2001 report by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project revealed school segregation continued to intensify nationwide during the 1990s.

According to Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, some 70 percent of U.S. black students now attend schools where the minority enrollment is over 50 percent, and more than one-third of black students attend a school where the minority enrollment is between 90 and 100 percent. White students on average attend schools where more than 80 percent of the enrollment is white and less than 20 percent are from all other racial and ethnic groups combined.

Not surprisingly, those data coincide with recent census data showing black America is still highly concentrated geographically. The broader social goal of desegregation–to create a more integrated society–has proven elusive as well.

According to the Census Bureau’s report, “The Black Population,” while African-Americans constitute about 13 percent of the nation’s total population, 64 percent of all U.S. counties have fewer than 6 percent black residents. In 96 counties, 95 of which are located in the South, blacks comprise 50 percent or more of the population.

The 10 largest cities in the U.S. are home to 20 percent of the total African-American population. Of these, Detroit has the largest proportion of African-Americans (83 percent), followed by Philadelphia (44 percent) and Chicago (38 percent).

Forced Desegregation by Race and Income

To curtail “racial and ethnic polarization and educational inequalities,” the Civil Rights Project recommends policies that include expanding the federal magnet school program, imposing desegregation rules on charter schools, and supporting research, advocacy, and litigation to continue local desegregation plans.

Orfield says “evidence exists that desegregated schools both improve test scores and positively change the lives of students, and that Americans increasingly express support for integrated schools.”

While the debate over the merits of compulsory race-based desegregation of American schools is likely to continue for some time, some school officials have turned their attention to economic desegregation as a way to reduce stubborn achievement gaps.

Cambridge, Massachusetts is the latest district to adopt a plan to systematically place low-income students next to their more affluent peers, hoping the exposure will increase their academic performance.

Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, an outspoken proponent of economic desegregation, believes “all school children in America should have a right to attend a solidly middle-class public ‘common school.’ Not a right to middle-class parents, or a right to live in a middle-class neighborhood, or a right to a middle-class income and lifestyle. But every child in the United States–whether rich or poor, white or black, Latino or Asian–should have access to the good education that is best guaranteed by the presence of a majority middle-class student body.”

Educational Choice Proposed

Others contend the policy focus should be shifted to creating new and better educational opportunities that minority students can voluntarily choose. This, it is argued, will not only reduce the achievement gap but render more integrated schools as well.

The proponents of choice also note today’s parents are more concerned with academic achievement than whether their child’s school is integrated.

A 1998 Public Agenda survey, “Time to Move On: African-American and White Parents Set an Agenda for Public Schools,” revealed that about three-fourths of both black and white parents believe that “too often, the schools work so hard to achieve integration that they end up neglecting their most important goal: teaching kids.” (See “Parents Prefer Academics Over School Integration,” School Reform News, November 1998.)

Kaleem Caire, president and CEO of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, is one such parent.

“We have spent far too many years limiting our social engineering practices within our schools to sitting children next to each other in a classroom and calling that integration,” explains Caire, “What we should be doing is making sure that each child sitting in our classrooms has access to the very best educational opportunities we can provide for him or her both within and outside the schools.”

Latino View: Serve Student Needs

Similar thoughts have been voiced by leaders of the Latino community, which is adding its own chapter to the school integration debate in America.

A relatively small population during the height of the federal school desegregation effort, the Latino student population has increased by 245 percent since 1968. Anthony Colón, vice president of education programs for the National Council of La Raza, observes Latino students also are lagging well behind white students academically, and dropping out of school at alarming rates.

Colón believes charter schools hold strong promise for providing Latino children with educational opportunities that will begin to turn this around. He is more concerned the schools serve student needs than with the diversity of their population.

“I don’t think that having children from the same ethnic group is harmful, unless it’s a forced kind of thing, and this certainly isn’t forced,” he says. The National Council of La Raza recently announced it had raised $10 million to help launch some 50 new charter schools to be aimed at Latino students.

Kelly Amis, former program director for The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, is now president of Education Allies, a new nonprofit organization that provides research and advisory services to education donors. Her email address is [email protected].