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January 01, 2014

Separate and Unequal: Recurring Segregation in America's Public Schools

by Brenda Shum

Despite more than four decades of both court-ordered and voluntary efforts to integrate our schools and classrooms, millions of children continue to be educated in schools that are both separate and unequal. Our public students are more racially isolated today than before Brown v. Board of Education. According to a 2012 report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, as of 2010 over 74 percent of black students and almost 80 percent of Latino students attended majority-minority schools. In fact, 15 percent of black students and 14 percent of Latino students attend what many refer to as “apartheid schools,” where white students constitute less than 1 percent of the overall student enrollment. At the same time, white students are increasingly educated in less racially diverse settings. In a rapidly changing world where whites now make up just over half of the country’s overall student enrollment, the typical white student attends overwhelmingly white schools.

More disturbing, many racially isolated schools are also overwhelmingly high-poverty schools challenged to provide their students with the quality education necessary for them to succeed in modern society. Research shows that race remains inextricably linked to both inequities and opportunities, and this is no less true in the school context. Many hyper-segregated schools experience similarly high levels of poverty. Social scientists assert that this “double segregation” of race and poverty has enduring and devastating consequences for the students in such learning environments given the significant role of concentrated poverty on student achievement. Even controlling for other factors, there is a strong relationship between segregation by race and poverty and teacher quality and retention, access to rigorous curriculum, test scores, and dropout rates.

By almost any measure, our low-income and minority students consistently underperform in school, and at almost every grade level. In 2005, Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee concluded that between the fourth and twelfth grades, approximately 21 percent to 26 percent of white students were below proficient in reading, compared to almost half of black and Latino students. More troubling, these disparities tend to increase over time throughout a child’s academic career. Latino students are four times more likely than white students to drop out of school, while black students are twice as likely to drop out than their white peers. Graduation rates for minority students also continue to lag behind those of white students, and have long-term implications for life outcomes. For example, the 2000 Census revealed that high school dropouts made 35 percent less than the national average and only 52 percent of adults without a high school education were employed.

Every student is entitled to a meaningful opportunity to learn. This requires access to all the necessary educational resources, including appropriate facilities and learning materials, highly qualified and effective teachers, exposure to successful peer groups, and access to early childhood education and rigorous curriculum. Today, there is much focus on the achievement gap while the opportunity gap is ignored. According to a recent book edited by Prudence Carter and Kevin Welner, this emphasis often detracts attention from the unsurprising fact that the achievement gap is the inevitable result of systemic disparities in the opportunities available to students of different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds. Thus the value of diverse and integrated learning environments is not achieved simply by ensuring that students of different races and ethnicities are sitting together in the same classroom. (The benefits of integrated education relate to equitable access to a quality education.)

What is to be done? School segregation is multidimensional and complex—but in spite of this, educational opportunity remains linked to race in systemic and self-perpetuating ways. Thus, while poverty and a student’s socioeconomic status matter, race also matters. It is therefore important for our K–12 school systems—as well as our public colleges and universities—to continue to prioritize the benefits of diverse and integrated learning environments. These benefits flow not just to minority students but all students. Racially integrated settings provide students of all races with the opportunity to develop the skills and competencies necessary to adapt to an increasingly multiracial society. Instead of retreating from efforts to pursue the educational benefits of diverse learning environments, our schools must press forward with efforts to promote school desegregation.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the individualized use of race in voluntary student assignment programs in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Public Schools, 551 U.S 701 (2007). In 2012, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights clarified that schools may continue to pursue voluntary integration through narrowly tailored policies that rely on an individualized analysis of diversity and a generalized use of race. This past October, the administration clarified its position on the voluntary use of race following Fisher v. University of Texas by emphasizing that the decision “does not disturb the legal standards set forth in Grutter and Parents Involved” that give school districts flexibility to determine how to achieve diversity and reduce racial isolation in their schools.

A variety of research-based, constitutional tools remain available to voluntarily promote effective school desegregation. These include voluntary school transfers and magnet programs, which many school districts relied on after Parents Involved. But what role does diversity play in a school climate that prioritizes parent choice? The Civil Rights Project found that greater diversity may still be achieved provided that a number of factors support it: (1) good school options must be available; (2) information about educational options must be accessible and accurate; (3) diversity goals and recruitment must be supported; and (4) transportation must be provided so that options are not limited by financial considerations. These options offer great potential to establish and maintain diverse learning environments for our students—and integrated communities in a multiracial society. Until then, the deepening segregation of our public schools will continue to undermine the future success of all children.

Brenda Shum

Brenda Shum is director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which seeks equity in education through impact litigation, public policy advocacy, and community service programs.