Friday, November 03, 2006
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Resources > Civil Rights in Brief > School Desegregation
In an effort to help the community understand current basic concerns about civil rights, we have published the following Civil Rights in Brief which summarize these issues and can help you learn what you can do to protect them.
Resegregation in American Schools
The Supreme Court in 1954 decided in Brown v. Board of Education that legally mandated segregated schools were no longer acceptable. The main finding of the court was that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." This decision was the first step in a long struggle to reverse the exclusion and discrimination towards African Americans. It would take two decades to bring down the walls of separation and move towards true integration.
Today the principles of the Brown decision are eroding with increasing economic and racial isolation in schools. More than forty years after Brown, segregation creeps its way back into our schools. Segregation is a term we tend to associate with a time gone by, yet the national trend indicates that we are in many ways moving backwards in time.
The South has always had the highest proportion of black students. This region also had the most rigid system of legal segregation so it was in the South that the most aggressive desegregation plans were implemented following the Brown decision. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and a series of subsequent decisions by the Supreme Court intensified integration efforts in the South, ended the delay of desegregation plans, and authorized busing. The South became the nation’s most integrated region for whites and blacks by 1970 and has been since. This progress was stalled when Reagan-Bush administration policy changes and judicial appointments in the late 1980’s through 1990’s would bring enforcement of desegregation to a pause and challenge implementation of new plans. Integration efforts in the South were stable for decades but the South is now the region of the country resegregating the fastest.
A study entitled "Resegregation in American Schools" by The Civil Rights Project finds that the percent of black students in majority white schools peaked in the early 1980’s and declined to the levels of the 1960’s by the 1996-1997 school year. The judicial policies of the 1990’s set the stage for accelerating erosion of the vision of Brown with increasing segregation in schools. Ironically, this cutting away of the principles of Brown comes at a time when the country’s minority population is growing rapidly. Latinos, who are becoming the largest minority group in the country, are the most severely segregated, most intensely in the Northeast. In the West, where Latinos are a dominant minority group, 77% of Latino children are in predominantly minority schools.
Latinos and blacks are moving into the suburbs in large numbers, but are usually moving into segregated schools. Metropolitan and urban segregation has been enabled by school policies such as the drawing of attendance zones or the construction of schools serving residentially segregated areas. In addition, many northern and Midwestern metropolitan areas have dozens of separate school districts, making it more difficult for desegregation plans to include large areas. Patterns indicate that African Americans and Latinos in metropolitan areas are often in school districts that make desegregation infeasible and segregation an accepted part of community life. Data from 1996-1997 shows that blacks and Latinos living in suburbs of big cities have an average non-white enrollment of between 60% and 64%.
Civil Rights Concerns
Many critics question the need to uphold desegregation. Is it important for a minority child to sit next to a white child? The fact is that students in racially isolated and minority schools are also likely to be segregated by class and income. Racially isolated schools for all groups except whites are usually schools with high concentrations of poverty. Segregated black or Latino schools are 11 times more likely to experience concentrated poverty. Concentrated poverty levels are profoundly related to educational inequalities and lower educational achievement. Schools with high poverty concentrations have lower school test score averages, few advanced courses, fewer teachers with credentials, inferior courses and levels of competition, and send fewer graduates on to college.
The consequences of attending unequal schools are alarming in this period when college admissions standards are rising, mandatory tests are being implemented, remedial courses are being cut, and affirmative action is being eliminated.
Unitary status is the idea that a desegregation plan has effectively ended a segregated school system and has created a "unitary" system under which unequal schooling for minorities and whites has been eliminated. Some courts have tended to grant unitary status even when it is clear that a dual system of education still exists, saying that everything practical has been done. The Supreme Court’s rulings in the 1990’s have in effect restored local control, and reduced implementation of the principles of Brown to the good faith of school districts. However, local school districts have historically not placed desegregation on their list of priorities. Left to voluntarily implement desegregation plans, local districts often opt to spend money on "separate but equal" alternatives. School districts declared "unitary" often choose to return to segregated schools in the name of educational improvement and increased opportunity for minority students. Some courts have gone further, forbidding school districts that are unitary to maintain any explicit desegregation policies.
As many schools move towards resegregation, local officials and leaders offer nostalgic ideals of "neighborhood schools" to better serve and educate minority children. Although there are isolated instances where neighborhood schools and compensatory programs have positive effects for minorities, overwhelmingly the evidence indicates that such schools are low performing. They are the most segregated schools, though not labeled as such, severely limiting the options and opportunities for minority students. Once a district has been declared unitary, the court relinquishes control and the local government assumes responsibility for the condition of schools. It is expected that the local government will see to the equal distribution of opportunity for all students.
Voluntary implementation of desegregation plans is the remaining recourse to maintain racial integration. However, voluntary actions aimed at maintaining integration are being challenged nation wide. For example, the Boston Public Schools were challenged by white parents claiming that the city’s voluntary policies to keep the prestigious Boston Latin magnet school integrated discriminated against their daughter and the plan was forbidden. Likewise, in San Francisco, facing a suit by Chinese Americans who were denied admission to the magnet school Lowell and two elementary schools, the district agreed to phase out its 15 year-old court approved desegregation plan, which said that a school could have no more than 45 percent of any one racial or ethnic group. The district agreed to stop assigning students on the basis of race, but would seek other means of maintaining diversity.
What You Can Do
If your local school is under law suit, get the community involved using the lawsuit as an educational tool. This can be accomplished by writing op-eds, and showing up for press conferences, court dates, and rallies. Community groups can provide attorneys with important information on the day to day realities of the educational system.
Use petitions as an organizing and educational tool on various education issues. Petition drives provide an opportunity to educate people, get them involved, and/or influence their opinions on education issues.
Community groups and educational leaders must play an active role in challenging districts as declaration of unitary status is pursued. Unitary status eliminates many rights of minority students. In cases where it is granted these groups must monitor the resulting actions so that local officials do not make costly irreversible mistakes.
Examine the effects of segregated schools and push for specific definitions of educational equality and good faith compliance by school districts. Advocates must insist that the actual results of new policies be evaluated independently and real provisions of opportunities be made for minorities. In addition, advocates should challenge school officials to provide professional leadership for the effective improvement of schools.
Recognize the critical link between housing segregation and school segregation. Include segregation in the housing market as part of the negotiations on education with community leaders. In addition, involve fair housing groups in the discussions around education.
Suggest that integrated neighborhoods be rewarded, recognizing the positive impact that this has on school desegregation. In addition, advocates for civil rights should be sensitive to the growing problems of suburban segregation and development of unequal schools.
Monitor the media’s coverage; it should focus on what actually happens in segregated schools supported by evidence. As an important information and educational source for the public, it is crucial that the press be forced to look at the actual consequences of policy changes.
Engage the media to amplify the voice of the community and exert pressure on policy makers. Media can be used for a campaign or to bring attention to an event. For example, a community group may send out press releases in order to attract media to attend a rally in opposition to the closing of a school or may attract the attention of a journalist to write a story about a broad issue. Having concrete examples is important in gaining media attention. Media frequently give far more attention to minority opponents of integrated education than to supporters and this should be challenged.
Where to Go for More Information
If you are interested in ordering a bound, hard copy of The Civil Rights Project’s recently released report, "Resegregation in American Schools," please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mention this brochure and we will send you a copy for half price (regular price: $10.00, special rate: $5.00). Or you can get it for free in PDF format under our School Desegregation research section.
You may also download "Resegregation in American Schools" in PDF Format.
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