The Supreme Court got it right 61 years ago when it ruled that “separate but equal” schools weren’t feasible, education and civil-rights scholar Gary Orfield told an Indiana University audience last week.
“We don’t have a set of institutions that are separate but equal in our society,” he said. “We’ve never had separate but equal.”
But policymakers have spent the past 35 years ignoring that simple truth, he said. America largely abandoned its successful but brief attempt to desegregate public schools and turned instead to assuming that all schools should be effective and calling out those that aren’t.
“In the ‘80s, we had this decision that you could ignore race, you could ignore class and you could create equal schools by command – test and accountability and it will work,” he said. “But it ends up that all the schools we sanction are schools that have concentrations of poor and minority students.”
Orfield was the keynote speaker at IU’s Martha McCarthy Education Law and Policy Institute. He is a professor at UCLA and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, which over 20 years has produced hundreds of studies related to issues of educational equity.
Another thing that hasn’t worked, Orfield said: Relying solely on school choice to improve education. “Freedom of choice” was the approach Southern states adopted after Brown v. Board of Education. But schools remained profoundly segregated until federal authorities demanded change in the 1960s.
“We learned something about choice in the decade after Brown, which is that it doesn’t work – at least it doesn’t work unless we do a lot more things than say you have choice,” he said.
Aggressive federal action and supportive court decisions starting in the 1960s produced striking gains in school integration. But eventually a backlash set in, and the federal government stopped supporting civil rights protections in education. Schools across the country, and especially in the South, reached a peak of racial integration in the 1970s and ‘80s. Since then, schools in most states and regions have become more segregated.
The Supreme Court, which had unanimously supported school desegregation efforts until 1971, shifted to the right and began applying a “colorblind” view of the Constitution to a racially polarized society. In the 2007 Parents Involved decision – “the worst decision in the modern history of school desegregation,” Orfield said – it ruled that voluntary desegregation plans in Louisville and Seattle were illegal because race was a factor in where parents could send kids to school.
Orfield titled his talk “Integration Strategies in a Difficult Time.” And while much of the country has given up on desegregation, some communities and regions found strategies that work. One is Louisville, which after Parents Involved developed a new system that uses factors other than race to ensure diverse schools. Another is Connecticut, which, forced by a state court decision, has used magnet schools and voluntary transfers – “controlled choice” – to better integrate its urban schools.
But those stories are exceptions. “Schools are not just segregated by race,” Orfield said. “They’re segregated by poverty and race together.”
Listening to his talk brought to mind the way schools in my city are deeply segregated, not so much by race but by poverty. Like opponents of racial integration since 1954, we use the “neighborhood schools” slogan to justify isolating poor students.
Does segregation matter to students? Orfield says it does.
“We know now, because we’ve had over a half century of research, there are benefits of integrated education,” he said. “They include educational achievement, they include a higher probability of graduating from high school, they include a higher probability of going to college and completing college, they include getting different kinds of jobs and having different experiences as adults.”