‘Separate but equal’ still a bad idea

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.

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Brown v. Board of Education at 60: ‘Separate but equal’ lives on

Comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory used to tweak northern liberal hypocrisy on race with a routine that went something like this: “In the South, they don’t care how close I get, as long as I don’t get too big. In the North, they don’t care how big I get, as long as I don’t get too close.”

It’s an appropriate thought as the nation marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation of schools. We can congratulate ourselves on the fact that minorities have made substantial legal and economic progress. But in our schools, white children and children of color – and rich kids and poor kids – still don’t get too close.

After a few years of progress, schools across America have become more segregated, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford have documented. Schools in the South have re-segregated; but the most flagrant racial separation is in New York.

As Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute has shown, school integration worked for the short time we tried it. But we abandoned the idea for compensatory education: “separate but equal” redux.

Schools that are mostly white, black or Hispanic are the norm in most of America, Lesli A. Maxwell reports in Education Week. It’s rare for a white child to attend a school where more than 25 percent of the students are nonwhite. But Maxwell also notes that schools are segregated by wealth. She quotes Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sylvester James Jr.: “Access to high-quality education is tied just as hard, and just as fast, to poverty and socioeconomics as it was to race.” Continue reading