Time to ‘retire segregation’

Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools in the United States are intensely segregated and are growing more so, according to a new analysis by scholars at UCLA and Penn State.

Supreme Court Building

But the demographics of schools have changed since the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” regardless of resources.

In 1954, the U.S. had a large white majority and a small black minority, and the groups were taught separately in 17 Southern states. Today, whites are fewer than half the students in public schools, there are more Latino than African American students, and schools are more segregated in the North.

In another change, suburbs of the largest metro areas have become more racially diverse as black and Latino families find work and homes outside the cities.

“With a truly multiracial student enrollment, it is essential that we revisit Brown to reconceptualize what it means to desegregate our schools so that students from all racial backgrounds can learn together,” the authors write.

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Hoosiers resisted school desegregation

After a handful of black students were assigned to attend a previously all-white school, about 80 percent of white students boycotted classes for 10 days. “White students and other demonstrators gathered every day to jeer and threaten black students.”

Little Rock Central High School in 1957? New Orleans Frantz Elementary School in 1960? Somewhere else in the South? No, the setting was Emerson High School in Gary, Indiana, and the year was 1947.

1949 school desegregation bill.

1949 Indiana school desegregation bill. (Indiana Historical Society).

The description is from Emma Lou Thornbrough’s book “Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century,” which devotes an entire chapter to the rocky history of school desegregation in the state. Gary school officials had decided to desegregate after racial tensions, including a strike in which white students demanded the removal of black students who attended separate classes at Froebel High School.

Schools in several of Indiana’s largest cities were formally segregated in the 1920s, the heyday of the Klan in the state. While Gary decided on its own to integrate, Indianapolis and Evansville continued to have racially segregated schools despite decades of objections from civil-rights advocates. Other cities, including Bloomington, had segregated elementary schools and integrated high schools.

In 1949, Democrats took control of the governor’s office and the House, and the state legislature passed a law prohibiting racially segregated schools. But school districts were given several years to comply; and in many communities, housing patterns meant most whites and blacks attended different schools.

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Book examines ‘why busing failed’

Suggest desegregation as a strategy for making K-12 education more equitable and you’re sure to encounter this response: “Busing? We tried that and it didn’t work.”

As Arizona State University historian Matt Delmont explains in his recent book “Why Busing Failed,” the truth is a good deal more complicated. But white anti-busing activists managed to hijack the media narrative about desegregation and make it about their demands for neighborhood schools.

'Why Busing Failed' book coverIn the process, African-American students, parents and communities were rendered largely invisible.

“Framing school desegregation as being about ‘busing’ rather than unconstitutional racial discrimination privileged white parents’ fears over legal evidence,” Delmont writes. “Ultimately, ‘busing’ failed to more fully desegregate public schools because school officials, politicians, courts and the news media valued the desires of white parents more than the rights of black students.”

The book’s subtitle is “Race, Media and the National Resistance to School Segregation.” And a lot of Delmont’s research delves into how the news media, especially television, shaped the debate over desegregation around the visual and emotional story of white parents’ opposition.

Anti-busing activists like Louise Day Hicks in Boston, Rosemary Gunning in New York and Irene McCabe in Pontiac, Mich., learned well the lessons of the civil rights movements. They used marches, boycotts and the rhetoric of rights and freedom to dominate news coverage of the issue.

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Busing in Indy: A brief history from an outsider

You have to wonder what the late federal judge S. Hugh Dillin would have thought about last week’s Indianapolis Star/Chalkbeat Indiana story that concluded Indianapolis Public Schools elementary schools are more racially segregated now than 35 years ago.

Chances are he wouldn’t have been surprised. Dillin lived until 2006, long enough to watch white, middle-class families fly the coop after he issued a series of school busing orders. In fact, he noted that white flight was already happening in the early 1970s, apparently spurred by the mere threat of desegregation.

S. Hugh Dillin (Maurer School of Law)

S. Hugh Dillin (Maurer School of Law)

But busing took some unusual twists in Indianapolis – or so it appears to an outsider like me. For one thing, it was one of just three U.S. cities where a busing order encompassed suburban as well as city schools. Also, busing was one-way: black students were bused from IPS to surrounding schools, but white students weren’t bused to IPS.

The Indiana legislature outlawed racial segregation of public schools in 1949, but Indianapolis Public Schools apparently didn’t get the memo. IPS’ Crispus Attucks High School remained all black until 1967. Elementary schools remained racially divided by neighborhood.

The feds sued in 1968 as a result; and three years later, Dillin ruled that IPS had practiced racial discrimination in assigning students and teachers to schools. Busing began, within the district.

All this was happening while Indianapolis was implementing Unigov, the merger of city and county governments. But schools were left out of the merger; Marion County kept its 11 school districts. One could argue this was the city’s original sin, from which its educational climate never recovered.

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‘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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Rothstein: March ‘had it right’

Organizers of the 1963 March on Washington were correct to call for immediate desegregation of the nation’s schools and neighborhoods, Richard Rothstein writes in an Economic Policy Institute report.

The marchers, he says, “did not need to be told what a half century of social science research has confirmed – schools cannot fulfill their potential so long as African Americans are segregated, as (Martin Luther) King put it, into ‘a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.’”

But instead of pushing integration, the federal government in the 1960s backed “compensatory education”: more money for schools serving poor and minority children. Rothstein argues that today’s education reform ideology, focused on test scores, teacher effectiveness and choice, follows a similar track. It promotes a false dream that, if we just get the accountability factors right, we can have schools that are separate but truly equal – or at least equal enough.

The report runs nearly 20 pages and covers a lot of ground. Here are a few highlights:

The March on Washington didn’t integrate the schools, but it did help trigger the well-known study of the nation’s schools by sociologist James S. Coleman, who expected to find that funding discrepancies accounted for the achievement differences between black and white students. In fact, Rothstein writes, the study found that funding didn’t make as much of a difference as expected.

What did make a difference was integration, but only where black children were integrated into majority middle-class schools. In other words, the priorities of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had been correct: To improve black student achievement, the nation must improve socioeconomic conditions for black families, as well as implement integration not only by race but by social class.

But the Johnson and Nixon administrations buried the report’s findings. Courts ordered busing to integrate urban schools, but the approach was eventually abandoned.

Attempts to raise achievement solely by improving ghetto schools continue to date, with disappointing results. It remains the strategy of contemporary reformers, and its continued failure leads, inevitably, to conclusions that public education itself has failed and must be dismantled.

Rothstein points out that black students have made remarkable academic progress, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Black fourth-graders improved their scores by a full standard deviation over a generation: “an improvement rate rarely encountered in any area of human performance.” How did this happen? Rothstein doesn’t claim to know, but he suggests possibilities: higher educational attainment for mothers, smaller family size and improved health care. He says policymakers have been “shockingly incurious” about the trend, and it hasn’t been widely studied.

He says critics of schools are missing the boat by fixating on the black-white achievement gap. The gap is shrinking, but it continues because white students also are making progress. “It is hard to see how improvement for both whites and blacks can be deemed evidence of school failure, but by focusing on the gap rather than real improvement, most policymakers draw such a conclusion,” he writes.

Yet there is one indicator that’s clearly going in the wrong direction.

Isolation of black students, particularly of low-income black students, in predominantly black and low-income schools, is increasing … When low-performing students are concentrated in the same schools, it is more difficult to raise their achievement than when these children are integrated into the middle-class population. … Children learn less from each other if few come from homes where large vocabularies and more complex language are used and where they were often read to when young.

Rothstein’s report appeared last week as part of a series marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and its uncompleted agenda. “By stressing integration as the most important goal of education improvement, the March on Washington had it right,” he concludes. “It is appropriate not only to commemorate this resolve but to renew it.”