Commentary

Cross-District Integration Needed

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The increasing isolation of poor minority children is a social time-bomb that is not going to be defused by our current approaches to desegregation. The time has come to reconsider a metropolitan approach to school integration.

Although this strategy for the most part disappeared from public debate in the wake,42lof the 1974 Supreme Court decision prohibiting mandatory cross-district busing plans, the ruling does not prevent districts from experimenting with voluntary plans. School districts in the Milwaukee and St. Louis metropolitan areas, for example, are now conducting such experiments.

If desegregation is viewed not as a panacea for all educational problems but as a precondition for effective schooling, such voluntary plans may hold hope for ending the isolation and improving the educational and career opportunities of poor black and Hispanic children.

Increasing numbers of minority children are growing up with virtually no exposure to mainstream America. Some 63 percent of black students attend predominantly minority schools--a figure virtually unchanged since 1972. The number of Hispanic students attending predominantly minority schools has risen from 56.6 percent in 1972 to 70.6 percent in 1984.

As middle-class families move to the suburbs or choose private schools, the isolation becomes one of class as well as race and ethnicity. And in recent years, more and more urban middle-class minority families have opted for private education. Not only are poor minority children unlikely to go to school with white children, they are increasingly unlikely to meet black and Hispanic children from middle-class families.

Such socioeconomic isolation may be far more debilitating than racial isolation. With few role models of academic success, many children from poor families fail to realize their potential. Confronted by a high concentration of children from such families, teachers become discouraged and frequently revert to caretaker roles. Teachers blame families, parents blame teachers, and the vicious cycle becomes very difficult to break.

In order to compete in a pluralistic, technologically advanced society, minority children must receive an education that will allow them not only to retain their sense of cultural identity but also to develop the repertory of academic and social skills necessary for success in the wider world.

White children, too, need to learn how to adapt to a world that is becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. Although we rarely hear expressions of concern for the racial or class isolation of affluent suburban children, surely it cannot be good for such chil6dren to grow up surrounded only by children from similar families, viewing poor minority children--and poor white children--as a breed apart, creatures from an alien world.

Yet early exposure to children from different backgrounds becomes ever more difficult to provide as large urban school districts become increasingly poor and minority. There are simply not enough middle-class students--black or white--to successfully integrate these school systems.

A modestly successful voluntary-desegregation plan in Philadelphia, for example, must contend with the demographic reality that only 24 percent of the children in the system are white, and these are largely concentrated in one part of the city. Consequently, black children must bear a heavy share of the busing burden.

If concern for the children who are effectively isolated from mainstream America does not move us, maybe economic self-interest will. Economic forecasters agree that most job growth in metropolitan areas is occurring in the suburbs, where shopping malls and office complexes are unable to fill openings for sales and clerical personnel. The jobs are in the suburbs; the hard-core unemployed are in the cities. Even if mass transit systems provided inner-city residents with access to these jobs, the jobs require basic literacy and numeracy skills that many do not possess.

The time is ripe for a reconsideration of metropolitan desegregation plans. A voluntary exchange of students from urban andsuburban districts within a given metropolitan area would vastly increase the pool of white children and middle-class minority children, and would offer numerous resources for the improvement of all students' educational opportunities.

Certainly an awareness of the destructive passions "forced busing" programs could unleash had much to do with the re,42ltreat from the idea of cross-district integration that followed the Supreme Court's prohibition of mandatory cross-district busing in its 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision. A voluntary busing plan would not have to deal with such tensions.

Indeed, public opposition to busing is on the decline. According to a 1986 University of Chicago study, the proportion of Americans opposed to busing as a means of integrating the public schools has dropped by 25 percent over the past decade. Even more encouraging is the news that 60 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old group and 51 percent of the 25-to-29-year-old group--a majority of the parents of the next generation of students--approve of this means of promoting racial integration.

The growth of magnet schools, with their array of special programs, has contributed to the increase in support for busing. Sometimes these magnet schools are developed expressly to further desegregation; in other cases, to respond to the growing popularity of parental choice. The lure of the magnet has made the tradition of the neighborhood school somewhat less sacrosanct, the experience of traveling some distance to school much more commonplace.

In addition, as regional economies become more integrated and the notion of regional planning boards receives wider currency, the divisions between city and suburban school districts become increasingly archaic. If it makes less and less sense to think of economic development within the context of the city limits rather than in terms of the regional economy, it also makes less and less sense to think of education in terms of discrete populations locked into separate districts.

Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have introduced bills giving parents the option of enrolling their children in schools outside their districts, and three states have enacted such measures into law: Minnesota, Iowa, and Utah. The greatest need for such measures, however, lies in those states with large metropolitan areas, particularly in the Northeast, the most segregated region in the country according to a recent study prepared for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Enlightened policymakers might clearly see the implications for long-term social harmony and economic growth in a metropolitan approach to school integration. But individual parents quite justifiably make their choices in terms of the best possible educational opportunities for their children. Although there are parents who value exposure to children from a range of backgrounds, they realize diversity in and of itself does not ensure high-quality education.

Middle-class suburban parents will not choose to send their children to inner-city schools simply for the sake of fostering a social ideal. Like the inner-city parents whose children participate in voluntary busing programs, they must perceive a clear educational advantage over and above the educational value of diversity itself.

Frequently the sites of major universities and cultural institutions, large urban areas have certain built-in advantages around which educational programs can be developed. They are particularly well equipped to create a range of innovative magnet schools.

A magnet high-school science program, for instance, might utilize the resources of a university science center. To offer art-history courses, a fine-arts program could draw on the resources of a city's museums as well as university art departments. In cities fortunate enough to have major orchestras, music programs could provide for regular attendance at concerts.

For young children, the most successful strategy employed by voluntary desegregation programs has been to offer all-day kindergarten and high-quality after-school6programs. City schools near the boundaries of suburban districts that offer good preschool and after-school programs might attract children from suburban districts as well as children from other neighborhoods within the city.

Several cities have recently designed voluntary cross-district desegregation plans that would incorporate these kinds of resources. In response to a lawsuit brought by the Milwaukee Public Schools, the city of Milwaukee and 24 neighboring suburbs have reached a voluntary agreement that civil-rights lawyers are calling the most complete settlement ever of a metropolitan-wide desegregation case.

With a high level of state support and special provisions designed to promote housing integration in the suburbs, the plan would more than double the number of spaces allotted to inner-city minority students in the suburban districts. The suburban districts would also undertake new efforts to recruit minority teachers, while the Milwaukee schools would expand the specialty programs that already have proven successful in attracting white suburban students.

Although still awaiting a "fairness" hearing scheduled for this week, the Milwaukee plan offers a model for future voluntary cross-district desegregation arrangements.

St. Louis, too, has recently developed a metropolitan desegregation plan based on the use of magnet schools with specialized offerings to attract suburban students.

Such programs cost money. But there are signs that Americans may be ready to commit more resources to education. The Committee for Economic Development, warning that 30 percent of the students in public schools are in great danger of educational failure and lifelong dependency, has called for substantially increased public investment in the educational needs of disadvantaged children. Furthermore, according to a recent poll, a majority of California voters would prefer to see a $700-million state surplus spent on public education rather than returned to the taxpayers.

Should greater resources become available to education, we must use these funds in ways which will allow us to pursue the goal of ending the isolation of inner-city children at the same time as we strengthen the curriculum and improve student services.

If we do nothing about the isolation of these children, an urgent social problem could very well become an explosive one. Demographers tell us America is in for changes that will dramatically change the composition of our schools and our society. By the year 2000, the demographers project, 38 percent of those under 18 will belong to a racial minority group.

In addition to a changing racial composition, our society has also been experiencing income stratification. Sociologists and economists have made much of the "disappearing middle" and the move toward the so-called "two-tiered economy," consisting of low-paid, frequently part-time or seasonal workers, and a smaller group of affluent two-income families.

The problems of increased income stratification and residential segregation will not be resolved through cross-district school-integration plans. Nor will racial and class integration in the schools automatically lead to a more tolerant, more equitable society.

Yet schools are not irrelevant institutions. Attitudes can change; different perspectives can be learned. Education for citizenship in a multi-racial, democratic society requires some exposure to people from different backgrounds. Surely such exposure should help young people begin to bridge these gaps and perhaps develop the commitment to work to lessen them. For the benefit of all members of our society, we must take a regional approach to desegregation.

Vol. 7, Issue 6, Page 25

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