58 Social Scientists Issue Defense of School Desegregation
WASHINGTON--Believing that the U.S. Supreme Court this term could make it easier for school districts to end federal-court oversight in desegregation cases, a group of more than 50 social scientists has rallied behind a statement backing school desegregation as a tool for improving both education and society.
The "social-science statement," expected to be released formally this week, argues that school-desegregation policies adopted "in good faith" have advanced the causes of student achievement, education reform, and racial harmony.
Moreover, the document asserts, the common perception that busing has inspired "white flight" is countered by evidence showing that school desegregation often has resulted in more integrated housing patterns.
The researchers submitted their conclusions to the Court this summer in connection with Freeman v. Pitts (Case No. 89-1290), a DeKalb County, Ga., desegregation case that the Justices are scheduled to hear Oct. 7, the first day of their 1991-92 term. The document was filed with a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of citizens pursuing additional desegregation efforts in the suburban'Atlanta school district.
Orfield Sees 'Intense Concern'
Gary A. Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, spearheaded the scholars' effort to highlight a body of research on the benefits of school desegregation. Among the signers of the statement is the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, whose studies on segregation's harmful effects on black children were cited in the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Mr. Orfield said in an interview that he began to organize researchers behind the document last spring after learning that the Court had accepted the Freeman case. He said there was "intense concern" among the scholars involved that the Court's decision in Freeman would be "based on an incorrect reading of what we know about the experience of integrated schools."
Gary M. Sams, a lawyer for the DeKalb County schools who filed testimony with the Court from social scientists critical of some effects of school desegregation, last week expressed doubt that the Justices would be swayed by the Orfield group's document.
The group's statement, Mr. Sams argued, simply rehashes several old arguments in favor of desegregation and has little relevance to the established facts of the DeKalb case.
"I was very surprised to see all of these individuals sign off on something when I had never heard of 98 percent of them before," Mr. Sams said. "I bet you many of them couldn't find DeKalb on a map."
At Odds With Trends
The social-science statement last week had been signed by 58 researchers, 11 of whom are its authors. It analyzes research conducted in the 37 years since the Brown decision launched desegregation efforts with its finding that racially separate schools were inherently unequal.
The consensus reached by most social scientists, Mr. Orfield said, "is very different from where the courts are going and where the political leadership of this country is going." The researchers' statement, he said, was designed to counter arguments by the DeKalb County school system that changes in housing patterns beyond its control have frustrated attempts at further desegregation. The district, which implemented a court-ordered desegregation plan in 1969, has asked to be declared "unitary"--or free of the vestiges of a racially segregated system--and relieved of court supervision. ('See Education Week, Feb. 27, 1991 .)
The district has offered testimony by David James Armor, an expert on desegregation-related population shifts who is currently a deputy assistant secretary in the Defense Department, and William Arthur Valentine Clark, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, in support of its contention that the DeKalb schools have done what they can to address racial imbalances.
The Orfield group's statement does not discuss the legal criteria for unitary status, but it does outline steps the signers say a district should take to put an effective desegregation plan in place.
Among other qualities, the document says, desegregation programs should cover a large enough geographic area so that no one group feels burdened, should persevere with clear goals to weather initial opposition, and should desegregate as many grades as possible to encourage parental commitment to the process and give children early exposure to other races.
The statement by Mr. Orfield and iris colleagues cites several studies on the effects of desegregation, many conducted by signatories of the document, that they say "could be of use to judicial and political deliberation," but that '%y and large ... have not entered the public debate over the merits of desegregation."
It concludes: "School districts who adopt desegregation in good faith are able to use it as an opportunity to increase the achievement of their students, promote racial harmony in the classroom and the community, experiment with innovative educational reforms, and influence integrated housing patterns."
"On the other hand," the statement notes, "a weak or inadequate plan or local officials opposed to the process of desegregation can resegregate students within the schools, cling to established ways of teaching, speed neighborhood resegregation, foster interracial tensions within a desegregated school, or create racially identifiable schools that lack key advantages of desegregation."
Addressing the issue of housing integration, the document argues that, "far from being helpless in the face of racial change, school districts have considerable power to help shape and maintain housing patterns."
Challenging the notion that busing has caused "white flight," the document points out that many desegregated districts have been demographically stable, while white migration to outlying areas has occurred in many districts without desegregation plans.
On the topic of school reform, the statement asserts that "desegregation is not a barrier to educational change but, to the contrary, often provides the occasion for it." It notes that almost all desegregation orders since 1980 have included educational changes as part of the remedy.
Vol. 11, Issue 02, Pages 22-23Published in Print: September 11, 1991, as 58 Social Scientists Issue Defense of School Desegregation