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Desegregation Study Spurs Debate Over Equity Remedies

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In the wake of a national study showing that the campaign to desegregate the public schools continues to lose ground, education and civil-rights leaders have called for renewed efforts to improve the education of black and Hispanic children wherever they go to school.

The National School Boards Association's Council of Urban Boards of Education last month issued a report indicating that the segregation of the nation's black students now exceeds 1970 levels. Hispanic students, the report found, are even less likely to be educated in integrated settings.

Some analysts conceded that ending racial isolation no longer appears plausible in school systems that have few remaining white students. They called instead for more resources to be directed to the minority students left in such settings.

"We have to concentrate on the quality of education wherever students may find themselves, be that in an integrated setting or a racially isolated one,'' said Beverly P. Cole, the director of education and housing for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

At the same time, however, few appeared ready to abandon school desegregation as a goal. Many experts, including the study's authors, said the solution is beefed-up enforcement of civil-rights laws.

"Segregation inherently denies a quality education,'' asserted Karen N. Hanson, an education-policy associate for the National Council of La Raza.

Many of the report's findings echo the conclusions of several similar studies issued by the N.S.B.A. in recent years. The reports have attempted to document the results of what Gary Orfield, the studies' chief author, described as the Reagan and Bush administrations' retreat from enforcing civil-rights laws in schools. (See Education Week, Jan. 15, 1992, and March 29, 1989.)

Southern Resegregation

"The civil-rights impulse from the 1960's is dead in the water, and the ship is floating backward toward the shoals of racial segregation,'' Mr. Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, said in issuing his most recent report.

Confirming a trend noted in a 1989 N.S.B.A. study, the newest report finds that schools in the South grew significantly more segregated between 1988 and 1991.

The pattern of resegregation in the South is especially noteworthy, the report says, because that region previously had not experienced a reversal since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954.

Intensive civil-rights enforcement in the South, where blacks and whites tended to live in relatively close proximity, had left the region's schools the most integrated in the country as of 1970.

"Given recent changes in the law and a widespread debate among Southern school boards about ending desegregation plans, the increase in segregation shown here could foreshadow much larger moves toward racial isolation in the future,'' the study says.

The worst segregation of blacks and Hispanics occurs in the Northeast, where the practice was not established by statute and far less enforcement of civil-rights laws has occurred.

Intense in Older Cities

About half of black and Hispanic public school students in the Northeast attend intensely segregated schools, with enrollments that are at least 90 percent minority, the study notes.

The most segregated states tend to be those with large minority populations, such as New York and New Jersey. The states that are most fragmented into school districts also tend to be more racially segregated, unless they are under desegregation plans that cross district lines.

Examining segregation in relation to community size, the study found that racial isolation remains high in big cities, serious in middle-sized central cities, and problematic in some suburbs of the largest metropolitan areas. It is most intense in older industrial cities that were hemmed in by independent suburbs more than a century ago.

Small cities and towns, the suburbs of mid-sized cities, and rural areas tend to be more integrated, the report says.

Largely because of these factors, New York State was found to have the highest segregation of Hispanic students and was among the most segregated states for blacks.

A report issued by a New York panel last month contends that the state has two school systems--one urban, minority, poor, and failing, and the other suburban, white, affluent, and successful. (See story, page 14.)

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a statement last month that the N.S.B.A. report "raises serious questions about the disturbing trend toward racial and economic isolation of students in our public schools.''

Questions on Data

But J. Michael Ross, a researcher in the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement and a former research analyst at the Justice Department, criticized Mr. Orfield for basing his descriptions of certain trends on flawed analyses that Mr. Ross said failed to distinguish between intradistrict and interdistrict segregation.

The N.S.B.A. report also drew criticism for its statement that whites have stayed in the public school system and that the rising proportions of minorities in public schools are due primarily to birth rates and immigration patterns.

David J. Armor, a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia, said his studies of school-enrollment data show desegregation efforts do appear to promote "white flight'' from the public system.

Citing the report's findings that racial and economic isolation are closely linked, most of the experts interviewed called for more money to be spent on schools with many low-income students. The Clinton Administration has called for more Chapter 1 resources to be directed toward the poorest schools.

The N.S.B.A. report, however, says that strategy would punish districts that have tried to become integrated and that evenly distribute poor and minority children.

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