If only it were as easy as black and white. Courts are lifting desegregation orders from districts across the country, leaving the task of integrating schools to districts themselves. Critics say this shift marks a step backward. Students used to go to schools that were legally "separate but equal." These same schools are now, in fact, separate and unequal. Others, however, view this trend as an end to expensive judicial intrusion into the local matter of schooling.
And therein lies the dilemma. Integration vs. education. Are they mutually exclusive goals? Schools are in the business of educating students. But with court-ordered desegregation since the 1950s, schools' objectives have included working toward a racially integrated society. Many would contend, especially after seeing some districts' labyrinthine busing maps, that mandating the integration of classrooms has cost a good number of students any chance of a fair and quality education.
And if schools are the one public institution asked more than any other to integrate our society, haven't black students been shouldering more than their fair share of that burden? They have been, for the most part, the ones to ride buses to distant, suburban schools.
So should schools abandon the practice of busing? Will they, on their own, find other ways to reach the ideal of desegregation? Some districts, working toward this ideal, might go too far, creating what one author in this special section calls "the Orwellian transformation" of the word diversity. He describes his crash-course lesson in civics after trying to transfer his minority child to a neighborhood school.
Another contributor provides a case history of legal decisions that have removed districts from court-ordered desegregation. While one author argues that, without such orders, schools will revert to resegregation, another proposes vouchers as a means for all students--regardless of color--to have access to a quality education.
Coming at the issue from these various perspectives, it becomes clear that when dealing with the question of desegregation and the best interests of children, things are rarely as simple as black and white.
Go directly to the next article in this package, "Brown Was Bigger Than Test Scores," Theodore M. Shaw, Feb. 7, 1996.
This special Commentary report, one in a series examining crucial issues in education, is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc.