A Look at the State of Desegregation

By Michele Molnar — May 23, 2012 2 min read
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Remember desegregation?

Whatever happened to the school desegregation mandate, an outgrowth of the U.S. Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954?

This defining decision sparked the era of busing children to integrate schools, and then—what?

A New York Times opinion piece by David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, gives a retrospective on desegregation’s roots, its apparent success, and large scale abandonment.

With the headline, “Is Segregation Back in U.S. Public Schools?,” Kirp’s article introduces a “Room for Debate” selection of viewpoints from a variety of experts, including two adults who were bused as public school students—and who praise the value of that life-changing opportunity.

“To the current reformers, integration is at best an irrelevance and at worst an excuse to shift attention away from shoddy teaching. But a spate of research says otherwise,” he writes.

“Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank—not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better,” writes Kirp. The success extended beyond school well into adulthood, providing economic and health benefits to the black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools, according to a 2011 study by Rucker C. Johnson, a Berkeley public policy professor.

As recently as 2009, the school board of Wake County, N.C. voted to dismantle the district’s long-running policy of assigning students to schools based on socioeconomic diversity—a move that caused a cascade of consequences, one of which put the district’s high schools on the “accredited warned” list. (The current school board appears to favor a controlled choice school assignment policy, Education Week‘s Christina Samuels reports.)

Magnet schools were once considered a way to help integrate racially divided districts, but they, too, have been forced to evolve, writes Education Week‘s Nora Fleming in her story, “Magnets Adjust to New Climate of School Choice.”

A recent Brookings Institution report links housing prices and zoning practices as two factors that effectively deprive low-income students of high-quality schools, writes Nirvi Shah of Education Week in “Study Links Zoning to Education Disparities,” demonstrating a disparity that continues to affect the country’s students, particularly in the Northeast.

With the ever-changing landscape of public opinion, school choice, and socioeconomic conditions, what is the future of integration?

Kirp maintains that despite desegregation’s success, it has no constituency advancing it today. And, if parents and the public are not actively pursuing it, who will?

A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.