Focus on Educational Equity, Rights Advocates Urged

By Julie A. Miller — May 30, 1990 5 min read

New York City--The changing circumstances of civil-rights struggles in the 1990s will require that advocates develop new strategies for achieving racial equity and, in education, focus on more subtle and complex issues, such as ability tracking, educators and legal experts said here last week.

How minority students fare after schools are desegregated will be an increasingly crucial concern, those attending a “civil-rights institute” hosted by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund maintained.

“Within nominally integrated schools, minority children are still denied access to knowledge,” said Adrienne Y. Bailey, Vice President of Academic Affairs at the College Board.

Achieving educational equity was a key topic at the meeting, which also explored the impact of the changing character of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Avoid, if possible, the Rehnquist Court,” advised Laurence H. Tribe, professor of constitutional law at Harvard University. He said that, under the direction of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the Court has invested greater importance in the rights of government in cases where they conflict with individual rights.

The Rehnquist Court also, Mr. Tribe said, has required “proof of evil intent” in bias cases, rather than just discriminatory impact, and has chosen to “define rights narrowly.”

Several speakers suggested that civil-rights advocates turn to statutory remedies, such as legislation now pending in the Congress that would overturn several recent High Court rulings and strengthen the ability of job-discrimination victims to prevail in court.

Yet panelists also saw some hope in the legal arena in the Court’s refusal to completely slam the door on affirmative action in such cases as Richmond v. J.A. Croson Company. That decision voided a plan by the Richmond, Va., city council to award at least 30 percent of its public-works contracts to minority firms.

Drew S. Days 3rd, professor of law at Yale University, said that the Richmond decision “is not the death knell for affirmative action, but an invitation to litigate a good case” for “well-thought-out” affirmative-action plans.

Anthony G. Amsterdam, professor of law at New York University, said that, in addition to attacking the “intent” standard, advocates should continue to argue that discriminatory intent exists in individual cases.

Unsuccessful arguments eventually become evidence that the standard is too high, he said.

“You should question school-board members about their intent and their backgrounds,” Mr. Amsterdam said. “We should use all strategies, including the embarrassment factor.”

New Educational-Bias Issues

The meeting, which was keynoted by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, included a re-enactment by New York public-school students of oral arguments in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case in which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites.

Several speakers said a case now pending before the Court--one involving the Oklahoma City, Okla., school district, which is seeking to return to a system of neighborhood schools--is the most important civil-rights case now pending. In it, the Court will address the issue of whether a school district once found to be segregated can be released from judicial oversight.

“The legacy of Brown and the education of black children in this country are at stake,” said Janell Byrd, an assistant counsel who works on education cases for the LDF.

But a panel on educational equity agreed that problems more subtle than segregated schools are commanding increasing attention.

Ms. Bailey of the College Board, who is studying ways to improve the qualifications of students entering college without reducing minority enrollment, cited some of these.

Minority students are disproportionately the targets of school discipline, she said, are often relegated to the low-level tracks in ability-grouping systems, and are hurt by standardized tests that are biased against them and by textbooks that don’t reflect their culture.

“Lack of teachers with the knowledge and experience to respond to diverse classrooms may be the most significant barrier,” she added.

Ms. Byrd said the LDF is weighing challenges to such practices in school districts operating under judicial desegregation orders.

‘Isolated by Neighborhood’

Another key issue, many said, is how to desegregate schools in inner-city districts whose enrollments are predominantly minority.

Joseph A. Fernandez, chancellor of the New York City public schools, assessed the outlook for integrating those schools as “very bleak.”

“The numbers work against you,” he said, and “our kids are isolated not only by race but by neighborhood.”

This is an almost insurmountable barrier in New York, he said, because regulations governing the city’s decentralized school system require the consent of regional districts before attendance boundaries can be redrawn.

Howard R. Sanders, superintendent of schools in rural Hollandale, Miss., recounted how curricular improvements, intensive community outreach, and teacher retraining has improved student performance and attendance in a district he described as woefully poor by every measure.

However, he noted, improvements in the virtually all-black schools are not an acceptable substitute for integration.

Gary Orfield, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and an expert on school desegregation, noted that research shows minority students fare better in integrated schools.

He said decisions in cases such as that involving Kansas City, Mo., where a federal Judge ordered a tax increase to pay for improvements to the predominantly black schools that would help them attract white suburban students, would be key.

“There’s not been a large urban district that’s been able to figure out how to make separate schools equal,” Mr. Orfield said.

Another issue needing to be explored, he said, is “what happens when blacks move to the suburbs,” since significant inequities often exist within and among suburban districts.

“Nobody’s concentrated a lot of energy on it,” said Mr. Orfield, “but some law must be made, or we will replicate in the suburbs what has happened in our central cities.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 1990 edition of Education Week as Focus on Educational Equity, Rights Advocates Urged