Equity & Diversity

60 Years After Brown, School Diversity More Complex Than Ever

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 13, 2014 11 min read
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American schooling will reach a milestone next fall when white students, for the first time, make up fewer than half of all children enrolled in public schools, according to federal projections.

Black enrollment, holding fairly steady in recent years, will hover between 16 percent and 17 percent.

Hispanic enrollment, meanwhile, will continue to surge, with its share of the K-12 population expected to hit 30 percent within the next decade. And the proportion of Asians and Pacific Islanders in public schools is also expected to be on the uptick, though much less dramatic than the rise for Latinos.

But even with such ground-shifting demographic changes in the nation’s public schools, the schools in many communities continue to be highly segregated 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court, on May 17, 1954, struck down the principle of “separate but equal” education.

Central High School students, including Hazel Bryan, left, shout insults at Elizabeth Eckford as she marches down to a line of National Guardsmen, who blocked the main entrance and would not let her enter school in Little Rock on Sept. 4, 1957.

“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote of black students in the unanimous ruling overturning racial segregation in public education.

Today, it is still rare for white students to attend schools where they represent less than 25 percent of enrollment. Schools filled with students of a single race remain common. And one-race districts—especially in struggling urban centers and pockets of the rural Deep South—are not unusual.

What then, does it mean to have desegregated schools in 2014, and what, if anything, can policymakers and educators do in pursuit of integration and access to educational opportunities, particularly in racially isolated communities? What has become of the promise of the Supreme Court’s momentous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka? Opinions vary.

‘Not the Main Issue’

For many educators, civic leaders, and policymakers, the answers to those questions are as urgent as ever. They point to what they see as mounting evidence of continuing widespread disparities in both opportunities and outcomes for African-American, Latino, and low-income students compared with their white and wealthier peers.

Brown at 60: New Diversity, Familiar Disparities

Even with ground-shifting demographic changes, many public schools continue to be highly segregated 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the principle of “separate but equal” education, but those shifts have also created opportunities to approach diversifying schools and classrooms in new ways.

This special series includes reporting on the state of school integration today, video profiles, national data on school desegregation, a timeline of landmark desegregation cases, Commentaries on integration, and more.

Those differences persist despite a long-running national focus on closing achievement gaps and the goal of preparing every child for success in college and a career.

Others say the debate has gone beyond race to become chiefly a matter of economic integration.

“Segregation is not the main issue any longer,” said Sylvester James Jr., the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., where after decades under a federal desegregation order the struggling city school district has dwindled to just 13,000 students, nearly 90 percent of them poor enough to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The flight of white and black middle-class families from Kansas City schools—which reached a peak enrollment of 77,000 students in the late 1960s—to suburban districts and independent charter schools drove much of the enrollment decline.

“Access to high-quality education is tied just as hard, and just as fast, to poverty and socioeconomics as it was to race,” Mayor James said during a recent conference on the legacy of Brown at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

And some academic thinkers and residents of local communities are deeply skeptical of an emphasis on integration, as a matter of policy and practicality.

“I just think there is a lot of hubris in the notion that we can improve race relations and opportunities for the poorest families if we just tell people that the nearest school is right by your house, but your kids need to go somewhere else for diversity goals,” said Stephan Thernstrom, a professor emeritus of history at Harvard University who has written extensively on issues of race in education.

Maintaining Status Quo

Most of the nation’s roughly 14,000 districts typically rely on neighborhood attendance boundaries for assigning students to schools that are close to where they live, and they occasionally readjust the lines to bring about more of a demographic mix. Residential segregation based on race and social class remains stark, making efforts to ensure a more diverse mix of students impractical in many districts.

According to federal education data collected in the fall of 2011, 84 percent of white students attended public K-12 schools where they represented more than 50 percent of the student body. Fifty-five percent of African-American students were in public schools where they made up more than half the student body, and 56 percent of Hispanic students were in Latino-majority schools. Even in the peak period of school desegregation activity—from the late 1960s through the 1980s—most districts were never under a federal court order to integrate. Those orders, especially in the South, were the muscle behind the widespread integration of schools.

But the lifting of hundreds of court orders ever since, and more-recent rulings from the Supreme Court that have put limits on the strategies that districts may pursue to achieve racial balance, have taken their toll on the legacy of Brown, scholars and advocates say.

“The fact of the matter is that vestiges of prior de jure segregation still remain in many cases,” said Leticia Smith-Evans, the interim director of the education practice for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Washington, referring to school segregation that was a matter of law or official policy.

“There are policies in districts that impact resource allocation, or which students are getting access to rigorous classes and gifted and talented programs,” she said. “Desegregation is not just about student assignment.”

Losing a Tool

John W. Borkowski, a Washington-based lawyer with Hogan Lovells who represents school districts on a range of civil rights issues, said districts have been “all over the map” when it comes to maintaining a commitment to racially diverse schools, especially those that had their desegregation orders lifted when the courts determined they had reached “unitary status” by fully demonstrating compliance with their court-ordered plans.

“In some districts that reached unitary status, that process was really poorly managed, and they’ve gone back to segregated schools,” he said. “But some used their unitary status to keep going out on top.”

But for most districts, losing the court order stripped away the most effective tool they had to address segregation head-on, especially in the wake of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that shot down the use of voluntary student assignment plans based solely on race.

“It becomes a whole lot harder for any district to keep addressing segregation in a substantive way without the court orders,” said Danielle Holley-Walker, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who has studied desegregation orders in the Southern states.

“And the question is, if districts start moving toward unitary status, to what end?” she said. “Is it to just bring an end to desegregation efforts? Or should [the orders] be left alone in case demographics change again?”

Federal Tactics Shift

Even as the number of court orders has diminished, enforcement by federal civil rights officials continues to bind those school districts to changing policies and taking actions that ensure students, regardless of their backgrounds, are not discriminated against. Civil rights advocates agree that such activity has accelerated during Barack Obama’s presidency.

More videos from key players in the fight for integration >>

In a survey of the nation’s districts done in the 2011-12 academic year by the U.S. Department of Education, more than 1,200 respondents for districts and charter schools reported having a mandated desegregation plan—either under court order, or, more commonly, under an agreement with federal civil rights enforcement officials. Such plans—which run the gamut from reducing racial isolation in schools to improving capital facilities—are in place in districts or charter school agencies in every state except Hawaii and Nevada, according to the results of the Civil Rights Data Collection released by the Education Department this spring.

“This data is useful because it tells us where we need to be looking to ensure that districts that do in fact have plans are taking steps to operate within the plan,” said Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department.

Advocates also have ramped up their use of complaints to officials in the Education Department’s office for civil rights, or OCR—using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—to push districts to address equity issues that often play out racially, such as the disparate use of out-of-school suspensions against students of color, especially African-American boys, or unequal access to the most-rigorous courses in high schools.

But the scope and nature of the civil rights reviews and enforcement activities in schools have also widened to a larger array of issues, including whether a district is providing English-language learners and their families with adequate translation and interpretation services in their home languages.

“The Title VI complaints continue to be a very important tool,” said Ms. Smith-Evans of the Legal Defense Fund.

As one example, she cited her organization’s involvement in a complaint to federal civil rights officials about the Bryan school district in Texas, where, advocates allege, school resource officers’ ticketing of disproportionate numbers of black students for nonviolent behavior, such as using profane language, is discriminatory. The OCR agreed last year to an investigation, which is ongoing.

Officials in the Bryan district “are fully cooperating” with the OCR’s investigation, according to spokesman Brandon Webb. “We are hopeful that a full and fair review of discipline practices and data will reveal the diverse and inclusive environment in [the] Bryan [district],” he said.

“We also reach out directly to districts where we hear about problems and try working directly with them to come to a resolution,” Ms. Smith-Evans said.

Alternative Approaches

For the rare districts that still make creation of schools with a diverse mix of students a priority, district leaders have several ways to do so that can withstand legal scrutiny, said Mr. Borkowski, the civil rights lawyer who advises districts. Those methods include using socioeconomic status in assigning students to schools and considering the racial and ethnic mix of students in deciding where to build schools.

More videos from key players in the fight for integration >>

“Districts first must define what a diverse school looks like in their community and be able to explain and demonstrate why that is educationally beneficial to students,” Mr. Borkowski said.

The 100,000-student Jefferson County, Ky., school system, one of two school systems that were at the heart of the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling limiting the use of race in assigning students to schools, has one of the most enduring records of pursuing integration. The district, which includes Louisville, is now using a complex combination of measures of family income and adult educational-attainment levels, as well as race, to help guide its student-assignment decisions while also offering families choice.

But perhaps the 83,000-student system in Nashville, Tenn., which is still in the early stages of putting a “diversity management plan” into practice as a key way to address flagging student achievement, represents the future of school desegregation.

While the district—which was under a federal court order for more than two decades—achieved unitary status in 2000, it has recently brought renewed attention to the diversity issue, as demographics have shifted radically, leaving no majority racial group.

In 2012, the Nashville school board approved a multilayered diversity definition that includes race and ethnicity, household income, language-learner status, and disability status.

The goal is that no school should have a single racial or ethnic group that makes up more than half of student enrollment, or that schools either enroll students from at least three racial or ethnic groups—each representing at least 15 percent of overall enrollment—or enroll students from at least two racial or ethnic categories, each representing at least 30 percent of total enrollment.

In addition, the Nashville district has set goals that each school have a representative sample of students who are low-income, are English-learners, or are classified as having a disability. Schools that fall short of those goals are considered in need of “greater diversity,” said Jesse Register, the superintendent.

“To not do this, I think, is the wrong direction for the future of our country,” said Mr. Register.

Nashville’s plan is distinctive in that school board members and district leaders weigh every major policy decision against its impact on diversity. For example, the board will not approve a new charter school unless it agrees to use the same standards for student and staff diversity that the district has defined.

"[W]e can’t be measuring ourselves against old ideas of desegregation,” said Mr. Register. “We have to infuse advocacy for keeping our schools diverse across all the decisions we make here, whether it’s recruiting staff members, where we locate new schools, and how we draw attendance zones.

“This is our way of taking this rich asset of diversity that we have and leveraging it in new ways that help us ensure equal opportunities for all our kids,” he said.

Coverage of educational equity and school reform is supported in part by a grant from the HOPE Foundation and the Panasonic Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Demographic Changes, Shifting Rulings Complicate Schools’ March to Integration


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