Equity & Diversity

Schools Grew More Segregated In 1990s, Report Says

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 08, 2001 4 min read
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Despite the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a half-century ago that school segregation was unconstitutional, the nation’s schools became increasingly more separated by race in the 1990s, according to a report by the Harvard Civil Rights Project.

While schools in the South still have more integration of African-Americans and whites than before the desegregation movement, they lost ground on that front over the past decade, the report released last month says. And it highlights a newer phenomenon that has emerged with the increased Hispanic presence in the United States: Segregation of Latinos from non-Hispanic whites in schools is even greater than it is for blacks.

“Segregation is actually increasing,” Gary Orfield, a co-director of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project and the lead researcher for the study, said at a July news conference. “Ignoring that reality leads to adoption of education policies that punish people who haven’t had equal educational opportunities. ... It’s a direct threat to the future of a multiracial society.”

For More Information

The report, “Schools More Segregated: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation,” is available from the Harvard Civil Rights Project. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The study found that 70 percent of black K-12 students attended predominantly minority schools in the 1998-99 school year, compared with 66 percent in 1991-92 and 63 percent in 1980-81. Latinos were even more likely to attend predominantly minority schools, with 76 percent attending such schools in 1998-99, up from 73 percent in 1991-92.

Mr. Orfield writes in his study that U.S. schools are becoming “resegregated” in part because the federal courts have ended strong desegregation plans that were adopted after the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark case that concluded racially segregated schools were “inherently unequal.” He also attributes segregation in schools to how people sort themselves in deciding where to live. Isolation of minorities in inner cities has occurred because of “white flight” to the suburbs, he said.

Educational experts generally praised Mr. Orfield for persisting in tracking the level of racial segregation in schools during the 1990s and agreed that the increase in racial and ethnic separation is a disturbing trend. But some scholars disagree with him on the causes of such segregation.

Misguided Policies?

“We are in complete agreement that there is something wrong with a society in which people of one color live in one place, and people of another color live in another place,” said Christine H. Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University who studies school segregation.

But she added that she believes some school systems have become resegregated because of the very desegregation plans that Mr. Orfield favors. In some school systems, she said, such plans led initially to integration, but they also prompted “white flight” as some whites refused to enroll their children in school systems with mandatory busing.

In addition, Ms. Rossell said, Mr. Orfield doesn’t place enough emphasis on the fact that American schools are “becoming less white” and showing renewed segregation in part because the proportion of white students is shrinking overall, owing to a low white birthrate compared with those of other racial groups.

Mr. Orfield’s report, “Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation,” concludes that white children are the most isolated of any racial group, which he said at the press conference could lead to problems with their interacting with people of other races as adults.

Mr. Orfield said he was particularly concerned about what statistics show about the isolation of African-American and Hispanic students in schools. The average black student attends a school in which 55 percent of the students are of his own race; the average Hispanic student attends a school in which Latinos make up 53 percent of the enrollment.

The problem with having predominantly minority schools, Mr. Orfield maintains, is that those schools are virtually always inferior in quality “in every dimension” to those with predominantly white student populations.

‘History of Neglect’

Education analysts with minority advocacy groups said they shared Mr. Orfield’s concern about racial isolation.

“We do view segregation as a problem,” said Raul Gonzalez, an education policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington- based Hispanic-advocacy group. “There has been a history at the state and local level of neglect of schools that are attended by minority students, and that’s why there has been school finance litigation in nearly every state.”

John H. Jackson, the national director of education for the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, said his organization considers increasing segregation to be a trend in “the wrong direction.”

But the nation should first improve the quality of predominantly minority schools through such means as reducing class sizes and providing highly qualified teachers to urban school districts, he said.

The solutions listed in Mr. Orfield’s report, however, point more directly toward addressing segregation first. He advocates, for example, the expansion of the federal magnet school program, which supports the establishment of such schools in districts, but attaches certain desegregation requirements.

He supports the development of what are called two-way bilingual schools, where students whose first language is English and students whose first language is Spanish attend the same classes with the goal of becoming competent in both languages.

Mr. Orfield also calls for the exploration of school and housing policies that could prevent the resegregation that he says is occurring in inner suburbs, as well as policies making it easier for students to transfer between districts.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Schools Grew More Segregated In 1990s, Report Says

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