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Law & Courts Opinion

Diversity’s Quiet Rebirth

By Susan Eaton — August 18, 2008 4 min read
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A little more than a year has passed since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sharply divided, 5-4 decision striking down two school districts’ policies designed to create racially diverse public schools. (“Use of Race Uncertain for Schools,” July 18, 2007; “Districts Face Uncertainty in Maintaining Racially Diverse Schools,” June 28, 2007.) Educators across the nation are still struggling to make sense of the rulings, identify remedies to segregation that are still lawful, and develop fresh approaches to student assignment.

The pundit parade at the time of the ruling predicted an end to the values of social cohesion and integration embodied in the proudest moment in American jurisprudence, the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. But what actually has happened after the so-termed Parents Involved ruling is far more hopeful and affirming of the aspirations manifest in Brown, and the civil rights movement it triggered.

Certainly, some educators, perhaps intimidated by the murkiness of the court’s ban on using race as a singular factor in school assignments, took the course that looked easier in the short term. They abandoned efforts to achieve diversity and reduce segregation. It is still not clear how widespread that abandonment is, however. What is most clear is that many educators and government leaders across the country chose to stay true to what they believe and what experience has taught them: Diversity, while creating challenges, benefits everybody, and segregation still engenders inequality.

Consider Jefferson County, Ky., one of the two districts (Seattle was the other) cited in last year’s decision. Rather than backing away from its commitment to diversity, educators in that Louisville-area system asked experts to help craft policies that consider income, place of residence, and racial or ethnic background in assigning students to schools. “Race,” in this equation, is but one factor in programs and policies that seek to create diverse schools that approximate the larger society. Diversity, though, is maintained, and segregation avoided.

Consider, too, Berkeley, Calif. The district was far ahead of the nation in recognizing that for children of color who reside in disadvantaged neighborhoods, the inherent problem was not their physical separation from white children—although there was plenty of that—but that this isolation segregated them from equal opportunities to learn. In other words, such students were segregated from the opportunities disproportionately abundant in middle-class, largely white communities. And so educators there consider several variables—geographic, racial, linguistic, and economic—in granting school choice.

Consider, as well, the continuing efforts and renewed commitments of several government programs across the country—including those in Boston; Hartford, Conn.; Milwaukee; and Palo Alto, Calif.—that provide families who’d otherwise be assigned to overwhelmed, high-poverty urban schools the choice of attending suburban schools outside established school district lines. Of course, educators moved to adjust their methods of identifying students for participation. But none of the educators moved to shut down their operations in reaction to Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the cases the Supreme Court decided in its 2007 ruling.

In Massachusetts, for example, state officials, with the support of the state attorney general’s office, affirmed their commitment to the long-running voluntary, urban-to-suburban transfer program known as METCO, which had been created by a group of Boston mothers and socially concerned suburban officials at the height of the civil rights movement. Yes, officials recognized that changes and adjustments for student selection might be appropriate. But there was absolutely no way, they said, that the state would abandon one of the only programs in the Northeast that helps break down the manmade barriers between children of color and white children. Nowadays, surveys show that a vast majority of people favor integrated schools over segregated ones, and think the government should do more to bring them into being.

That’s not to say that racially diverse schools are a realistic option for all districts. In many places, demographics and strict boundary lines take “diversity” off the table. Thus, while Americans expend energy on maintaining diversity where we can, certainly Parents Involved should trigger more action in developing policies and programs that, like desegregation, aspire to connect the unconnected. These include universal preschool and after-school programs that help engage children in community-based projects which provide the types of recreational and intellectual activities that middle-class children take for granted. Such steps also include broadening the curriculum offered in high-poverty schools so children can develop the skills in communications and analytics that experts say are crucial for success in modern society.

Marking the passage of a year since the Supreme Court’s latest decision on race and schools does not mark the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education’s death. Brown cannot die, because that landmark decision and its American values of opportunity and equality for all are embedded in our collective sense of ourself as a fair and decent nation.

One of the great untold stories of the civil rights movement is of educators on the ground, often in once-segregated school districts such as Louisville’s, who came to see the damage of the “separate but equal” myth and to believe that there could be a better way. The educators who stayed the course then provide a lesson for our increasingly diverse young generation, who can someday lead us to where law and morality intersect—and perhaps again teach the nation’s highest court the difference between right and wrong.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week

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