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Law & Courts Opinion

The Future of Racially Integrated Schools

By Zoe Burkholder — May 26, 2010 5 min read
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Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made it even harder to create racially integrated public schools in its decision on two closely related school integration plans in Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., which includes Louisville. The court effectively ruled that while it is acceptable for school districts to create a school-assignment plan that promotes “diversity,” it was illegal to define this diversity solely in terms of race. This created a real challenge for educators who believe that creating racially integrated schools is one of the most effective ways to promote educational equality for all children. The Supreme Court ruling presented a new challenge: How can communities promote racially integrated schools without considering students’ “race”?

Without carefully crafted school-assignment policies, a vast majority of American public schools would be racially segregated because of historic patterns of residential segregation. Well into the 1960s, it was difficult if not impossible for a black family to purchase or rent a house in a white neighborhood because of real estate practices, federal mortgage policies, and racial covenants that made it illegal to sell property to a nonwhite buyer. Racial segregation in our small towns and large cities is no accident, and it is not simply the result of individual preferences. It is the result of deliberate and potent racial discrimination, some of which, multiple studies demonstrate, still exists today.

Racial segregation in housing engendered segregation in our public schools, and in most cases schools that had a majority of black or Latino students were not equal to majority-white schools in tangible factors like per-pupil spending, academic resources, and experienced teachers. Thanks to deliberate school integration policies between 1965 and 1990, many American school districts achieved a remarkable degree of racial integration. This helped equalize educational opportunities for all students. Beginning in the early 1990s, however, the courts began to dismantle school integration plans, as white parents insisted that their children’s civil rights were being violated when they were assigned to schools outside their “neighborhood” that included more African-American and Latino children.

Despite the fact that public schools have been resegregating for more than 20 years, my two young children will attend racially diverse public schools in Montclair, N.J. Ordered to integrate its schools in 1967, Montclair created a magnet system in which each elementary school was assigned a special theme, such as science and technology or gifted and talented. Parents ranked their preferences for school assignment, and buses transported students to schools beyond walking distance. The district, meanwhile, kept tabs on each student’s race and was able to ensure that schools were racially balanced—in other words, that the proportion of students in each school generally reflected the broader racial demographics of our public school-age population. The result has been an integrated and highly successful school district for more than 30 years.

When the Supreme Court ruled against school integration plans like Montclair’s that promote racial balancing, the district was compelled to create a new assignment plan. Beginning this fall, a student’s individual race will no longer be a factor in school placement in Montclair. Instead, our town of roughly 40,000 people has been divided into three geographic zones that are weighted according to the following five factors: (1) median household income, (2) household poverty rate, (3) number of free and reduced-price lunch students, (4) parental education levels, and (5) neighborhood racial demographics.

According to sociologists, each of these five factors has a discernible impact on individual student academic achievement. When the school board combined all five factors and looked at this data spatially, it was easy to see how the data overlap and could be used to promote a new kind of diversity in our public schools that happens to correlate closely, but not exactly, to race.

As in the past, Montclair parents this year ranked their choices for school placement on their children’s kindergarten-registration forms. The school board will then consider the percentage of incoming kindergartners from each of three geographic zones and make school assignments so that each school has a balanced proportion of students from each zone. This means that when my daughter joins her big brother in public school, the district will not take her “race” into account as it assigns her to a school. Instead, she will be labeled as a resident of “zone C.” Nevertheless, the superintendent of schools believes that her classroom will be as racially diverse as the one her brother attends now.

As school districts nationwide revise their integration plans in the wake of the Seattle and Louisville cases, many people question the logic that says we cannot use students’ race to create racially integrated schools. In his dissent to the majority opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle (2007), Justice John Paul Stevens labeled the high court’s majority opinion a “cruel irony” because it so obviously undermined the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that outlawed racially segregated public schools in 1954. Similarly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has argued that school administrators will be forced to “camouflage” their intentions to promote racial diversity if they are required to pursue race-blind admissions criteria in higher education.

It is far better, Ginsburg suggests, to acknowledge that we have a troubled national history that includes legally enforced racial discrimination not just in education, but also in housing, health care, and employment. According to Ginsburg, if integrating public education helps make up for past racial discrimination, then we should not hesitate to identify students on the basis of their race.

Creating more-equitable public schools is an evolving project in the United States, one that adapts not only to local pressures and Supreme Court rulings, but also to shifting demographics and changing student needs. The Montclair public schools have crafted a revised integration plan that takes all of these factors into account with the goal of creating an even more “diverse” school system than we had in the past. At the same time, we have created a plan that is neither race-blind, as Justice Ginsburg feared, nor dependent on race, as the Supreme Court recently outlawed. It is our hope that with a more nuanced definition of diversity, we can improve the academic achievement of all students in Montclair as part of a continuing effort to give all students the best education possible.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week

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