Bringing School Segregation out of the Shadows

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Our public schools have quietly, but steadily, re-segregated. The racial segregation of our public schools has continued in the shadows while we were distracted by debates about whether charter schools drain resources from the public school system, whether standardized tests undermine the quality of education, and whether student performance is a fair measure for teacher evaluations. While these are all important questions, data shows that the nation’s public schools have become increasingly segregated by race and class over the last two decades. A 2014 report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that our public schools are approaching pre-Civil Rights era levels of racial segregation.

The problem is not limited to the South. For example, we often think of New York as a beacon of progressive thought and government – a true melting pot that embraces all comers. Yet, some data about New York’s public schools belie that vision. Indeed, the same report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that New York State has the most segregated public schools in the nation –and that New York City is leading the way with over 90% of Black students attending majority-minority schools.

Although the harms of attending a racially segregated school are real and documented, racial integration of our public schools has all but been abandoned as a national priority. Indeed the new administration has signaled its resistance to high quality, integrated public schools by abandoning many of the Obama administration’s modest efforts to promote diversity; instead focusing on vouchers and school choice.

The conventional wisdom is that modern school segregation is not based on intentional discrimination, but is a de facto by-product of residential segregation. Certainly, residential and school segregation go hand in hand. But even accepting the premise—that modern school segregation is simply a function of people attending neighborhood schools in segregated communities —would not let any of us off of the hook. After all, residential segregation is not itself accidental. It is the result of decades— indeed centuries—of decision-making: by federal, state, and local governments; by redlining and blockbusting banks; by public housing authorities, realtors, and real estate developers; and by the decisions of millions of individuals.

Moreover, modern segregation cannot be entirely blamed on longstanding residential segregation. The district lines and enrollment policies that determine where our children go to the school, as well as the fiscal policies that determine how those schools are funded, are themselves the results of choices—choices by politicians, educators, government officials, and parents. Even where enrollment guidelines give schools discretion to diversify their student bodies, regimes that hold schools accountable for standardized test scores make some principals reluctant to admit racially and economically diverse students to their schools due to persistent test score gaps between white and Asian students on the one hand and Black and Latino students on the other.

Why does it matter? For one thing, what was true in 1955 remains true today. As the Court pronounced in Brown v. Board of Education, “segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.” Segregation conveys a clear message to both white students and students of color about their relevant places in society. And the harm goes beyond self-esteem. Research shows that segregated schools have a negative impact on the academic achievement of students of color. For example, a recent study from the University of North Carolina, based on data from the United States Department of Education, showed that Black first graders in segregated schools made lesser gains in reading than their peers in integrated schools, even when socioeconomic status was held constant.

And perhaps most fundamentally, our ability to function as a democratic society is imperiled when children of different backgrounds are deprived of the ability to learn, grow, and function together. As Justice Powell wrote in Bakke v. University of California, the “nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” What was true for the University of California at Davis’ medical school is certainly true for our nation’s public elementary, middle, and high schools.

It is clear that a massive gap remains between the ideals of our country—as a place where all our welcome, and where all have a chance to succeed—and our reality as a country— where the color of your skin continues to impact the quality of your education and, as a result, the opportunities that are availability to you. As we continue to address persistent racial disparities in education, employment, housing, and involvement with the criminal justice system, the current administration faces a long list of challenges. Bringing school segregation out of the shadows and tackling the decades-long challenge of creating integrated, high quality public schools should be at the top of its list.

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