Latino School Segregation: The Big Education Problem That No One Is Talking About

Separate and unequal.
In 2004, student Hector Flores (left) marched through the rain near Hoover Elementary in California. The walk commemorated Me
In 2004, student Hector Flores (left) marched through the rain near Hoover Elementary in California. The walk commemorated Mendez v. Westminster, the case that led to California being the first state in the nation to end school segregation.

Nearly a decade before the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education made segregated schooling of black students unconstitutional, a group of five Mexican-American families in California fought for integrated schools in Mendez v. Westminster.

It was 1946. For years, the state's Mexican-American students had languished in inferior "Mexican schools" to which they were assigned based on name and complexion. Plaintiffs in the case argued that the segregation of Mexican-American children violated their right to "equal protection" under the Constitution, noting that their schools were severely under-resourced compared to nearby white schools, and the plaintiffs' experts testified on the negative impact segregation has on children's self-esteem. Defendants in the case -- four school districts -- argued that Mexican students had poor hygiene, carried diseases and were intellectually inferior. 

The case -- which was decided in the plaintiffs' favor -- never made its way to the Supreme Court, and thus its impact was never felt on a federal level. But soon after, California became the first state to ban state-sponsored school segregation.

It's now 2015, and while much has changed in California, much has remained the same. Segregation is no longer based on official policies or law -- called de jure segregation -- but based on voluntary housing or schooling choices. Still, the Golden State remains the most segregated one in the country for Latino students, according to research from the UCLA's Civil Rights Project, which studies civil rights issues.

To be an average Latino student in California today means that you likely attend a school that is 84 percent nonwhite, with high rates of concentrated poverty. It means you live in a two-tiered society where only 20 percent of Latino students taking the SAT in California are deemed college-ready, compared to 41 percent of students statewide.

California's situation is extreme. Its Latino population is exceptionally large and exceptionally segregated. But the state's issues are symptomatic of a long-term, nationwide trend of Latinos quietly becoming the most segregated minority population of students in the country, the UCLA center has found.

In 2011, the typical Latino student attended a school that was 57 percent Latino, according to the UCLA research. Comparatively, an average black student student attended a school that was 49 percent black. A typical white student attended a school that was 73 percent white.

Why Is No One Talking About This?


There is a dearth of research on how segregation impacts Latino students specifically, although there are plentiful data on how racial isolation impacts African-Americans. As efforts to address African-American segregation have faltered, public discourse on growing Latino segregation remains elusive.

“Schools that are integrated better reflect our values as a country.” John King, U.S. Department of Education


"We’ve been through a demographic revolution with almost no policy attention to the racial dimensions of these changes," Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, told The Huffington Post. "It's not exactly true that anyone is paying attention to black segregation either -- we’re a third of the century into kind of doing nothing and a quarter of the century into systematically dismantling what we did earlier."

Little attention has been paid to the issue of Latino segregation because segregation has historically been a black-white issue, said Patricia Gándara, Orfield's co-director at the Civil Rights Project. 

Brown v. Board of Education focused specifically on African-American students. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruling in Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado, recognized that Latino students also have a right to integrated schools, but the case had minimal impact. When African-American and white students were being bussed away from their neighborhood schools to help achieve racial balance, Latinos were mostly ignored.

"We’re stuck in a black-white paradigm that doesn’t work quite the same way for Latinos," Gándara said. 

Jennifer Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Indiana, predicts that in the coming years, we will start to see more research about the schooling of Latino students. 

"With this increase in the Latino population I think there are lots of scholars who are very interested the Latino student community. It just takes time," she said. "We can't extrapolate studies on African-American students to Latino students."

With little research on the topic, it is difficult to come up with potential fixes.

"We have to really understand what it is we’re studying," said Lee. "We can't assume the mechanisms are the same across different populations -- or all Latino students."

David Garcia, an associate professor at Arizona State University, ran for the state's superintendent of public instruction in 2014 and lost. During his campaign, he did not hear the issue of school segregation brought up once, he said, "not even by minority groups." 

"The entire discussion from how we come to study it really comes out of the South and in the '60s and blacks and whites," said Garcia. Meanwhile, Western states -- those that typically have some of the largest populations of Latino students -- are studied less frequently.

Research on the issue of Latino school segregation is also somewhat complicated by the diversity within this group of students, Garcia noted. Latino students may experience segregation differently depending on when they came to this country or where their family is from, for example. 

"I think first and foremost in the conversations I've had, people want to know how Latino students are doing" in school, Garcia said. "Who they are attending with does not rise to the level of public discussion." 

In this June 26, 2013, photo, students eat lunch during the school's summer program at Jefferson Elementary School in Sanger,
In this June 26, 2013, photo, students eat lunch during the school's summer program at Jefferson Elementary School in Sanger, California. The Sanger Unified School District, which was once named as one of the lowest-performing in the state, is now known for its success in educating its predominantly Latino student body: It graduated 94 percent of its Hispanic students in 2012, 20 percent more than the state average.


Is Anyone Doing Anything About Latino Segregation?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan largely ignored the issue of school segregation during his work under the Obama administration, but there is some speculation that his replacement, John King, will put the issue back on the political map. King, who will start in the job in December, served as the state education commissioner in New York before spending the past few months as an adviser to Duncan.

In New York, King enacted a grant program that will use $25 million to encourage more affluent students to attend certain high-poverty, struggling schools. In September, he emphasized the importance of integrated schools at a National Coalition on School Diversity conference. 

It is now impossible to ignore the role that Latino students play in the issue of school segregation. If King does focus his attention on school diversity, it is likely that the issue of Latino segregation will receive more attention than it ever has before.

Language has been added to better explain the legal argument in Mendez v. Westminster.