By most measures, America’s public schools are now more racially and socioeconomically segregated than they have been for decades.
In the Northeast, 51.4 percent of black students attend schools where 90 percent to 100 percent of their classmates are racial minorities, up from 42.7 percent in 1968. In the country’s 100 largest school districts, economic segregation rose roughly 30 percent from 1991 to 2010.
In some ways, it’s as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened. Increasing residential segregation and a string of unfavorable court cases are partly to blame. But too many local school officials are loath to admit the role that their enrollment policies play in perpetuating de facto segregation.
While Mayor Bill de Blasio has supported several recent grass-roots efforts to integrate individual schools in New York City, district officials have avoided taking a stand on school integration amid controversy. Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, recently declined to support parent proposals to merge attendance zones for two highly segregated schools just nine blocks apart on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She instead placed the responsibility for integration on individual parents. “Parents make choices,” she said.
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In Seattle, in 2008, the superintendent and school board also cited residential segregation as the reason for not making integration a priority. “It’s not my job to desegregate the city,” the chairwoman of the school board explained to The Seattle Times.
In Florida, the Pinellas County school board voted to tie school zones more strictly to residential patterns, moving thousands of formerly integrated black students into underperforming schools. One of the board members called the problem “a nationwide thing, not just us.”
Too many excuses
School leaders need to stop making excuses for segregation. Diverse classrooms reduce racial bias and promote complex reasoning, problem solving and creativity for all students. Five decades of research confirm that students in socioeconomically and racially diverse schools have higher test scores, are more likely to enroll in college and are less likely to drop out, on average, than peers in schools with concentrated poverty. Low-income students’ achievement improves in integrated schools, and contrary to many parental concerns, middle-class students’ achievement does not suffer.
The structural and political challenges to integration are substantial, but viable options are still within reach for nearly any community that makes integration a priority. Take socioeconomic integration. According to our research, more than 90 school districts and charter schools in 32 states are using socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment.
These districts and charters enroll more than 4 million students. Because socioeconomic and racial segregation so often overlap, these strategies are a necessary step toward preventing racial marginalization from persisting in schoolhouses.
What some cities do
In Champaign, Illinois, for example, families rank their top choices from among all schools in the district, and students are assigned based on an algorithm to ensure socioeconomic diversity. Under this system, 80 percent to 90 percent of families typically receive their first choice.
In Rhode Island, a mayor from affluent Cumberland led the passage of legislation to create regionally integrated charter schools that would draw students from rich suburbs and struggling cities together in the same classrooms.
In Louisville, Kentucky, where racial integration plans were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2007, school officials, parents and students rallied to create a plan that includes measures like family income and educational attainment alongside neighborhood-level racial factors to ensure that schools did not resegregate.
Political backlash is inevitable. But when interests collide, courageous leaders must recognize that integration is worth the work.
In 2010, Somali parents and the superintendent in the majority-white Minneapolis, Minnesota, suburb of Eden Prairie led efforts to redraw elementary school boundaries to integrate the schools. Despite fierce protests by some white families, the boundaries were redrawn. Six years later, the elementary schools are not only more socioeconomically and racially integrated, but they are producing higher test scores.
School integration has found its way into the presidential campaign. In a speech this month in Harlem, Hillary Clinton lamented the “dangerous slide toward resegregation in our schools.” The push for integration is also poised to make the leap from politics into policy.
The budget request President Obama released this month includes $120 million to support integration efforts led by districts, more than double current funding. John King, the acting secretary of education, has deemed school integration a national priority, calling the opportunity to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools “one of the best things we can do for all children.”
With this work underway, at least partly, in 32 states, there may well be hope for a new wave of school integration.
The New York Times
Halley Potter is a fellow and Kimberly Quick is a policy associate at the Century Foundation.