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Walking Backward Out the Schoolhouse Door

• December 07, 2010 • 5:29 PM

Desegregation of public schools peaked about two decades ago, and no one at the federal level is doing much to reverse the decline.

The NAACP held a conference last week in North Carolina to draw attention to a trend easily unnoticed in what many Americans have come to think of as the “post-racial” age ushered in by the nation’s first black president: Fifty years after the Civil Rights era, American public schools are resegregating.

More black students today attend “extremely segregated” schools than did in 1988, at the height of desegregation, the NAACP notes. It symbolically hosted the education conference in Raleigh, N.C., where the local school district has been wrestling with the controversial end to a busing program civil rights advocates fear will reverse years of model integration.

The fallout in North Carolina could mirror a dispiriting national shift. A 2003 Harvard study found that between 1960 and 1988, the percentage of black students attending majority white schools in the South rose from 0.1 percent to 43.5 percent. In 2000, that number was back down to 31 percent. A report published last year by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project revealed that 38.5 percent of black students during the 2006-07 school year were in “intensely segregated minority schools” (90 percent or more minority). In 1988, that figure was 33.5 percent.

“The reason that school segregation is still such an issue,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a research associate with the Civil Rights Project, “is that racially and socioeconomically isolated schools are associated with things like lower graduation rates, fewer highly qualified teachers, higher rates of teacher turnover, more instability in teacher populations.”

Other research, meanwhile, suggests that diverse schools are associated with a litany of social and individual benefits: higher academic achievement, access to more privileged social networks, more cross-racial friendships, greater feelings of civic and communal responsibility, and a decreased likelihood of accepting stereotypes.

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[/class] School districts have been moving away from integrated classrooms that could yield these benefits for several reasons, Siegel-Hawley says. A series of Supreme Court decisions since the 1990s, culminating with a key 2007 ruling, have disarmed integration initatives and left districts confused about their remaining options. The basic residential segregation that feeds segregated schools (and, more broadly, segregated school districts) persists. And the rise of school choice also contributes (a challenge Siegel-Hawley’s colleague recently discussed with Miller-McCune.com).

John Brittain, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia and the former chief counsel of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, cites one other factor.

“The federal government, both the executive branch and the legislative branch, have virtually abandoned school integration,” he said.

He’s one of many advocates who have been disappointed by the Obama administration’s slow response to the topic. Civil rights leaders have been waiting for guidance from the Department of Education interpreting the 2007 Supreme Court ruling, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. The department is still posting on its website an old Bush-era memo that Brittain says ignores integration guidance proposed by the case’s deciding vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“It left schools thinking that in the worst sense,” Brittain said, “school integration had pretty much come to an end unless it was a court-ordered school case.”

Parents Involved limited districts’ ability to consider the individual race of a student when making school assignment decisions. But Kennedy outlined another path — through strategic site selection, districts could build new schools or draw attendance zones with the demographics of a neighborhood in mind.

“These are mechanisms that are race-conscious because they’re taking race into account,” Brittain said. “But they do not lead to different treatment of students based upon a classification that tells each student he or she is to be defined by race in terms of where they go to school.”

The Obama administration has suggested to civil rights leaders that the new guidance is on the way.

“But it’s still taken them too long, even if they’ve got a plan,” Brittain said. “It shouldn’t take 22 months, going on two years, to do this.”

Other integration advocates have urged officials to publicly make the case that desegregation still matters — especially in an age when the nation’s broader demographics (and future work force) are shifting so rapidly.

“They’re trying so hard to get it so right,” Brittain said of the current administration, “that they end up doing so little, and it takes them so long.”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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