Separate But Not Equal, Still: How Some Districts Are Combatting Post–Civil Rights Era School Segregation

Despite initial moves toward integration, desegregation has faltered in the decades since the Civil Rights Era. Find out what some districts are doing to foster diverse school communities amid changing neighborhoods.

“Segregation” conjures up the Civil Rights era.

The term brings us back to 1957, when nine African American students were escorted by soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and federalized National Guard Troops into Little Rock Central High School.

They were the first black students at an all-white high school, there to establish a foothold in America’s privileged — and segregated — education system. For those teens, the high school years would be markedly different from what most American teenagers would experience as they came of age.

As time passed, the word “segregation,” with its anti–Civil Rights connotation, fell out of use. It was pushed aside by more positive terms, such as inclusion, equity, integration, school choice, and the like. But the phenomenon didn’t cease just because the term lost popularity. Now, segregation is coming back into the conversation as some persistent gaps in education continue to be largely defined and delineated along racial boundaries in the six decades since the Civil Rights era.

For instance, the 2015 average National Association of Educational Progress math scores among black eighth-graders was 32 points lower than among their white peers. Across both the math and reading assessments, the percentage of black eighth-graders performing at or above proficient was just 13 percent, whereas for white students, that proportion was 43 percent. These differences are profound.

I know. You’re not racist. Nor am I. And our schools aren’t either. They are doing the very best they can for students — especially given all the required testing, Common Core imperatives, and mandates to provide accommodations and supports on a case-by-case basis.

At the same time, parents often just want their kids to go a nearby school with their friends. Some have even bought houses in high-performing school districts, thus establishing a financial stake in demanding a certain standard of public education. Some families fear that integration — that is, bringing in students from districts that are less well-off and that may have higher student-to-teacher ratios or lower student scores — will compromise the quality of education for high-achievers in their own districts. Parents’ advocacy for what they perceive as best for their own children versus the children of the community has itself become a political force that manifests as pro-child and pro-education — and as a form of white privilege.

But integration presents an array of obstacles. “We have opposition from the state because they don’t want to spend the money. We have opposition from some suburban parents,” says Martha Stone, litigator and founder of the Center for Children’s Advocacy Center in Hartford. She’s among those who filed a 1989 lawsuit to integrate Hartford schools. The court found that school districting in Connecticut, even based on town and city borders, was unconstitutional.

The interdistrict magnet schools and the Open Choice Program that sends Hartford children to suburban schools have led to a less segregated school district. Still, more than half the schools in Hartford were designated “intensely segregated” (90–100 percent minority), and nearly one-eighth were deemed “apartheid schools” (99–100 percent minority).

Hartford, along with school districts in places such as Louisville and the surrounding suburbs of Jefferson County, as well as Seattle, New York City, and Buffalo, are among the places where communities are again making concerted efforts to desegregate student bodies.

The history of such efforts dates back to the 1954 landmark education court case Brown v. Board of Education, which challenged the legitimacy of separate-but-equal segregated schools. Linda Brown, a young black girl, was denied admission to a neighborhood school a few blocks from her home in Topeka, Kansas, and was instead bused to an all-black school a mile away. Her father and 13 other parents, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), filed a lawsuit to end segregated schools in Kansas, on the grounds that separate was not, in fact, equal (as had been held in the then-precedential 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson). Under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregated schools were unconstitutional and in violation of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

A 1955 portion of the decision, known as Brown II, ordered that school desegregation take place “with all deliberate speed”; in other words, do it. Critics of the Brown II decision felt this term too undefined to bring about speedy compliance.

After another decade, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 put the rulings into force, tying federal school funds to desegregation. Many school districts began to bus students from neighborhood schools to those in other parts of town, in an effort to counter residential segregation and facilitate integration. This compulsory busing proved an often-onerous policy, but one that did effectively desegregate schools.

Still, desegregation at the school or district level did not always translate to social integration. Busing made it look as though schools were integrated, but Georgetown University sociology professor Leslie Hinkson has cautioned that this might have been a surface effect. “Do you have the kids and their parents having relationships outside of that school building? What are the odds that they are going to be randomly doing something socially? It’s not going to happen. If it is going to happen, the school has to initiate it.”

By the late 1980s, integration — at least at the school and district levels — had made such gains that court-mandated desegregation ended. The result? Many schools once again became less integrated.

The percentage of black students in majority-white schools went from 2.3 in 1964 to a peak of 43.5 in 1988, dipping back down to 23.2 in 2011, which is essentially where it had been in 1968 (23.4 percent), according to a Civil Rights Project paper out of UCLA titled “Brown at 60. Great Progress and a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future.”

In other words, in the absence of pressure from the courts, the number of black students at majority-white schools fell dramatically.

Hinkson has described the shift back to segregation: “Around 1990, 1992, a lot of these localities that were under court order to desegregate were able to prove that these court orders were no longer necessary. And it took just a few years for those schools to become less integrated.”

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in the Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS) v. Seattle School District No. 1 that racial classifications in student school assignments to maintain integrated schools were in violation of the 14th amendment. In other words, just as racial segregation violated the Constitution, so, too (the Supreme Court held), did the racial classifications of integration. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts.

That’s not how Hinkson sees it.

“It totally goes against the spirit of Brown, the 14th Amendment, and affirmation action as defined by [Presidents] Kennedy and Johnson later on,” said Hinkson. “Affirmative action is not a form of diversity for white kids; it’s actually a form of reparative justice.”

Schools and communities that foster integration are carefully tailoring their policies to provide more equitable access via programs such as district open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, school zoning modifications, reverse choice, and lotteries. And despite a lack of broad judicial support, some schools in the U.S. are finding ways to stay diverse.

As in Hartford, Kentuckians in the Louisville area changed school borders. The inner-city Louisville school district merged with the more affluent suburbs of Jefferson County. Using magnet schools, specialized programs, bus transportation, and school assignments geared toward ensuring that student populations were 15 to 50 percent black, Louisville came to be considered a model of integration. In 2007, when the Supreme Court essentially disallowed race-based attendance models, Jefferson County widened its scope to include household earnings, average adult education levels, and the percentage of residents who are non-white as admissions factors to keep their schools diverse.

By contrast, New York State has some of the most segregated schools in the country, according to the UCLA report. There is almost a 65 percent chance that black students in New York attend a black-majority school.

Statewide integration was even more dismal in 1972, when 70 percent of black students attended segregated schools. Parents in Buffalo sued, and the schools were court-ordered to desegregate. They did so by turning a third of their schools into magnet schools; integration was systematic, and Buffalo was heralded as one of the nation’s most successfully diverse school districts. Unfortunately, its success begat its downfall; in 1987, the court lifted its integration mandate requiring each school to ensure that 30 to 65 percent of students were non-white. At the same time, changing demographics — a phenomenon sometimes termed “white flight” — halved the number of white Buffalo residents. Today, Buffalo’s schools are again 70 percent segregated. Buffalo is trying to zest up its magnet schools and choice admissions programs, and the district has invested heavily in updating schools. So far, however, the changes in student demographics are not yet evident.

New York City schools have similarly become massively segregated because children (for the most part) have attended neighborhood elementary schools, which are typically highly residentially segregated — meaning that high-income neighborhoods have high-income student populations and schools, and low-income neighborhoods have low-income student populations and schools.

In 2015, the schools announced a pilot program to increase diversity. Seven unzoned schools will reserve from 20 to 60 percent of their spaces for applicants from low-income or non–English speaking families.

The city will also redraw some school boundaries in a fast-gentrifying area of Brooklyn. The DUMBO neighborhood will be rezoned to Vinegar Hill, shifting students from the 60 percent white P.S. 8 to P.S. 307, where some 90 percent of students are black or [email protected] children from low-income families.

While some families are upset about the switch, others are pleased. “Amanda” (not her real name) is a mother who lives with her family in the formerly P.S. 8 school zone; her kids are now rezoned to P.S. 307. She attended a lot of community meetings and listened as neighborhood parents spoke about their concerns with the new school assignment. “What was rising to the surface was a lot of people were talking about their kids, not kids in general. Sometimes they weren’t even talking about their kids, they were talking about, ‘I moved’ to be in this district. It’s not about our children, it’s about children in the greater sense.” And she is hopeful about the results: "This could set New York City [public education] on a trajectory it has needed for fifty years. And how exciting that I could be a miniscule part of it.” She also emphasized the importance of matching principles with actions: "We don’t want to be those liberals who say, Yeah, I believe in rezoning, but not for my kids. If this is right for all children, it needs to be right for ours."

Of course, not all parents — particularly those who did relocate to get into the zone for their preferred schools — feel this way. “[Segregation] is the ugly side of gentrification,” said Hinkson. “It such a very, very hard issue. It’s one of the reasons why no one is trying to touch it.”

An earlier plan to make a similar boundary change on the Upper West Side was scuttled after parents at P.S. 199 objected to rezoning their neighborhood to P.S. 191, the latter of which has consistently been designated one of New York’s “persistently dangerous schools.”

But as Hinkson has pointed out, successful integration is not just about having a diverse student population. “Integration isn’t just about bodies of different races in the same buildings. It’s about having experiences where these people are interacting with each other. That’s what integration is,” said Hinkson, citing charter schools and wings of honors classes that are racially dominated by white and Asian students.

Indeed, some schools have sought to address those hindrances to integration among students, not just within schools. At Leschi Elementary in Seattle’s Central District, for instance, principal Rhoda Claylor combined the Montessori program (composed largely of white students) with the Contemporary program (composed largely of African American students) in response to evident inequities.

The Equity and Race Relations Department of the Seattle Public Schools, established in January 2014, has undertaken a new approach to educational equity in schools. This division has begun training teachers and staff to be more aware of their inherent biases and to be more culturally proficient.

Even earlier, in 2012, the Seattle community drafted what is known as the racial equity policy #0030, “Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity,” which set the stage for districtwide racial equity — with equity, in this case, defined in individually-based terms as a way to serve marginalized communities. “The policy focuses on how to serve people according to their need, in contrast with serving everyone the same way or with the same resources," said Fran Partridge with the Equity and Race Relations Team at Seattle schools.

“There is a lot of research that says integrating schools is beneficial for everyone. It teaches [all students] how to be ‘cross-cultural’ and to not see themselves as superior or inferior based on the color of their skin,” says Partridge.

Just as it is important for minority students not to feel racially stigmatized in school, so, too, is a diverse classroom a benefit to white and predominantly middle-class kids.

“You are not doing anyone a favor [by segregating students]. This is a good-for-society thing. It will make your kids more cosmopolitan, make them better kids,” Hinkson has said.

Hinkson, who grew up in Brownsville, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, tested into the elite Bronx High School of Science. Her own children go to school in Bethesda, Maryland — suburban Washington, D.C., where the school district is awash in resources. There is no odds-out lottery to attend a coveted school, and to her, it feels there is plenty to go around.

But parents, even those in the clover of suburban fields, are competitive about school resources. “When we talk about kids, we have moved into this new normal, where part of individualism is tied up in our kids. It’s no longer about the education of the community, but of, How do I make my kid number 1? What is the point of public education? What are our tax dollars for? Not to make your child valedictorian, but to ready a society for the future.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed a similar sentiment in 1959: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Hinkson has, however, found a bright spot in the segregated schools landscape — but it’s not in America. The Department of Defense Education Activities (DoDEA) schools abroad are, like the military, desegregated. The schools have little or no achievement gap, and blacks and Hispanics outscore their peers stateside by considerable margins, according to the 2014 Scholastic Aptitude Test report of the DODEA.

The Murphys, an Air Force family with three children, sent their kids to schools all over the U.S. and overseas at an American base in Germany. The family lived in Alabama, Little Rock, Northern Virginia, Fayetteville, and York, Virginia. And their kids thrived. Mother Kathie Murphy credited a desegregated military that taught that integration was normal. “There aren’t so many issues of race because their moms’ and dads’ offices are integrated,” said Murphy. “They see people of other races from infancy, at the company office party. It’s not a big deal.”

“[My] high school was half black and half white. Nobody really cared,” noted Charlene Cummings, another former student at a DoDEA school. “I didn’t really know who was Catholic and who was Protestant. We had a non-denominational church. We just all went to church. It was never really discussed what brand your religion was.”

In her sociology work studying American schools abroad, Hinkson often found similar stories. Black kids returning to American schools were torn about where to go when they saw racially separated groups of students.

“One community” was repeatedly how former military brats described their base schools abroad. There were, at times, tension and fights surrounding race, but the majority of students found the schools colorblind, particularly in comparison with schools in the U.S.

What the military example also demonstrates is that integration does not happen on its own. Lawsuits and diversification programs are useful in addressing equity issues. Changing demographics and immigration will continue to alter the landscape, bringing new challenges of their own. The past six decades of desegregation have shown that there will likely not come a time when America can conclude that its work is done. In the words of Dr. King: “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”

Want to learn more about the demographics at schools you’re considering? Check out their Noodle profiles, and ask them questions about school choice options and integration initiatives.

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