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U.S. public schools step backward on segregation

St. John Barned-Smith

As the United States begins a new era under its first African American president, a new report delivers grim news on one of recent American history’s thorniest issues: de facto segregation in the nation’s public schools.

According to Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of the report, the U.S. public education system has stepped backward in the years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision struck down segregated school systems.

 “Fifty-five years after the Brown decision, blacks and Latinos in American schools are more segregated than they have been in more than four decades,” Orfield writes in the report’s introduction.

The report found that public school populations across the country are becoming less white. Today, minorities make up 44 percent of all students attending public school. That number has more than doubled since national surveys on the subject began in 1968, when white students made up about 80 percent of public school students.

As the percentage of students of color attending public schools increases, however, most of America’s schools are actually becoming more segregated, according to research conducted by Orfield and his team at UCLA.

While in 1988, near the peak of desegregation, one-third of black students attended what the report calls “intensely segregated” schools — that is, schools where between 90 percent and 100 percent of the student body is nonwhite — that number has now risen to about 40 percent. Students of color are also far more likely than their white counterparts to attend schools where minorities make up 75 percent or more of the population.

The increase in school segregation comes as suburban communities around the country grow more homogenous, according to the report.

“In a predominantly suburban society, perhaps the most important current trend is the deepening resegregation of substantial portions of the nation’s suburban rings, a process that threatens to leave middle-class black and Latino families in relatively weak schools in declining communities,” the report said.

In recent years, the march toward desegregation has been strongest in America’s Southern and Western states, according to the report, due in large part to increased immigration. Those areas are now home to some of the most desegregated schools in the country.

“… In a single generation, we have [had] vast migrations transforming major areas of the region, creating multiracial schools and communities, and bringing linguistic and cultural diversity into many regions,” Orfield wrote.

The South’s success in desegregation can be attributed to some degree to its tumultuous past, according to Erica Frankenberg, research and policy director for the Civil Rights Project’s Initiative on School Integration.

“[The South] had to focus on that,” said Frankenberg. “… Attention that was paid to [segregated schools] came from all parts of the government,” which caused “massive action to be paid to [desegregation] in a very short amount of time.”

The South was also more creative in finding ways to integrate its schools that are still working today, despite the lower priority many have on school integration, Frankenberg added.

“A lot of schools in the South are based on a countywide model,” she said, “so they had a lot of different options [when] assigning kids to schools than you would in a number of places in the Northeast and the Midwest.”

The report also found that many students, especially blacks and Latinos, face a sort of “double segregation” when students’ family income is taken into account. The average black student attends a school where about 59 percent of his classmates are poor, according to the study, while for the average Latino student, the share of classmates in poverty is just over 57 percent. The percentages were significantly lower for white (32 percent) and Asian (36 percent) students.

The class-based division is relevant, the report argues, because multiple studies conducted over the last 50 years have shown that the achievement levels of both schools and their students “are affected by the proportion of the school’s total enrollment that is poor.”

“Schools with very high levels of poverty concentration tend to have weaker staffs, much less high achieving peer groups, many problems of health and nutrition, residential instability, single-parent households, few home resources, high exposure to crime and gangs, and many other negative conditions that are not caused by the school, but strongly affect the school’s operations and student outcomes,” according to the report.

The resources at a school’s disposal can also play a determining factor in student achievement, according to Janet Gillespie, director of programming at Community Change Inc., a Boston-based organization that advocates for racial justice.

“Schools [with a majority of students] of color tend to be under-resourced,” Gillespie said. “If you count facilities, to libraries, to teachers, to the curriculum — they’re all resources, and when diminished, the students get shortchanged.”

Here in Boston, the city’s student body consists predominantly of students of color, with blacks and Hispanics accounting for 76 percent of total Boston Public Schools (BPS) enrollment. Many BPS students also face financial challenges, with 72 percent of students in the system eligible to receive free or reduced-price school lunches.

“When more students are eligible for free lunch, it signals larger issues are afoot, and the report validates and confirms those notions,” said Darnell Williams, president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.

However, Williams was not necessarily fazed by the report’s findings about a retreat in public school integration.

“There’s nothing [necessarily] magical about Ruby and Becky sitting next to each other in school” if the education they’re receiving isn’t helping them succeed, he said. “The better strategy is to ask, ‘What makes a good school?’”