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Panelists discuss Hub school desegregation

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Panelists discuss Hub school desegregation
Tanisha Sullivan makes a point while Michael Keating, Barbara Fields and Giles Li listen. BANNER PHOTO

In 1974, judge Arthur Garrity ruled in favor of black parents seeking an equal share of the city’s resources, ordering the city to desegregate its school system through court-ordered busing.

Forty-five years later, black and Latino parents are again confronting schools that are re-segregating along racial and economic lines and battling for equal allocation of educational resources.

“We still struggle in Massachusetts with how we fund education,” said NAACP Boston Branch President Tanisha Sullivan, speaking during an event marking the 45th anniversary of Garrity’s desegregation decision. “For black and brown families whose schools are under-funded, it means they’re not receiving the resources they need because their families are not able to fill in the gaps.”

Joining Sullivan on the panel at the law offices of Foley Hoag were former Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts President Barbara Fields, Foley Hoag Attorney Michael Keating, Lawyers for Civil Rights Attorney Lauren Sampson and Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center Director Giles Li.

The panelists spoke of the gains black, Latino and Asian students and teachers made following the 1974 desegregation ruling and the challenges they face as the city’s schools face growing inequality.

Sampson gave a legal history of the case, noting that the Boston School Committee had been in non-compliance with the state’s 1965 Racial Imbalance Act, with 80 percent of students attending segregated schools. Black students contended with overcrowded classrooms, out-of-date textbooks, shortages of instructional supplies and other deficiencies related to unequal funding.

Sullivan commented on the legal strategy of pursuing a desegregation order.

“At that point in time, what the black community believed was that integration was the only way our children would have access to a quality education,” she said. “That quest for a quality education continues to this day.”

Keating recounted how Foley Hoag took on the case at the behest of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (now known as Lawyers for Civil Rights). The firm had been looking for a big case to take on, and the school desegregation case fit the bill.

“It was complex,” Keating said. “It required a lot of resources. It had an important social objective.”

Lead counsel for the School Committee was James St. Clair, an accomplished attorney who later represented President Richard Nixon during the Watergate-era United States v. Nixon case.

At the recent event, Fields, a former teacher, noted that the desegregation order applied to the school department’s workforce as well as to student assignment, calling for 25 percent of teachers hired to be black and an additional 10 percent from other communities of color.

By 1990, the desegregation order had ended for school assignment, but the requirement for teachers of color remains in force. The district remains in noncompliance with the court order, Fields noted, adding that there is still a need for more teachers of color in the system.

“Teacher diversity remains an area that research shows is crucial to student performance,” she said.

After the panelists shared their perspectives on and memories of the desegregation case and its aftermath, moderator Megan Irons, a Boston Globe reporter, asked why the history of desegregation is commonly told through the lens of busing, the remedy Garrity implemented in 1974, without the historical context that explains why it was necessary.

Li said talking about Boston’s history of racism is difficult for many Bostonians.

“If we can keep telling the truths, it may be inspirational for people to know what it takes to keep up a fight for 13 years, because often, that’s what it takes,” he added.

Irons noted that 60 percent of Boston’s schools are currently “intensely segregated,” up from 42 percent 20 years ago.

Sullivan attributed the re-segregation of Boston’s schools to the city’s political leadership.

“One of the things that is most troubling today, what we see is not simply a regression in one area, it’s regression on almost all of the issues Judge Garrity addressed in his order,” she said.

Sullivan put some of the blame on the city’s mayoral-appointed school committee, which is tasked with setting policies for the schools.

“One of the things we’re examining is whether we should reconsider the governance structure of the Boston School Committee,” she said.

“Wasn’t the elected school committee part of the problem?” Irons countered.

Much of the conversation revolved around the issues of resource allocations and unequal educational opportunities. Several of the panelists noted that after 45 years, those issues have improved, but still remain. Sullivan said desegregation was an imperfect solution but added that it may still be the most potent tool for combatting inequality.

“At the end of the day, most parents want their kids to go to a school close to home,” she said. “It makes sense. The problem is that close-to-home neighborhood schools for black people often means that schools are not of the same quality as schools in the white community.”

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