Desegregation in reverse
By JON EAST, Times Perspective Editor
On a day of quiet rebellion in April 1998, Barbara Crockett implored her fellow Pinellas School Board members to "stop playing games" with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The "game" that annoyed her was a plan to relax racial ratios under the 1971 federal court order governing school desegregation. Instead, she wanted the whole thing thrown out.
"I'm tired of caring what they think," Crockett said. "I'm ready to care about what the students and parents think."
Thus began the end of court-ordered school desegregation in this urban peninsular county on Florida's West Coast. More than four years later, the district is handing out applications for a system of choice student assignment that almost everyone agrees could eventually lead to some all-black and all-white schools. And Pinellas is by no means alone. Hillsborough, on the other side of Tampa Bay, has ended its order. So has Lee County to the south, Duval to the north, DeKalb in Georgia, Jefferson in Kentucky, Gadsden in Alabama, even Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina, where crosstown busing was first ordered.
The march is steady, led by federal judges who say they want to return "local control" to school districts -- except that the control comes at an unusual racial price: One by one, districts such as Pinellas are being told they no longer discriminate under the eyes of the law, and, one by one, they are re-creating schools that separate students by race.
A social movement triggered nearly a half-century ago by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision that famously proclaimed "separate is not equal" is now coming to an unceremonious end. The most telling gauge of this transformation comes from work compiled by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University:
In the South, the percentage of black students in public schools with a white majority dropped in 2000 to its lowest point since 1968.
"What is going on is a stunning historic reversal and a return to the belief that you can have separate but equal schools," says Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard, co-director of the Civil Rights Project and one the nation's leading authorities on school desegregation. "Superintendents in every district where this is happening say they've got a plan to make this work. They say we can have equal education in these resegregated schools.
"The problem is, as far as we can tell, no one has ever done that."
This movement toward resegregation began more than a decade ago and has many causes, but the role of the courts has been both defining and confounding.
Earlier this month, President Bush appointed a committee to begin planning the 50-year commemoration of Oliver Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the landmark Supreme Court ruling on May 17, 1954, that established the framework for school desegregation. The Brown court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, branded a 1896 court opinion on school segregation as fictional: "We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
The Brown decision eventually led to great social upheaval in this country, a period begun at the steps of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., where thousands of U.S. Army troops and a federalized National Guard were needed to assure that nine black students could walk through the front door. U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, in announcing the Brown committee, noted that past: "The decision dramatically opened the doors of opportunity to countless numbers of Americans, including me."
That decision is also becoming a distant legal memory.
In a progression of cases reaching back as far as 1974, the court has distanced itself from Brown:
-- In the 1974 Milliken vs. Bradley case, a 5-4 court turned down a plan to desegregate Detroit schools by transferring students between the largely black inner-city district and the largely white suburban districts. The decision virtually ruled out any inter-district transfers, thus ignoring a national pattern of white flight to the suburbs.
-- In 1991, a 5-3 court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said a desegregation order in Oklahoma City could be lifted even though the district was planning to return to segregated neighborhood schools. Rehnquist wrote that the district had "complied in good faith" and had eliminated the "the vestiges of past discrimination . . . to the extent practicable."
-- In 1992, a 5-3 court writing four separate opinions said that DeKalb County, Ga., was "under no duty to remedy imbalance that is caused by demographic factors" and said districts could be released from some court-ordered requirements even if others had not been met.
-- In 1995, in Kansas City, Mo., a 5-4 court said desegregation orders should be terminated even when there is evidence of wide academic disparity between races. Wrote Rehnquist: "Insistence upon academic goals unrelated to the effects of legal segregation unwarrantably postpones the day when the . . . (district) will be able to operate on its own."
Given such direction, it is hardly surprising that federal judges are continuing to declare individual school districts are "unitary," meaning they have eliminated their dual systems of education. But the perverse legal twist is that schools across the nation, once removed from court orders, are abandoning the very practices that helped them desegregate. They are turning away from cross-city busing and magnet schools with racial preferences, and some are doing so because they say the "unitary" declaration prohibits them from considering race at all.
That's an unproven assumption. Though the constitutional standards do change once a court determines that a school district has remedied its past discriminatory practices, most federal courts also acknowledge that racial diversity in schools is a "compelling governmental interest." The question then becomes how far a public school district can go in continuing to promote that interest. Can it bus students away from their homes? Can it use race as one factor in enrollment? Can it balance the racial composition of a magnet school to which both black and white students have applied?
Those questions so far have been answered in conflicting ways by federal appeals courts and ignored by the U.S. Supreme Court, which leaves school districts, during a period of tumultuous change, with no legal compass on race.
"There is a clear effort to remove race from consideration in schools," says Dennis Parker, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defend Fund. "What you have are school boards that are so afraid of being sued that they are running away from the possibility. There's a huge loss when they do."
Not surprisingly, the ambiguities have produced considerable confusion and indecision.
Pinellas completely rewrote its student assignment plan and says it will eliminate all racial components in four years. Lee County uses a race-conscious choice assignment plan, but has put together a community group to study whether to make changes. Nashville, Tenn., employed a wide variety of assignment policies, including zone clusters, choices and magnets. Wake County, N.C., has begun assigning students to schools based on their socioeconomic class, not their race, in an educational plan that is being adopted by other districts throughout the nation. Through it all, the federal government is still handing out some $95-million in local grants intended to promote school integration -- at a time when some federal courts say race can't be a factor.
One trend has been consistent, though. Once declared unitary, districts become less integrated. This shift toward less integration in schools is happening at a time when neighborhoods are becoming gradually more integrated.
Sean Reardon, a population researcher at Pennsylvania State University, has plotted the two trends over the past decade and reached some unsettling conclusions. In 1990, urban public schools in the South were 40 percent less segregated than the neighborhoods in their surrounding county. By 2000, those same schools were only 27 percent less segregated. The drop was worst in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.
"Given these patterns, it is clear that residential segregation changes are not responsible for the increases in school segregation in the South," Reardon writes. ". . . These trends are disturbing because they may represent the leading edge of a rapid process of resegregation of public schools in the South."
They also present a significant social and educational dilemma for this country. The problem with "separate but equal" is not just that black schools have historically received fewer resources. The problem is the continuing correlation between race and socioeconomic class. All-black schools are 11 times more likely to be high-poverty schools, and high-poverty schools create a culture that can be powerfully corrosive for students of all backgrounds.
A large body of research reports the effects of socioeconomic class on learning. For example, the latest U.S. Department of Education reports on fourth-grade academic assessment show that low-income children in higher-income schools scored higher on math than higher-income children in high-poverty schools. A new study by researchers at the University of California found a similar relationship in high school, where they determined that students' performance was affected at least as much by the socioeconomic status of their classmates as by their own: "The results of this study confirm a widely held belief of many parents -- that who you go to school with matters."
Like the courts, the politics attending school desegregation clearly have changed in the last generation. White parents have been joined increasingly by younger black parents who wonder whether busing is worth the trouble, and they have shifted the debate at school board rostrums from racial ratios to educational quality.
They are asking the same kinds of questions Barbara Crockett asked in Pinellas four years ago, questions about fairness and burden and about what happens inside schools at the end of long bus rides. Four years ago, Crockett said, "I think we need to go forward." But as the nation's schools return to separate but equal, the nagging question is whether these are steps that move public education forward or backward.
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