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Is Desegregation Dead?

Schools still seek to promote integration despite a setback in the Supreme Court

By Alain Jehlen

A visitor to Nina Grow’s history class at Westport Traditional Middle School in Louisville, Kentucky, might be surprised to witness her Civil War lesson: A Black student stands in front of the class role-playing a White, pre-Civil War slave owner, vigorously defending slavery as essential to the economy, while a White student argues it’s immoral.

Candace Foster sees both good and bad in Louisville's desegregation plan.
Several miles closer to downtown, in Roger Thomas’ room at Highland Middle School, multi-racial groups of students compare notes on what’s happened in their lives over the last 10 years, discovering that some of their experiences are similar, but others are wildly different.

These students are stretching their minds to understand how the world looks to people with very different backgrounds, and learning valuable lessons for life in a diverse nation. Grow and Thomas couldn’t pull it off without the diversity they see in their classes, which is the result of the school district’s effort to bring children of different races together. But last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that Louisville’s integration program is illegal, leaving teachers there wondering what their classes will look like a few years from now.

Louisville has had one of the country’s more successful integration programs, made possible by the fact that the city and the mostly White surrounding area are all part of the same Jefferson County district. The county’s students are about 55 percent White, 35 percent Black, and 10 percent Hispanic and other minorities.

Like most integration plans these days, Louisville’s was not court-ordered; the district wanted to integrate. Now Louisville and many other school systems are scrambling to come up with new ways to accomplish the same goals, namely to:

  • End the racial isolation of Black and other minority children.
  • Reduce the number of schools with overwhelming majorities of low-income children.
  • Help middle-class and affluent White children get to know children from different backgrounds.

Educators have long been among the strongest supporters of efforts to integrate schools by both race and class. Many teachers know firsthand how tough it can be to teach a class full of students who live in poverty. Although there are many poor White students and affluent members of minority groups, racially segregated schools are often overwhelmingly poor.

America’s schools were resegregating even before last June’s court ruling. Research by The Civil Rights Project ( ), an authoritative research group, found that after the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision, racial isolation for Black students in the schools fell until the 1980s, but has been gradually rising since then.

Civil Rights Project researcher Erica Frankenberg says one reason is that there are fewer White students in urban areas to integrate the schools than there used to be. Also, she says, an increasingly conservative Supreme Court has been lifting desegregation mandates, district by district.

Meanwhile, isolation of Hispanic students has risen steadily as their numbers have grown. Hispanic students have rarely been included in desegregation efforts, Frankenberg says.

To teacher Roger Thomas, the latest Supreme Court decision was very bad news. “Until housing is integrated, schools need to be intentionally integrated or students from different backgrounds will not have the advantage of learning from each other,” he says.

But Nina Grow has mixed feelings. On the one hand, when her students learn together, it helps them “get ready to go out into the world and deal with a variety of people.” Still, Grow also is beginning to think the advantages of Louisville’s integration program may be outweighed by the disadvantages: the long bus rides, the extra travel problems for students in after-school activities, and the barrier to parent involvement.

Resources for Teaching Diverse Classes

Teaching Tolerance, founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides educators with free educational materials that promote respect for differences and appreciation of diversity in the classroom and beyond. 

At Shelby Elementary School, which, like Westport, is split almost evenly between White and Black students, physical education teacher Candace Foster shares Nina Grow’s mixed feelings. She says some Jefferson County schools have racial tensions, but “Shelby is like a family, and each side gets to see the other side of the picture, so I do think the kids come out on top.” But Foster, like Grow, doesn’t like the travel headaches for students and parents, especially low-income Black parents without cars.

In the wake of the Court decision, Louisville and many other districts are looking into using social class instead of race in their student assignment plans.

About 40 school systems already integrate students by social class, according to a report by Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation. Among them are big districts like 135,000-student Wake County in North Carolina, and smaller ones like 5,800-student Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Like Jefferson County, Wake County includes a city—Raleigh—along with suburbs and rural areas. It has students of all social classes. Wake NCAE President Jennifer Lenane says the district’s social class diversity is essential to making integration work: There are enough middle class kids to go around so that few schools are mostly poor.

There’s also a dedicated school board, says Lenane. “They are remarkable people. They’ve sometimes had to take a lot of heat” defending integration, she says.

Besides income, Wake County also looks at reading ability. The target is to have no more than 40 percent of a school’s students eligible for subsidized meals, and no more than 25 percent reading below grade level.

The county is divided into small geographic areas that are assigned to schools in a way that’s intended to integrate the schools with the shortest possible bus rides, according to Charles Delaney, the assistant superintendent in charge of making that system work.

But the “shortest possible” bus trip can be long. The district says average rides are roughly 30 minutes each way, with some clocking in at 45 minutes or even longer.

More Separate

The racial isolation of Black students fell after desegregation efforts took hold, but today it is rising again.

More trends: Hispanics and region-by-region
Blacks in 50-100%
Minority Schools
Blacks in 90-100%
Minority Schools
Source: Civil Rights Project.
Some of the travelers are volunteers. Wake County has an array of impressive magnet schools in low-income areas that pull suburbanites’ offspring into the city—about 9 percent of all students. But, as in many other desegregation programs, the children who take long rides because of school assignments, not choice, are disproportionately low-income and Black. Delaney acknowledges that’s a problem, but says, “by and large, the community accepts that if we’re going to have a real mix, you’ve got to do that. Otherwise, more and more low-income and high-needs students wind up in a particular school because of housing availability, and the middle-class families leave.”

Wake County bus driver Chris Bridges rode the bus himself when he was in high school—an hour and a half each way. “It was my decision,” he stresses. “The school I went to offered a concentration in music. I got up at 5:30 and it was worth it.”

But he thinks children, particularly elementary students, should not be made to take long trips just for the sake of integration.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, is only 6.4 square miles, compared with Wake County’s 850 square miles, so distance is less of a problem there. But integration has still been highly controversial. Some middle-class parents fear their children will be slowed down by poorer children with weaker educational backgrounds and less motivation to learn.

Cambridge resident Julie Craven lives integration both as a parent and a teacher. Her school, King Open, was founded with an individualized, learn-at-your-own-pace philosophy that appealed mostly to middle-class parents, but five years ago, it moved to a building near a housing project. Now it’s about 40 percent low-income, a change that took some adjusting. “Some of the kids coming in had lower test scores and struggled over big words, but they were readers and thinkers,” she says. “They forced us to teach better.” Craven and her colleagues work to expand their children’s vocabularies, move through the material more slowly, and explain things more thoroughly. Craven says many middle-class students benefit from the new approach: “I realized that a lot of them weren’t getting it as much as I thought they were.”

Craven’s 9-year-old is at the same school, and “he’s got a whole range of friends. That will help him move around in the world.”

Resources for Teaching Diverse Classes

Teaching Tolerance, founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides educators with free educational materials that promote respect for differences and appreciation of diversity in the classroom and beyond.

But some affluent Cambridge parents don’t see it that way. Over the years, they’ve repeatedly tried to maneuver their children into elite settings, followed by efforts by school officials to close loopholes, followed by angry complaints from affluent parents.

To Cambridge Teachers Association president Jack Haverty, that’s just plain elitism. “Everybody should be on an equal playing field,” he says. “This is public education and it should serve everybody the same way.”

Researcher Kahlenberg says studies indicate that having low-income students in a class won’t hurt the test scores of middle-class students so long as the majority are middle class, presumably because the majority sets the school culture. He says solid evidence backs Julie Craven’s belief that diversity is good for all students.

Gary Orfield, head of The Civil Rights Project, is in favor of integrating students by social class, but he urges educators not to give up on other approaches that can bring students of different races together. For example, he says, the Court did not forbid districts from assigning students on the basis of where they live, so schools can legally set aside a certain number of seats at a school for each neighborhood. Ironically, since housing is often segregated, guaranteeing seats to every neighborhood is likely to produce integration in school. The Civil Rights Project, he says, is ready to help schools explore this and other approaches.

Orfield also says the Supreme Court ruling is a wake-up call to educators to get more active in politics. “If the last Presidential election had gone differently,” he says, “the ruling would have been 6 to 3 in the other direction.”

The Ruling

Does the Supreme Court’s 5–4 ruling against desegregation in Louisville and Seattle block any effort to integrate White and minority children in our schools?

Not quite.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the crucial fifth vote against Louisville and Seattle, wrote that school districts can use “race- conscious measures” to counter segregation if they do it without treating individual students differently on the basis of their race. As examples of allowable measures, he mentioned magnet schools, site selection for new school buildings, and redrawing attendance zones.

It’s the particular way these two districts used race in deciding student assignments that Kennedy felt was unconstitutional—he didn’t say using race is always unconstitutional.

Kennedy also said that the other four justices who voted against the desegregation plans were “too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of race.”

Some school leaders believe the race-conscious techniques that Justice Kennedy endorsed can’t do much to stop segregation. But others say desegregation dodged a bullet with this decision.

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