Brown v. Board Of Ed: A Bittersweet Birthday

Decades of progress on integration have been followed by disturbing slippage

May 17 marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that declared racially segregated "separate but equal" schools unconstitutional. The case is widely regarded as one of the court's most important decisions of the 20th century, but the birthday celebration will be something of a bittersweet occasion. There's no question that African Americans have made major strides since-economically, socially, and educationally. But starting in the late 1980s, political backlash brought racial progress to a halt. Since then, schools have slowly been resegregating, and the achievement gap between white and minority schoolchildren has been widening again. Can the U.S. ever achieve the great promise of integration? Some key questions follow:

What did the court strike down in 1954?

Throughout the South and in border states such as Delaware, black and white children were officially assigned to separate schools. In Topeka, Kan., the lead city in the famous case, there were 18 elementary schools for whites and just 4 for blacks, forcing many African American children to travel a long way to school. The idea that black schools were "equal" to those for whites was a cruel fiction, condemning most black kids to a grossly inferior education.

Surely we've come a long way since then?

Yes, though change took a long time. Over 99% of Southern black children were still in segregated schools in 1963. The 1960s civil rights movement eventually brought aggressive federal policies such as busing and court orders that forced extensive integration, especially in the South. So by 1988, 44% of Southern black children were attending schools where a majority of students were white, up from 2% in 1964. "We cut school desegregation almost in half between 1968 and 1990," says John Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban & Regional Research at State University of New York at Albany.

What's the picture today?

There have been some real gains. The share of blacks graduating from high school has nearly quadrupled since Brown, to 88% today, while the share of those ages 25 to 29 with a college degree has increased more than sixfold, to 18%.

Another important trend is in housing, which in turn helps determine the characteristics of school districts. Residential integration is improving, albeit at a glacial pace. There's still high housing segregation in major metropolitan areas, but it has fallen four percentage points, to 65%, on an index developed by the Mumford Center. Some of the gains are happening in fast-growing new suburbs where race lines aren't so fixed. A few big cities have improved, too. In Dallas, for example, black-white residential segregration fell from 78% in 1980 to 59% in 2000.

Why haven't schools continued to desegregate, too?

The increased racial mixing in housing hasn't been nearly large enough to offset the sheer increase in the ranks of minority schoolchildren. While the number of white elementary school kids remained flat, at 15.3 million, between 1990 and 2000, the number of black children climbed by 800,000, to 4.6 million, while Hispanic kids jumped by 1.7 million, to 4.3 million. The result: Minorities now comprise 40% of public school kids, vs. 32% in 1990. And as the nonwhite population has expanded, so have minority neighborhoods -- and schools.

So minorities have lost ground?

Yes, in some respects. By age 17, black students are still more than three years behind their white counterparts in reading and math. And whites are twice as likely to graduate from college. Taken as a whole, U.S. schools have been resegregating for 15 years or so, according to studies by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project (table). "We're celebrating [Brown] at a time when schools in all regions are becoming increasingly segregated," says project co-director Gary Orfield.

What role has the political backlash against integration played?

The courts and politicians have been pulling back from integration goals for quite a while. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that heavily black Detroit didn't have to integrate its schools with the surrounding white suburbs. Then, in the 1980s, the growing backlash against busing and race-based school assignment led politicians and the courts to all but give up on those remedies, too.

So what are the goals now?

The approach has shifted dramatically. Instead of trying to force integration, the U.S. has moved toward equalizing education. In a growing number of states, the courts have been siding with lawsuits that seek equal or "adequate" funding for minority and low-income schools.

The No Child Left Behind Act goes even further. It says that all children will receive a "highly qualified" teacher by 2006 and will achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014. It specifically requires schools to meet these goals for racial subgroups. Paradoxically, it sounds like separate but equal again. Both the equal-funding suits and No Child Left Behind aim to improve all schools, whatever their racial composition. Integration is no longer the explicit goal.

Can schools equalize without integrating?

It's possible in some cases, but probably not for the U.S. as a whole. The Education Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., has identified a number of nearly all-black, low-income schools that have achieved exceptional test results. But such success requires outstanding leadership, good teachers, and a fervent commitment to high standards.

These qualities are far more difficult to achieve in large urban schools with many poor kids -- the kind most black and Hispanic students attend. The average minority student goes to a school in which two-thirds of the students are low-income. By contrast, whites attend schools that are just 30% low-income.

So are black-white achievement gaps as much about poverty as race?

Yes, which is why closing them is difficult with or without racial integration. Studies show that middle-class students tend to have higher expectations, more engaged parents, and better teachers. Poor children, by contrast, often come to school with far more personal problems. Yet poor schools are more likely to get inferior teachers, such as those who didn't major in the subject they teach. Many poor schools also lose as many as 20% of their teachers each year, while most middle-class suburban schools have more stable teaching staffs. "Research suggests that when low-income students attend middle-class schools, they do substantially better," says Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public policy think tank in New York City.

Is it possible to achieve more economic integration?

There are a few shining examples, but they take enormous political commitment. One example that education-system reformers love to highlight is Wake County, N.C., whose 110,000-student school district includes Raleigh. In 2000, it adopted a plan to ensure that low-income students make up no more than 40% of any student body. It also capped those achieving under grade level at 25%. Moreover, it used magnet schools offering specialized programs, such as one for gifted children, to help attract middle-income children to low-income areas.

Already, 91% of the county's third- to eighth-graders work at grade level in math and reading, up from 84% in 1999. More impressive, 75% of low-income kids are reading at grade level, up from just 56% in 1999, as are 78% of black children, up from 61%. "The academic payoff has been pretty incredible," says Walter C. Sherlin, a 28-year Wake County schools veteran and interim director of the nonprofit Wake Education Partnership.

Could this serve as a national model?

For that to happen in many cities, school districts would have to merge with the surrounding suburbs. Wake County did this, but that was back in the 1970s and part of a long-term plan to bring about racial integration. In the metro Boston area, by contrast, students are balkanized into dozens of tiny districts, many of which are economically homogeneous. The result: Some 70% of white students attend schools that are over 90% white and overwhelmingly middle-class. Meanwhile, 97% of the schools that are over 90% minority are also high-poverty. Similar patterns exist in most major cities, but most affluent white suburbs aren't likely to swallow a move like Wake County's.

How important is funding equality within states?

It's critical, especially if segregation by income and race persists. Massachusetts, for instance, has nearly tripled state aid to schools since 1993, with over 90% of the money going to the poorest towns. That has helped make Massachusetts a national leader in raising academic achievement.

Nationally, though, there are still huge inequities in school spending, with the poorest districts receiving less money than the richest -- even though low-income children are more expensive to educate. Fixing these imbalances would be costly. Even in Massachusetts, a lower court judge ruled on Apr. 26 that the system still shortchanges students in the poorest towns. Nationally, it would cost more than $50 billion a year in extra funding to correct inequities enough to meet the goals of No Child, figures Anthony P. Carnevale, a vice-president at Educational Testing Service.

If, somehow, the U.S. could achieve more economic integration, would racial integration still be necessary?

Proficiency on tests isn't the only aim. As the Supreme Court said last year in a landmark decision on affirmative action in higher education: "Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized." It's hard to see how students attending largely segregated schools, no matter how proficient, could be adequately prepared for life in an increasingly diverse country. In this sense, integrating America's educational system remains an essential, though still elusive, goal.

By William C. Symonds in Boston

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