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Janresseger: Seventy Years After “Brown v. Board” Decision, School Segregation Keeps Growing

This coming Friday marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. On May 17, 1954, writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice Earl Warren declared:

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Reading the honest assessment by Gary Orfield and Ryan Pfleger at the UCLA Civil Rights Project of growing school segregation across U.S. public schools is at the same time helpful and sobering as we mark 70 years since America began grappling with the decision that banned racially segregated schools and declared that public schooling should be provided for all students on equal terms as the foundation for democratic citizenship:

“Segregation of U.S. schools continues to increase, especially intense double segregation by race and concentrated poverty. As we have passed through a vast transition in the racial composition of the society and our metropolitan communities, there has been a serious failure to develop policies to foster positive and equitable race relations. Segregation is harming the segregated students including the whites. We’ve given up the best chance we have to prepare all of our students for the very diverse society they will be living and working in.  The deepening isolation has been spurred both by a Supreme Court hostile to desegregation, and the changing population of the U.S., with its historically low birth rates and several decades of overwhelmingly Latino and Asian immigration. Our unequal society has become more complex but there has been a policy vacuum.”  (The Unfinished Battle for Integration in a Multiracial America—from Brown to Now, p. 75)

Orfield and Pfleger continue: “This report shows that the pattern of intensifying segregation was continuing into the 2021-22 school year, nearly 70 years after Brown. It shows that, in spite of the accumulation of powerful evidence that segregation harms the education and life chances of students of color, the major integration efforts have been halted and reversed. The basic stance of state and local educational leaders has been to let segregation return and to do nothing about it, acting as if high stakes test-based educational reform or school choice could actually solve the racial problem.” (The Unfinished Battle for Integration in a Multiracial America—from Brown to Now, p. 76)

Finally, Orfield and Pfleger reject any hope that today’s U.S. Supreme Court will protect attempts to reduce racial segregation: “There has been a vacuum in federal desegregation policy since the 1980s when the last substantial desegregation aid programs were shut down. Given the consolidation of highly conservative control of the Supreme Court under President Trump, it’s very likely that leadership in this generation will have to come from other levels of government or from public interest or private institutions. Civil rights organizations can play an important role and so could universities. There are no universal solutions, but many things still permitted could make a difference… If the courts are not to order desegregation, it is now much more in the hands of educators and local communities and some state governments. So, it is important to think not only about what could work but also about what could pass in a legislative body or a school board.” (The Unfinished Battle for Integration in a Multiracial America—from Brown to Now, pp. 77-78)

Orfield and Pfleger suggest a mix of state and school district policies to support already diverse schools and incentivize diversity in schools that are now segregated. They add further recommendations for the adoption of housing policies that would integrate communities racially and economically.  One specific suggestion is to “require charter schools to show strategies and progress in reflecting the broader diversity of their region.” Other suggested strategies are to expand diverse magnet schools and within- and cross-district transfer policies despite the restrictions imposed by the 2007, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved that banned explicitly balancing within-district voluntary programs using data about race itself.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Stanford University education sociologists Sean Reardon and Ann Owens have launched a new, Segregation Explorer Website  to provide searchable data on racial and economic school segregation in states, counties, metropolitan areas, and school districts from 1991-2022.  I have not been able to locate the posting of what is reported to be a new paper to accompany the launch, but reporters received an early release of the paper and have covered it: Erica Meltzer, ChalkbeatLaura Meckler, Washington PostJill Barshay, Hechinger Report; and Carrie Spector, Stanford Graduate School Press Release.

Reardon and Owens’ study examines big data showing that racial segregation in public schools has increased significantly since court ordered busing was ended and since many voluntary within-district  busing programs based on race ended.  This report identifies growing segregation and at the same time changing segregation patterns as white students now make up 45 percent of the nation’s public school population, with Hispanic students now making up 30 percent.

Chalkbeat’s Meltzer emphasizes that despite these changes, intense segregation of Black students has increased significantly across U.S. big cities: “Between 1991 and 2019, Black-white segregation increased by 3.5 percentage points in the 533 districts that serve at least 2,500 Black students, an increase of 25% from historically low levels.  But in the 100 largest school districts, which serve about 38% of all Black students, the analysis found segregation increased 8 percentage points—a 64% increase.” At the same time, “Economic segregation increased considerably…. In 2019, the average Black student attended a school where the rate of students receiving free-or reduced-price lunch was 18 percent higher than in schools attended by white students in the same district.”

The Washington Post‘s Meckler explains that Reardon and Owens blame growing segregation on education policy choices: “The study finds that the rise nationally was not driven by increasing housing segregation.  Housing segregation certainly helps explain school segregation. But since 1991, housing has become less segregated.  The study also finds that rising school segregation is not driven by racial economic inequality because racial economic inequality has also declined over this period.”

Like Meckler, the Hechinger Report‘s Barsahay reports that Reardon identifies two causes for the persistent increase in racial segregation: “The expiration of court orders that mandated school integration and the expansion of school choice policies, including the rapid growth of charter schools, explains all of the increase in segregation from 2000 onward, said Reardon. Over 200 medium-sized and large districts were released from desegregation orders from 1991 to 2009, and racial segregation in these districts gradually increased in the years afterward. School choice, however, appears to be the dominant force. More than half of the increase in segregation in the 2000s can be attributed to the rise of charter schools, whose numbers began to increase rapidly in the late 1990s. In many cases, either white or Black families flocked to different charter schools, leaving behind a less diverse student body in traditional public schools.”

As Reardon and Owens update their data in upcoming months and years, it will be important to pay attention to the impact of the continued impact of school privatization on segregation as we watch the current explosive growth of private school tuition vouchers across a number of states. Reporters seem to indicate that Reardon and Owens used charter school enrollment as a proxy for school privatization, but they did not factor in the effect of the growth of vouchers.

On the 70th anniversary of the Brown decision, the bleak news is that our society continues to retreat from Brown‘s promise of equal opportunity for the students in our nation’s public schools. However, the Civil Right’s Project’s Orfield and Pfleger make a strong case for advocates to develop strategies—however modest—at the state and local level to desegregate our schools: “The (current) trends are toward increasing double segregation, by both race or ethnicity and poverty, segregation that channels most Black and Latino students away from our strong educational opportunities and keeps them isolated from the middle class in a time when employers are requiring higher and higher education credentials than ever before, and networks and relationship skills built in strong schools lead to opportunities.” (The Unfinished Battle for Integration in a Multiracial America—from Brown to Now, p. 11)  “Segregation produces inequality. When you build a barrier separating the more powerful and resource-rich part of society from groups with far less, the schools reflect those differences. In our society with racial segregation of neighborhoods and schools, persisting discrimination… perpetuates inequality… Failure to bring diverse children together in schools is a lost opportunity to lower prejudice and stereotypes and help students learn to function effectively in our profoundly multiracial society.” (The Unfinished Battle for Integration in a Multiracial America—from Brown to Now, p. 10)


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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...