A Closer Look At Desegregation

Efforts to integrate public schools need another push

AMERICANS today often look at the racial structure of their society with the same sense of inevitability that southerners shared before the civil rights revolution. There is a very strong tendency to assume that nothing can be done to change the basic structures of racial inequality and that existing efforts have failed. Decades of political leadership have exploited racial fears and constantly criticized civil rights policies. Yet that sense of changelessness is as wrong in America's case as it has been in South Africa's. No one predicted that the Southern schools in the United States would become the most integrated in the country a few years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and that educated African-Americans would begin migrating back into the South, but that has happened. We therefore should entertain the possibility that the common wisdom - that American schools and neighborhoods cannot be integrated - may be equally wrong and may be blocking critical initiatives.

The deep pessimism about the future of school integration is based on several widely accepted - and incorrect - notions:

* Americans no longer want integrated schools, and minority families now prefer segregated neighborhood schools.

* There is no evidence of gains from integration.

* Whites have abandoned public education because of desegregation and are fleeing to private schools.

* Much more money and effort has been put into integration than into educational improvement.

* Communities must choose between desegregation and educational improvement.

* Whites would return to urban schools if the neighborhood school system were restored.

* There would be high levels of parent involvement in schools if neighborhood schools were restored.

These assumptions are widely accepted because, since the mid-1960s conservatives usually have won the fierce political battles over civil rights issues, particularly school desegregation, affirmative action, and integrating subsidized housing. Determined opponents of urban school desegregation have won five presidential elections; Southern moderates who have said very little on the issue have won two others. As a result, the critics have defined the language used to discuss the issue; it is about ``busing,'' not ``integration.'' Many arguments from conservative critics are widely accepted as facts; but they are not.

The vast majority of Americans support integrated schools. The division comes over means, particularly mandatory busing. Most Americans say they oppose busing, especially when the issue is detached from integration. But when asked in a 1992 national survey whether they would support busing if if was the only way to integrate schools, 48 percent of whites, 76 percent of African-Americans, and 82 percent of Latinos said yes. In several national Harris surveys conducted since 1980, large majorities of white and minority parents whose children have been bused said that the experience was good. In a new statewide survey of Indiana college students, more than two-thirds of white and minority students support busing; both groups believe that students attending integrated schools had an advantage.

Certainly many people are disappointed over poorly designed or implemented plans, and opinion always has been divided within minority communities. But overall, the high level of support for integrated education and the increased acceptance of busing have not declined. At the same time, plans adopted in the last 15 years have placed much less emphasis on mandatory reassignments and much more emphasis on choices that students and parents of each racial group often see as beneficial.

To be truly successful, desegregation not only must provide access to stronger schools but it must also assure fair treatment within them. But there is overwhelming evidence that segregated schools are unequal and substantial evidence that minority students from desegregated schools gain in achievement and college success. Well-developed techniques have increased the benefits of desegregation. The evidence for this is actually stronger than that for many popular programs assumed to be highly beneficial, such as reducing the number of students per classroom.

Despite such evidence, desegregation has not been a basic priority for education spending during the last generation. Almost no federal money has gone to desegregation since the Reagan administration canceled a federal grant program to help schools deal with the issue. Federal investment instead has been aimed at upgrading segregated, high-poverty schools. This has also been the priority of the courts since the Supreme Court blocked city-suburban desegregation 20 years ago. Unfortunately, research shows that adding money does not produce equal schools.

Desegregation is not an alternative to educational change. Integrationists support extra money for disadvantaged schools. We also believe that reform is essential for making opportunities real. The conservatives who say that people must chose one or the other often support neither; civil rights supporters typically support both. Almost all newer court orders include both.

Nor have whites abandoned public education because of desegregation. Whites make up a smaller proportion of public schools because whites proportionately have had fewer babies, and immigration has been largely Latino and Asian. But the share of all white students who were in public schools actually increased during the 1980s, despite constant attacks on public education. White flight clearly occurred in some cities as their desegregation plans were first implemented, but white enrollment in cities with neighborhood schools already was undergoing a substantial decline. Boston's experience with court-ordered desegregation in the mid-1970s was an extreme case, not a typical example. Some of the most stable white enrollments have been in districts with the most comprehensive city-suburban busing plans, plans that ended severe segregation in some metropolitan areas.

By contrast, our recent study of the first major district to return to neighborhood schools under court order - Norfolk, Va. - shows that white flight continued, educational gaps widened, and the expected increase in parent involvement failed to occur. Problems connected with concentrated poverty almost immediately created inferior schools for black students who were sent back to poor neighborhoods.

We still do not know how to make separate schools equal. We must continue to try strategies to upgrade the segregated communities and their schools, but we must also reopen the campaign against the color line in education. There are workable models, they produce gains, and students and parents involved approve of the results. In metropolitan America, where our segregation is now concentrated, we are offering the best education to those who have the richest and best situated families and the worst to those for whom the schools are the only chance to succeed in life.

It is time for us to reexamine false assumptions about school integration and to reaffirm the oft-forgotten but deeply rooted truths of the Brown decision.

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