NEW YORK — It's difficult to find so much as an inch of common ground between the opponents of enforced public school desegregation and its supporters.
"Integration has had few, if any, benefits," says Bruno Manno, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. "Educational achievement has not been advanced."
Robert Crain, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York, asserts with equal conviction that there have been clear gains for minorities. "Do black kids benefit from going to desegregated schools? Yes, they do. There is good, solid evidence that black test scores go up, and black kids do better [later in life]."
After four decades of court-ordered school integration, students, parents, and educators of both races remain deeply divided on the issue. A spate of recent state rulings have released several cities from mandatory desegregation programs, prompting them to return to more racially separate neighborhood schools. But some observers worry that this rush toward local control is overlooking some of the gains achieved by desegregation.
A decade ago, Fort Wayne, Ind., peacefully desegregated its divided schools. Teashia Curry, an African-American high school senior, says she saw her educational opportunities improve. It's not fair, she says, but the truth is that "a predominantly white school offers better resources."
David Grissmer of the Rand Corp., a Washington-based think tank, has studied test scores from the 1970s and 1980s on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a congressionally mandated sampling of American students' academic skills. For African-American children entering public school after 1970, he says, there were "major gains for 9-, 13- and 17-year-old black kids, larger than normally seen in any population group."
The gains were achieved all over the country, says Mr. Grissmer, although they were especially strong in the South, where enforced school desegregation began in the 1970s. "It seems something began to happen to these cohorts of black children," he says. While some dismiss the gains as the result of better teaching and smaller class sizes, Grissmer is unconvinced. "If it were that, then there should have been comparable white gains as well," which there were not.
For black children entering school after 1980, the increases tailed off again. Some blame an increase in drug use and violence at that time. Grissmer declines to speculate. "We've made policies for a long time based on the assumption that most of what we've done for minorities didn't work. We'd have to explain those large score gains before we could draw such conclusions."
Some researchers see scholastic gains as less important than social ones. "Desegregation has a bunch of functions," says Janet Schofield, a social psychologist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "It may do some improving of academic achievement but it also serves a broader social function of breaking down barriers."
Professor Schofield says tests conducted over a 15-year span show that African-Americans who attended integrated schools tend "with noticeable frequency" to live in integrated neighborhoods, have mixed circles of friends, and hold higher-paying jobs.
"It is really important that kids have constructive exposure to kids from other backgrounds as they grow up," Schofield says. "It's even more important now than it was before. Our economy and our social welfare as a society depends on people from different backgrounds being able to work together."
But many disagree that such a goal is best accomplished by court-ordered desegregation. In Detroit, where 1,000 African-American students are thriving at one of Detroit's three public schools with an Afrocentric curriculum, principal Ray Johnson shakes his head at the mere mention of the issue. "You can't legislate that kind of thing," he insists. "I doubt if it's worth all the dollars" and trouble.
Even proponents of enforced desegregation agree that simply requiring black and white kids to sit side by side in classrooms is not helpful. Dan Bickel, principal of an integrated public elementary school in Fort Wayne, Ind., says that his youngest students arrive at school "color blind." "The first- and second-graders never use color to describe one another," he observes. "They just don't notice it."
But by fifth grade, Mr. Bickel says, these same kids who once fingerpainted and played on the seesaw together suddenly practice self-segregation. "It's almost as if at a certain point, society begins to come down on them," he says, "and they're now acting out what they see in the world around them."
David Armor, research professor at George Mason University's Institute of Public Policy in Fairfax, Va., says that "the races have gotten more information about one another" as a result of integrating schools. "But that doesn't always lead to more positive views of one another," he says. "There are still strong cultural and social and value differences."
Tom Smith, an African-American who is also principal of an integrated Fort Wayne public elementary school says that students still divide themselves racially. "It's like the old trend you saw in high school, breaking up into groups, in this case black kids and white kids." But, he adds, he has watched kids in his school "become more appreciative of one another." He notes that his students seem good at "finding likenesses in one another that transcend race."
* Last in a series. The first two parts ran Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, 1998. Send e-mail comments to email@example.com