Is the racially integrated classroom a better classroom? Forty-five years after the federal courts started desegregating schools in the American South, the country still wrestles with this question.
Much of the wrestling goes on in court, as judges hand down rulings that, increasingly, narrow the "remedies" that can be used to achieve integration. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, covering Maryland to the Carolinas, recently ruled that school districts can't use race as a guideline in making school assignments.
Such rulings collide with the view held by many school administrators that "diversity" - the mixing of students from different racial and economic backgrounds - is important to academic performance. Particularly the performance of minority children.
To get around restrictions on assigning kids according to race, administrators are trying other criteria. The school district of Wake County, N.C., for instance, is focusing on family income and grades. No more than 40 percent of a school's students can qualify for free school lunches, and no more than 25 percent can be below grade level academically. Busing will maintain those proportions.
It's unclear if this backdoor approach to racial integration will pass muster in court. But more important is the fundamental educational issue: How crucial to learning is a racial or ethnic mix in the classroom?
Does learning "rub off" from better achieving kids (presumably white) to those who are having more of a struggle with school (presumably black or Hispanic)? The experts argue about this. Less debatably, a mix of students may help foster tolerance. In some circumstances, it may also help discipline and morale. But the central goal is academic - making sure more kids measure up in math and reading.
Demographics have to be factored in too. Some communities or regions, and therefore local schools, just don't have much racial diversity. In many other areas, the mix comes naturally, reflecting the local ethnic tapestry. In still others, a mix can be engineered by setting up schools with special academic offerings intended to attract diverse students, or by the often controversial step of busing.
Yet what matters most is likely to be the preparation and motivation of the students in a school. Those key ingredients are strengthened by committed teachers and, perhaps most of all, by caring families. Those crucial adults can be part of any school, with any racial composition. Where they're lacking, shuffling students to arrive at racial balance is likely to be an imperfect solution, at best.
That's not an argument against classroom diversity, or against particular districts doing what they can to encourage diversity. It is an argument for a better understanding of why some schools work and others don't, and for directing resources and reformist energies where they're most needed. Often, that means toward schools that serve students from lower-income, minority communities.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society