The United States has made no progress in desegregating its public schools since the early 1970s. That's the thrust of a new report released this week at the University of Chicago. In most states, the study found that while black students have managed to hold on to the early gains in desegregation, Hispanic students are becoming increasingly isolated.
While the report represents a snapshot of the current level of desegregation in each state, researchers disagree on what conclusions can be drawn from the data.
For Gary Orfield, director of the National School Desegregation Project, which produced the report, the implications are clear. ``The black findings show that if you want to do something and you try it, you can do it and it will last,'' he says. New and sweeping policies are needed to further integrate blacks and reverse the isolation of Hispanics, he adds.
Other researchers are more cautious.
``One cannot draw policy conclusions from this data alone,'' says Christine Rossell, a Boston University professor who has served as a consultant in several school desegregation cases. Demographic trends, such as population growth, can swamp even the best efforts by states and cities to desegregate schools.
Using Education Department data, the University of Chicago researchers found that the degree of desegregation varies widely by state.
Nationally, 63.5 percent of black students in 1984 attended predominantly minority public schools - those at which at least half of the students are minorities. The 63.5 percent rate is virtually unchanged from 1972 but considerably lower than the 76.6 percent rate in 1968.
Among the states, Delaware was the most integrated in 1984, with a 5.8 percent rate; Kentucky was second with 8.9 percent. At the other extreme, Illinois was the most segregated with an 84 percent rate, followed by Michigan (83.8 percent) and New York (81.7). The researchers used two other measures of desegregation, which showed Illinois, Michigan, and New York as the most segregated.
The national figures for Hispanics were more discouraging, professor Orfield says. In 1968, 54.8 percent of Hispanics attended predominantly minority schools; by 1984, the rate was 70.6 percent. Several states have so few Hispanics that their schools are virtually 100 percent integrated. On the other hand, New York schools were the most segregated with 85.1 percent, followed by Illinois (79.2 percent) and Texas (77.9). Other measures showed the same trend.
The main problems stem from the concentration of minorities in the nation's largest cities, desegregation experts agree. Increasingly, minorities dominate these urban cores. A state like New Jersey can be aggressive in trying to integrate its schools but make little headway because there are few whites left to integrate in its major center, Newark, Professor Rossell says.
Other education experts are also pessimistic about what can be done to desegregate classrooms in the nation's largest cities. They are already too minority-dominated for a single program, such as magnet schools, to reverse the situation, says Mario Fantini, a University of Massachusetts professor. ``The whole system has to be thrown open to a series of alternative schools,'' he says, which would draw not just from the school district, like magnet schools do, but from the suburbs as well.
Breaking down these city-suburban barriers is a key to desegregation, Orfield and Rossell agree. But large legal and political barriers remain. A 1974 Supreme Court decision, which rejected city-suburban integration in Detroit, has made it difficult to break district lines.
And some cities are moving away from desegregation. Little Rock, Ark., dismantled some of its program, in part because the growth of the city's black population resulted in blacks being bused to schools that were increasingly black. Norfolk, Va., last year also stopped its busing program for elementary schools. ``Parents simply didn't want to put their kids on a bus and send them across town,'' says one local official.