SCHOOL integration is one of the most frustrating areas of social policy to have lost ground on. It's been 40 years since Brown vs. Board of Education. Yet "separate and unequal," struck down as law, confronts us as a fact in some ways more pervasive and entrenched now than it was in the 1950s and '60s when law and custom, particularly in the South, enforced it.
Americans live apart and so their children study apart. A bare handful of school districts - usually in the smaller cities of the South and Midwest such as Charlotte, N.C., and Cincinnati, Ohio - have kept up the effort and sustained reasonably balanced school enrollments over a period of years.
Elsewhere, the results of our national effort have justified the barely concealed despair one senses in most discussions of the possibility of integrated schools. Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Miami - our major city school systems are by most measures more segregated now than they when John Kennedy became president.
It may be that our integration efforts (like many of our policy schemes) have tried to do too much. Vast ambitions have led to vast failures, as the coercive or persuasive powers of government have been outstripped by the preferences of American middle class families moving ever farther out into the suburban rings around our cities.
For a time, many of us felt the Supreme Court's unwillingness to uphold inter-district busing was the great obstacle to success. But as lower federal courts, and some state courts, have insisted on remedies that have forced suburban and urban districts to integrate, the flight of families beyond integrated districts has been pronounced.
What can be done to reverse this pattern? The beginning of wisdom here is modesty about what we can accomplish. If racial integration remains an ideal in public education - and it ought to if our democratic ideals are to flourish - then we have to find our way to measures that will give us enduring success. Neither vouchers nor public school choice will improve this.
Here in Connecticut, the most suburban of all states, we have the makings of a small-scale but lasting initiative for public school integration. We are proposing a set of magnet schools in partnership with colleges and universities. These schools, mostly still in planning, will draw students from city and suburban districts to school settings near the campuses of urban universities and colleges like Yale and Trinity.
Combining specialized curricula in arts, sciences, or languages with "school-based management" - and competing with city and suburban schools - these partnership schools promise to deliver excellence and integration.
Ties between the elementary and secondary schools and colleges and universities will provide a powerful model that will draw suburban school children into inner-city settings. This means such schools can elude the conundrum of one-way integration that takes inner-city schoolchildren and sends them to the best suburban high schools - thus "skimming off" the most active inner-city families and the most promising inner-city children from already impoverished school districts.
The Connecticut scheme goes in the opposite direction by pulling suburban students into the cities.
The prestige of colleges and universities - as well as the enrichments they can offer to both elementary and secondary schools - assures city and suburban parents that they will be providing their children with educations that will match the best they can find in the suburbs or in private schools. In this sense, the partnership schools will draw on the lessons of the private lab schools such as the one at the University of Chicago.
A college or university partnership provides facilities and opportunities few secondary schools can match. We know that competitive city high schools such as New York's Stuyvesant, Philadelphia's Central, or Boston's Latin can rival or surpass the quality of the best private or suburban schools.
But the trick is to devise a substitute for the long-standing traditions of excellence that such schools inherit. The college partnership can do that, and can do it quickly. What is more, it can do it in a way that can be repeated in nearly every city in the land.
In Hartford and in New Haven, fledgling regional magnet schools are already underway in the arts. More are planned in languages and science. Their ties to universities and colleges will assure their attractiveness to both inner-city and outer-city students. At a time when so many of the initiatives in school reform ignore both integration and the public schools, the Connecticut effort seeks to create a model that could easily be extended to cities throughout the country.
The greatest obstacle to our efforts in Connecticut - and one that has delayed the opening of several regional magnet schools for which plans have long been made - is the town-by-town, district-by-district budgets that characterize public school finance in this part of the country.
No one town stands to gain much from the creation of the new regional magnet schools. Each town will lose a few students - but not enough at the outset to reduce fixed costs. This means that unless the state steps in, as Connecticut seems prepared to do, to finance the incremental cost of the partnership schools, the progress toward regional, integrated schooling will be stopped or slowed by a lack of facilities.
Federal intervention to create incentives for every state to create such schools would give this effort the impetus to spread to every region of the country.
There are those who will say that regional magnets in partnership with higher education will never change the conditions of our inner-city schools. Some will say, too, that such schools are by their nature elitist. This initiative is vulnerable to both charges. Excellent public schools in inner cities are rare. Those we create will at first seem special or elite. Moreover, drawing students from a region rather than a single district will have a tendency to create an unusually well-motivated body of stude nts and parents.
We cannot create enough such schools to educate every inner-city student at a university- or college-based partnership school. What we can do is take one step toward providing a public school education at once excellent and integrated.
In this late hour for our cities and our schools, that is an ambition worthy of our best efforts.