School desegregation has been on America's agenda for four decades. It remains a matter of national concern, despite the trend away from court rulings that mandate racial integration. If anything, urban school districts have become increasingly black and Hispanic; test scores and the condition of buildings continue to slide in many cities.
The latter factors led Connecticut's Supreme Court early this month to defy the legal current and declare unconstitutional the extreme racial imbalance of Hartford's public schools. The city's schools are 94 percent black and Hispanic, reflecting many years of white flight. The majority of students come from poor families and often bring to the classroom the effects of social and family disadvantage. Hartford's students rank last on Connecticut's standardized tests.
The state high court's decision, reversing a lower-court ruling that the state was not responsible for the city's segregated schools, has caused some hand-wringing in Hartford's suburbs. The specter of forced busing arouses concern. But, more likely, policies will tend toward strengthened magnet schools in the city, voluntary exchanges of students across urban and suburban district lines, and perhaps the development of charter schools that attract motivated kids - and parents - from various communities.
Such methods are hardly cure-alls. Look at the shortfall of Kansas City's desegregation plan, which emphasized magnet schools as a way of drawing suburban white children back into the city. For all the money poured in, the plan yielded little racial mixing. Another tack is to invest in city districts, overall, and bring their schools up to par. But Hartford's schools - like Newark's in New Jersey - already have the highest per-pupil expenditures in the state. Hartford has also just gone through a couple of years of experimentation with private management of its schools. That effort failed for a multitude of reasons, leaving students little benefit.
Hartford's experience of deepening segregation is duplicated in other Connecticut cities such as Bridgeport and New Haven, which could be directly affected by the recent ruling. Around the country, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Denver, and other cities face similar dilemmas. A number remain under court order to seek a solution.
The trend of US Supreme Court rulings, however, is against setting race-based goals unless intentional discrimination can be shown. De facto segregation in city schools is perhaps the prime example of racially inequitable conditions springing from individual decisions to move to communities with better schools and less crime. Minority families often make the same move when their resources allow.
But millions of young people remain behind in schools that clearly aren't doing the job needed to prepare them for work and advancement. This problem lies at the heart of much of the racial tension in America. Governments, political leaders, and individual citizens have to address it. It cannot merely be brushed under the rug as intractable.
Court decisions like that in Connecticut, though they offer no pat solutions, can at least keep us focused on the need to work together toward a more meaningful education for all America's children.