For more than a generation, the struggle to racially integrate the public schools defined education reform in the United States.
The fight began in the South, where segregated schools were a fact of life and law. Quickly, efforts to end separate and "inherently unequal" education spread to courtrooms and classrooms across the country.
Now, that fight is well on the way to being lost. In many US cities, schools in the past 10 years have become more, not less, segregated.
Such findings undeniably set off alarm bells, but not in all quarters. Three decades into busing and other desegregation remedies, some observers say, America has moved on. The focus now, they say, should be on student achievement - no matter what the racial composition of a particular school.
Others, though, continue to see danger in the trend toward schools that are predominantly nonwhite. "Our research consistently shows that schools are becoming increasingly segregated and are offering students vastly unequal educational opportunities," says Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which Tuesday released a study on the scope of resegregation.
The group that is becoming more isolated, the study found, is Latino students. While intense segregation for black students is still 28 points below its 1969 level, it has jumped 13.5 points for Latinos. More than 1 in 3 Latino students attends a school with minority enrollment of more than 90 percent - a ratio that compares with that for black students.
The study also raises concerns about the heavy concentration of students from low-income families in schools with high minority enrollment. Minority students increasingly find themselves isolated in poor schools: The average black or Latino student attends a school with more than twice as many poor classmates as the average white student.
Seventy percent of black students, meanwhile, now attend predominantly minority schools.
For veterans of the desegregation fights of the 1960s and '70s, these figures point to schools that are becoming more ethnically and racially polarized. As a result, they say, minorities aren't receiving the quality education they need, and white students won't learn to live in a multiracial society. Their answer: new policies to curb racial isolation.
Risks of resegregation
"There are a lot of risks involved [in the growing segregation of US schools]," says Mr. Orfield. "This is really our only tool to build an interracial society.... We're not making any progress on the housing front." It's no accident that this setback for black students occurred in a decade in which the US Supreme Court handed down three decisions that limited desegregation remedies, he adds.
But others say efforts to reintegrate schools via the courts can no longer be effective - and that the demographics of American cities have made classic racial-balancing schemes outmoded.
"There is a rise in Hispanic-white segregation, but it has nothing to do with policies," says David Armor, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of "Forced Justice: School Desegregation and the Law."
"As the Hispanic population has grown from 20 percent to 60 percent in some cities, both blacks and whites have diminished as a presence in the schools," he says. "Trying to overcome these demographic trends has proven to be next to impossible."
Nonetheless, Hispanic activists say, evidence of the growing isolation of their students has been underreported. They hope to use this study to improve educational opportunities for Hispanic students where they are.
"It's now quite obvious that Latinos are highly concentrated in schools that don&#8217;t have the requirements that research has shown are necessary for a quality education &#8211; small schools, small classes, qualified teachers, decent facilities, quality curriculum, high expectations,&#8221; says Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group.
North Carolina's experience
Resegregation is occurring rapidly in some parts of the US, both cities and rural areas. In Charlotte, N.C. - a city that once used busing to integrate its schools - only about half of the schools are now considered diverse, down from a high of nearly 90 percent in the 1980s.
In some towns, school-choice policies in recent years have accelerated that trend. When school choice became available to parents at Atkins Middle School in Winston-Salem, the school switched from being two-thirds white to 97 percent black over the course of a summer.
"Over the last several years, there has been a terrific increase in segregation even within the schools," says Randall Thomson, a professor at North Carolina State University.
Staff writer Marjorie Coeyman and Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor