Racially Isolated Schools Limit Children’s Potential. Let’s change that.
The re-segregation of America’s schools means that ethnic-minority and/or low-income students attend schools with far fewer fiscal and human resources (Darling-Hammond, 1998; Leadership Conference, 2013; Morgan & Amerikaner, 2018). Because schools are funded largely through taxes levied on local property, those serving ethnic-minority and/or low-income students (who, on average, live in neighborhoods categorized by low concentrations of property wealth) receive less funding than their majority White counterparts (Leadership Conference, 2013). As a result, majority-minority districts spend thousands less per student than majority-White districts (Rutgers, 2018).
A recent study by the Education Trust found that school districts serving large populations of students of color and poor students spend 13% less per student than those serving the fewest number of students of color (Morgan & Amerikaner 2018). These spending inequities directly correlate to student achievement in these districts, where students in majority-minority districts are more likely to be in over-subscribed classrooms, perform poorer on standardized tests, and are less likely to go to college (Darling-Hammond, 1998).
Segregated schools also mean that minority/low-income students do not have access to the same degree of human capital as their counterparts in majority-White schools. As Richard Kahlenberg and others have noted, economic segregation (which strong correlates with racial segregation) “almost inevitably means unequal access to the best teachers and other resources” (Kahlenberg, 2014).
This disparity in human resources has also been documented by the United States Department of Education, which found that in schools where more than three-quarters of the students were classified as low-income, “there were three times as many uncertified or out-of-field teachers in both English and science” (Wirt, et. al., 2004). This inequity is especially problematic, considering how determinative good teachers are to a student’s short-term success (Darling-Hammond, 1998).
The solution, then, to fixing the inequitable distribution of resources is to finally desegregate the nation’s schools.
Federal Attempts to Address Racial Isolation in Schools
The issue of school (de)segregation has largely played out in the courts, with noticeably less activity by the Congress. Starting with the Court’s declaration in 1954 that “separate is inherently unequal,” there have been good faith efforts by jurists around the country to use the Courts to bring about the integration of the nation’s schools (Brown, 1954). And for a while, that worked: schools became more integrated, the prospect of graduating high school rose for the average Black students, and some of the previously recognized inequities between students of different races started to dissipate.
But the changes were not instantaneous or immediate. Many districts and politicians considered education to be an issue of “local control,” and, as a result, did not feel compelled to honor the Court’s decision in Brown. It took several cases and court orders following the 1954 decision to see movement on implementation.
Five crucial, post-Brown decisions highlight the climax and downfall of the fight to desegregate schools in the latter half of the twentieth century: Brown II, Green, Swann, Milliken, and Parents Involved. Brown II was the first implementation decision, tasking local school authorities and their courts with the responsibility to desegregate their public schools “with all deliberate speed” (Brown, 1955). In Brown II, the justices thought that the tremendous variance in the way school lines were apportioned and the distinct make-up of schools and districts across the country prohibited the Court from putting forth a specific formula that would be uniformly applicable. However, they were also keenly aware of the massive resistance to the original decision throughout the South and sought to craft language that would allow southern politicians and school boards more time to come into compliance (Chen, 2006).
Thirteen years after Brown II, the Court became fed up with the snail-like pace of integration in the South and took up other cases to settle the issue. In Green, the Court set forth a new, unambiguous standard when they declared that school districts that were still un-integrated, operating dual systems of education for students of different races, must develop a plan for desegregation that “promises realistically to work, and promises realistically to work now,” and that those plans must be sufficient to eliminate the vestiges of segregation “root and branch” (Green, 1968).
While this new standard armed many lower courts with the legal tools to advance integration more rapidly, others still preferred the slower pace articulated in the original Brown decision, arguing that they could not get members of the various communities to agree on a common plan.
Shortly after the ruling in Green, the Supreme Court demonstrated its seriousness by permitting more active remedies to achieve integration. The Swann decision authorized school districts and lower courts to use a broad array of tools such as busing, assignment of teachers, etc. to bring about desegregation where it had not yet occurred (Swann, 1971). The Swann decision led to heightened feelings on both sides of the debate, with proponents hailing it as a necessary step to bring the South into compliance, and opponents seeing it as another overzealous decision by an overzealous Court.
As time passed and the make-up of the Court changed, many justices agreed with Swann’s opponents and felt the Court had gone too far, and that desegregation was no longer a problem. Milliken represents the Supreme Court’s first major retreat from the school desegregation debate. After finding that the official policies of the state of Michigan had allowed the metropolitan area of Detroit to operate dual school systems, the District Court put forth a desegregation plan permitting students to be bused in and out of the city to achieve integration (Milliken, 1974).
The new Supreme Court overturned that decision, holding that “[w]ith no showing of significant violation by the 53 outlying school districts and no evidence of any inter-district violation or effect,” the lower court’s remedy was “wholly impermissible” and not justified under Brown II (Milliken, 1974). They further contended that desegregation did not require “any particular racial balance in each ‘school, grade or classroom,” and that the issue of educating children has been and should be one of local control (Milliken, 1974). The Court continued to chip away at desegregation remedies throughout the latter half of the century by releasing districts who had not achieved “unitary status” from Court supervision and allowing them to abandon plans for integration.
The Court’s retreat came to a head in 2007 when they issued the Parents Involved decision, striking down a Seattle school district’s student assignment plan involving voluntary consideration of race when assigning students to oversubscribed high schools (Parents Involved, 2007). The Court found that the plan violated the Equal Protection Clause, as the district failed to show that its objectives could not be achieved through race-neutral means (Parents Involved, 2007). This decision led more and more districts to abandon desegregation efforts based on student race altogether.
Fortunately, Congress has also played a role in the desegregation debate. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), Congress issued a strong signal that integration was the way forward by outlawing federal funding to segregated educational programs. Under these laws, any districts or states which “failed to comply with court integration decrees lost their share of federal education funds” (McGuinn, 2015). Effectively, the law meant that if schools wanted federal funding for school lunch, sports, or extracurriculars, anything, they had to be desegregated.
By 1968, the ESEA had allowed the federal government to discontinue funding for 120 school districts that were found in violation of their consent decrees, and more than 500 more remained under investigation (Millhiser, 2014). Additionally, the Civil Rights Act allowed for attorneys at the Justice Department to file suit in the name of the United States government against schools that refused to integrate, further empowering Black students and families in the South who had no other means of enforcing their educational rights (Millhiser, 2014).
There’s also been oscillation on this issue has been in the Executive Branch, where presidential administrations have attempted with varying degrees of creativity to address this issue. For example, in the latter half of his second term, the Obama administration announced a $12 million grant competition that sought to encourage school districts to develop and implement different integration models, citing integration as a valued asset in schools (Klein, 2016). The Trump administration has since scrapped that grant program.
Though the Courts and current administration do not seem likely to engage with this issue in a way that leads to greater racial integration, there are a number of things that can be done, but I think tackling housing integration is one sure-fire way to impact school segregation.
On a federal level, the FHA and HUD could attempt to locate some low-income, Section 8 houses in residential neighborhoods that are more socioeconomically heterogenous or solidly middle class. Under this scheme, those students are already zoned into majority-White schools and could thereby get a start on the economic integration of the schools, and ideally the racial desegregation as well. Such an act would go a long way in repairing the damage done by the Federal Housing Administration when it engaged in redlining, upholding racist housing covenants, and other exclusive practices that denied Black and minority families the opportunity to establish property wealth.
On the state level, Virginia is piloting a housing desegregation plan that would have the same effect. The state’s legislature created an incentive program designed to entice landlords in wealthier areas to rent to low-income families. Recently, lawmakers have sought to expand that program to other parts of the state. If that program were successful, it could significantly impact the diversity of schools there. Other states could try similar programs, in the absence of federal government enthusiasm on the subject.