One of the most disturbing realities of the U.S. education system is that schools remain largely segregated by race, ethnicity, and language more than 60 years after the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” schools to be unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Now is the time to use the impetus of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Supreme Court’s protection of undocumented children (see News, p. 10, Language Magazine, July 2020) to rid this country of all forms of school segregation for good.
This February, an Economic Policy Institute study on school segregation and student performance, based on the comprehensive National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, found that only about one in eight White students (13%) attends a school where a majority of students are Black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian, while nearly seven in ten Black children (69%) attend such schools. Black students are also in economically segregated schools. Less than one in three White students attends a high-poverty school, compared with more than seven in ten Black students.
“School segregation really lies at the epicenter of racial inequity in this country. Students in schools that are segregated by race and poverty have a much harder time graduating from high school and going to college, which makes it harder to get a job and to earn an income that allows them to support themselves and their family. School segregation also feeds into housing segregation, which is a major source of the racial wealth gap. So, in order to deal with racial inequity, we have to address segregation,” explains Rutgers law professor Elise Boddie, founder of The Inclusion Project (Berkeley News, March 4, 2020).
Not only does this lack of progress in integrating schools harm Black and other minority children by depressing their educational outcomes, but it widens the performance gaps between Black and White children and is likely the biggest single contributing factor to the continuation of systemic racism in the U.S. In 1968, 64% of U.S. Black students attended public schools with fewer than one in ten White students. By 2016, that proportion had dropped to 40%, thanks only to changes in the South, where the figure dropped from around 80% in 1968 to 24% in 1988, only to rise back up to 36% in 2016. Over the same period of time, the figure dropped by about 20% across most of the country apart from the Northeast, where it actually rose from 43% in 1968 to 52% in 2016.
So why and how has school segregation been allowed to persist? School populations reflect their local communities, so “redlining”—the discriminatory federal housing policy of refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods—facilitated the creation of virtually White-only suburbs across the country. Despite its prohibition in the 1960s, the relative cost of housing by then effectively priced most minority children out of White-dominated, high-performing schools.
To bypass the Brown v. Board ruling, some counties, like Prince Edward in Virginia, defunded their school boards and issued vouchers for White students so they could attend segregated private academies.
The conservative Supreme Court in the mid-1970s limited busing and other programs intended to diversify schools, so White students continue to be concentrated in affluent suburban schools while minorities languish in the inner cities.
Our public schools offer our society the best opportunities for deep social interactions with people from different backgrounds, giving people the chance to really get to know one another, find their common ground, and appreciate their differences.
Ending the centuries-old system of school segregation will not be simple, nor will it be cheap, but it is essential if America is to be the society it wants to be in the 21st century, and it won’t happen as long as school vouchers are used to create a more divisive school system.