Washington Informer: A Separate and Unequal Education in the 21st Century
A Separate and Unequal Education in the 21st Century
by Tanya Clay House and Brenda Shum
©The Washington Informer
December 2, 2010
The landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was decided during the time when public schools struggled with racial inequality.
Fifty-five years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was decided, the country’s public schools struggle with many of the same racial disparities that confronted the Supreme Court during that fateful period. The civil rights movement built on Brown to end mass de jure segregation in the Southern states, and schools across the country generally became more integrated through the 1980s. Since then, however, progress towards desegregation has reversed, and the national conversation on this goal has stalled.
Advocates for diversity struggle against popular notions that racially homogeneous public schools reflect personal choice and aren’t worth the continued trouble of diversifying. Despite a national focus on improving public education, desegregation is often left off the reform agenda. Our national regression on desegregation is apparent in a number of statistics. According to the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, 2006-2007 data show that most African-American and Latino students attend schools that are three-fourths minority students, with two in five Latino and African-American students attending intensely segregated schools of 90-100 percent minority enrollment.
This reflects a steady increase from the 1980s, when only one-third of this student population attended similarly segregated schools. Furthermore, 59 percent of African-American and Latino students currently attend schools with high numbers of impoverished families, as opposed to the 1980s, when only 43 percent of these students attended similarly impoverished schools.
Sadly, as large numbers of black and Latino families have moved from cities to surrounding suburbs, segregation has moved with them: around 40 percent of black students and nearly 50 percent of Latino students in the suburbs are in schools that are less than 20 percent white.
School segregation contradicts our deepest values of equality and justice, and it has direct academic consequences for our children. The Civil Rights Project reported in 2009 that high minority, low-income schools are disproportionately identified as failing schools under the “No Child Left Behind” benchmarks, meaning that vast majorities of minority children in these schools fail to demonstrate proficient scores in basic subjects.
The correlation between high minority and low-income populations in public school settings means these students experience severely unequal access to educational resources, quality academic curricula, credentialed teachers who are committed to staying in that community, and meaningful collegiate and professional opportunities.
On the positive side, a study by Michal Kurlaender and John Yun concluded that a diverse classroom setting led to increased academic achievement and higher test scores for minority children.
Furthermore, beyond the purely academic consequences, non-diverse settings fail to capture the positive academic and societal outcomes associated with diverse environments. For example, a 2010 “Spotlight on Poverty” article concluded that African-American and Latino children educated in racially diverse schools demonstrated not only achievement gains in math and reading, but also increased occupational attainment, less involvement with the criminal justice system, and a greater tendency to live and work in integrated places as adults.
A 2001 study by the Civil Rights Project found that white students also benefitted by developing better cognitive and problem-solving skills in learning to consider varying opinions and circumstances. Furthermore, a racially diverse educational experience has been proven to break cycles of segregation in work places, neighborhoods, and social interactions.
Diversity, both racial and economic, is a critical component of a quality education – especially in this culturally diverse global culture–because it helps all students achieve and helps us build a stronger society. Hence, it is critical that education policymakers include racial and socio-economic diversity as an essential aspect of their agendas.
Unfortunately, most modern reforms focus on the important goal of closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, but neglect the value of classroom diversity. The failure to prioritize diversity is exemplified in the current charter school movement. Charter schools are not the problem, and in fact can be wonderful examples of innovation. However, not all charter schools are good, and the fact that racial diversity is not considered an important component in the creation of most charter schools means that they do not contribute to the desegregation of our public schools.
As the Civil Rights Project described, charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation. Specifically, the study found that 43 percent of black charter school students attend charter schools that are extremely segregated minority schools, a percentage which was, by far, the highest of any other racial group.
We should not give tacit approval to a separate and inherently unequal education system just because we are frustrated by the seeming inability to reform it. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law stands at the forefront of the effort to establish equal access to education as a civil right and to guarantee that students from minority and low-income backgrounds have equal access to quality educational opportunities in diverse learning environments.
As part of our efforts, we have promoted change on a number of policy- and advocacy-related levels:
– Engaging White House staff and Congressional members on the necessity of diversity requirements in education agenda.
– Seeking federal guidance post Seattle/Louisville desegregation cases on the value of racial diversity
– Promoting diversity through Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization
– Increasing parental involvement programs
– Inter-district public school choice options to provide equitable educational opportunities
In each of these endeavors, the Lawyers’ Committee has heavily relied upon the critical support of a Civil Rights coalition, including the NAACP LDF, Rainbow Push, Schott Foundation for Public Education, NAACP, National Urban League and the National Coalition for Education Black Children.
Scholarly research demonstrates that our public schools are resegregating. This phenomenon is unacceptable, but it is not inevitable. Meaningful diversity in our modern public school system is possible. While the causes of modern resegregation implicate deeper socioeconomic factors rather than the de jure practices that we fought so hard to dismantle, these factors can be and should be similarly challenged in an organized and strategic manner.
In recognition of National Education Week, the Lawyers’ Committee and our partners urge the public to recognize the devastating consequences of modern resegregation, to remember the benefits of diverse learning environments, and to recommit to meaningful diversity and equal access in public education.
Tanya Clay House is public policy director with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Brenda Shum is senior counsel for the organization’s Educational Opportunities Project (Lawyers’ Committee Staff contributed to this article: Kenneth Chandler II, Jennifer Coco and John DiPaolo).