New school year brings more segregation
August 20, 2001
A new school year is about to begin, and across the country, children will be attending ever-more segregated schools.
Almost 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate schools are "inherently unequal." School desegregation is not about the right of black kids to sit next to whites. It's about the right to equal educational opportunities.
But 70 percent of black children and 76 percent of Latino children attended predominantly minority schools in the 1998-1999 academic year, according to a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. As the Harvard study reports, "Segregation by race relates to segregation by poverty and to many forms of educational inequality for African-American and Latino students; few whites experience impoverished schools."
The study further points out that desegregation during the 1970s and 1980s "coincided with the period of the most dramatic narrowing of the test score gap ever recorded for blacks and whites."
What's more, the Harvard study cites growing evidence that black and Latino students who attend integrated high schools do far better in college.
So the trend toward re-segregation is not a promising one.
To address it squarely, one has to deal with racism. But the white people who control just about every major institution in society don't seriously want to talk about the realities of white privilege. The topic is just too uncomfortable.
We must place the issue of race at the core of school reform.
Almost 50 years after the Brown decision, we must remember that separate still means unequal.
My two children attend public schools in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Until now, they've been lucky. They both attend citywide schools that, as part of court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s, consciously maintain an integrated student body.
But, in a sign of the times, Milwaukee is abandoning its commitment to integrated schools, which has been difficult to maintain because of whites who have fled the city, many to avoid sending their children to school with blacks. In the two years following court-ordered desegregation in Milwaukee, one-fifth of all white students left the city's public schools. Today, whites account for less than 20 percent of the city's students.
Given that separate is inherently unequal, as the percentage of black and Latino students in Milwaukee increased, the spending gap with overwhelming white suburban schools widened dramatically, according to a recent study by the education-reform publication, Rethinking Schools.
This fall the city will begin its new "neighborhood schools program." Given the city's segregated climate, a return to neighborhood schools will only accelerate re-segregation.
This is not what I want for my kids. And it's not what I want for America.
Barbara Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools (www.rethinkingschools.org), a nonprofit reform journal which is based in Milwaukee. She can be reached at email@example.com.