Sixty-five years ago, the Supreme Court declared that segregated public schools were “inherently unequal” and unconstitutional, smashing a 1896 ruling that permitted “whites-only” and “Negroes-only” schools. The historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision ordered that public schools must be integrated, launching a decades-long struggle to end systemic inequality in American life.
After all these years, a new report says that while Brown vs. Board may have led to desegregation in other parts of American society, it has been unsuccessful in its stated mission: to integrate public schools.
Now, the promise of the ruling is “at grave risk,” according to the report titled “Harming our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown.”
The report was issued by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University, with input from researchers at Loyola Marymount University and North Carolina State University.
It says that while intense levels of segregation markedly decreased for black students after the 1954 court ruling, they have been rising again since Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s led to the end of hundreds of desegregation orders and plans across the country. It says:
The growth of racial and economic segregation that began then has now continued unchecked for nearly three decades, placing the promise of Brown at grave risk.
These trends matter for students, and for communities whose futures are determined by how the public schools prepare their students for a diverse future. Research shows that segregation has strong, negative relationships with the achievement, college success, long-term employment and income of students of color.
The report measures segregation based on how much exposure groups of students have to each other, regardless of the demographics of the districts in which they live. It says:
- Public school enrollment stands at nearly 50 million. White students are less than half of the student population: 48.4 percent in 2016. Latinos were 26.3 percent of the student population; blacks, 15.2 percent; Asians, 5.5 percent; multiracial, 3.6 percent; and American Indian, 1 percent.
- Despite the increase in diversity, segregation has intensified and expanded. Over the last three decades, black students have been increasingly segregated in intensely segregated schools (which are defined as being 90 to 100 percent nonwhite). By 2016, 40 percent of all black students were in schools with 90 percent or more students of color. New York, California, Illinois and Maryland are the four states in which a majority of black students attend intensely segregated schools.
- New York remains the most segregated state for African American students, with 65 percent of African American students in intensely segregated schools. California is the most segregated for Latinos, with 58 percent of those students attending intensely segregated schools. The typical Latino student attends a school in which only 15 percent of students are white.
- White students continue to attend schools in which nearly seven out of 10 classmates are also white, a much higher percentage than their overall share of the enrollment.
- In 2016, Latino students on average attended a school in which 55 percent of the students were Latino. The states in which they were most likely to attend intensely segregated schools were California, New Jersey, New York and Texas.
- In suburban schools in the country’s largest metropolitan areas, 47 percent of students were white in 2016, a 10 percentage point decline in a decade. About one-seventh of suburban students were black, and more than one-fourth were Latino. Considerable segregation exists within the suburbs, where African American and Latino students typically attended schools that were about three-fourths nonwhite. White students in these same large suburbs attended schools where, on average, two-thirds of the enrolled students were white.
- In rural schools, the typical white student went to a campus on which 80 percent of students were white, while the typical black or Latino student went to a rural school with 57 percent nonwhite enrollment.
- Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, are even more segregated than schools in the traditional public systems. Typically, they have no integration policies. School choice plans without policies to ensure equity often end up with the most-connected and best-educated families getting the best choices, actually increasing inequality.
The report makes recommendations for policymakers, including:
- Creating a better way to measure economic segregation and its connection to racial segregation in schools.
- Creating and supporting diverse educational institutions inside polarized communities.
- Training for school faculties, leaders and staffs to respond to growing racial, economic and linguistic diversity.
Richard Rothstein, a longtime research associate at the Economic Policy Institute who has written extensively on segregation in American society, has said housing policies are actually the most important school policies. On the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, he wrote:
Schools remain segregated today because neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. Raising achievement of low-income black children requires residential integration, from which school integration can follow. Education policy is housing policy.
Federal requirements that communities must pursue residential integration have been unenforced, and federal programs to subsidize movement of low-income families to middle-class communities have been weak and ineffective.
Correcting these policy shortcomings is essential if the promise of Brown is to be fulfilled.
Concern about the lack of progress with school desegregation was sounded in Congress last month by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, who said: “After four decades without federal support for desegregation, we are right back where we started.”