That landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education began the dismantling of the dual school systems — one for white kids, one for black students — that characterized so many of the nation’s communities. It also became a touchstone for the ideal of public education as a great equalizer, an American birthright meant to give every child a fair shot at success.
But that ideal appears to be unraveling, according to Tuesday’s GAO report.
The proportion of schools segregated by race and class — where more than 75 percent of children receive free or reduced-price lunch and more than 75 percent are black or Hispanic — climbed from 9 percent to 16 percent of schools between 2001 and 2014. The number of the most intensively segregated schools — with more than 90 percent of low-income students and students of color — more than doubled over that period.
The problem is not just that students are more isolated, according to the GAO, but that minority students who are concentrated in high-poverty schools don’t have the same access to opportunities as students in other schools.
High-poverty, majority-black and Hispanic schools were less likely to offer a full range of math and science courses than other schools, for example, and more likely to use expulsion and suspension as disciplinary tools, according to the GAO.
The GAO conducted its study during the past two years at the request of Democratic lawmakers including Rep. Bobby Scott (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, and Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Scott on Tuesday announced legislation that would make it easier for parents to sue school districts for civil rights violations, saying the GAO report provided evidence of an “overwhelming failure to fulfill the promise of Brown.”
“Segregation in public K12 schools isn’t getting better; it’s getting worse, and getting worse quickly, with more than 20 million students of color now attending racially and socioeconomically isolated public schools,” he said in a statement Tuesday, calling on GOP leaders in the House to hold hearings on tackling segregation.
The resegregation of schools during the past two decades has for the most part happened quietly, in the shadows of loud battles over standardized testing, teacher evaluations, charter schools and Common Core academic standards.
Segregation has returned to the forefront of education policy discussions only recently, amid broad public debates about race, racism and widening inequality.
The persistence of racial divisions in the nation’s public schools was underscored Friday when a federal judge ordered a Mississippi district to integrate its middle and high schools, capping a legal battle that had dragged on for five decades.
As the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi put it, Cleveland, Miss. — a town of 12,000 bisected by railroad tracks that divided white families from black — has been running an illegal dual system for its children, failing year after year to reach the “greatest degree of desegregation possible.”
Now Cleveland must consolidate its schools, integrating all its students into one middle school and one high school.
“The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education,” Judge Debra M. Brown wrote in her decision.
The Rev. Edward Duvall, an African American parent of two children in Cleveland’s public schools, said he favored consolidation because it would save money, leaving more funding for classrooms and programs. But that wasn’t the only reason: “We can break down this wall of racism that divides us and keeps us separated,” he said, according to court documents. “And we could create a new culture in our school system that’s going to unite us and unite our whole city.”
While schools in Cleveland have never fully desegregated, many other school districts did integrate following the decision in Brown v. Board. But since the 1990s, hundreds of school districts have been released from court-ordered desegregation plans, making way for renewed divisions by race and class.
In 1972, just 25 percent of black students in the South attended the most segregated schools, in which more than 90 percent of students were minorities, according to a 2014 ProPublica investigation. But in districts that emerged from court oversight between 1990 and 2011, more than half of students now attend such segregated schools, ProPublica found.
The investigation found fault with a Justice Department that, starting with the Reagan administration, pulled back from pressuring districts on desegregation and was “no longer committed to fighting for the civil-rights aims it had once championed.”
At the same time as federal courts were relinquishing oversight of school desegregation, the nation’s overall student population was changing, becoming poorer and less white. More than half of students are now low income, as measured by eligibility for subsidized meals. Hispanic students have replaced black students as the largest minority group in schools, accounting for 25 percent of the overall student population.
But the growing number of minority and low-income children in the nation’s schools does not mean that their segregation is inevitable, nor that they are doomed to receive fewer opportunities in school, Education Secretary John King Jr. said.
Just weeks after assuming the helm of the U.S. Education Department in January, King began calling on communities to find ways to diversify their schools. He was even more pointed this month, speaking of a “systematic lack of investment in high-needs communities and high-needs kids” that is made possible by policy choices that create segregated housing and segregated schools.
“The lack of concern for poor people is deeply disturbing,” King said.
On Tuesday, he said that the GAO report shows the need for a proposed new regulation that would change the way schools prove they are providing adequate resources for needy students. GOP leaders and school superintendents have criticized King sharply for the proposal, accusing him of an illegal overreach.
Advocates for desegregation as an essential tool for closing the nation’s persistent achievement gap have criticized the Obama administration for giving lip service to the issue without taking meaningful steps to address it.
Obama’s current proposed budget, unlikely to win approval from a GOP-led Congress, includes a $120 million grant program meant to help local communities diversify their schools, such as through magnet programs or dual-language classrooms that could draw middle-class families into high-poverty schools.
There are still plenty of challenges associated with such efforts. Officials in one urban district told the GAO that their popular magnet schools had to deny admission to some minority students in order to maintain diversity. And they poured so many resources into those schools that the traditional neighborhood schools — which enrolled large concentrations of minority students — suffered.