Gerard Robinson is resident fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Diamonds are forever. Desegregation orders will be, too, if our end goal for Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is merely to color-code American classrooms rather than to create equality of opportunity.
The latest case comes from the state of Mississippi. On May 13, to meet a desegregation order that began in the 1960s, a U.S. district judge ordered the state’s Cleveland School District to consolidate its two middle and high schools beginning in the 2016-’17 school year. According to Judge Debra M. Brown, Cleveland’s failure to consolidate its largely racially separate schools in the past had “deprived generations of students of the constitutionally guaranteed right to an integrated education.” This is just one of hundreds of cases like it; the Justice Department currently has 177 open desegregation cases.
Enforcing desegregation orders is important because desegregation’s effects on American schooling have been positive. For example, a 2015 report found that black children born between 1945 and 1968 who attended a desegregated school were more likely to complete college, more likely to earn a higher salary, less likely to be incarcerated and had better health than their peers.
Yet if this race-balancing philosophy is the guiding logic for desegregation cases moving forward, a recent Government Accountability Office report on racial and economic disparities in public schools shows that progress will be an uphill battle. According to the report, between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of public schools with 75 percent to 100 percent poor black or Hispanic students increased from 9 percent to 16 percent. To rectify discrimination in high-poverty, segregated schools, the Education Department and Justice Department have supported the continuation of desegregation orders.
The implementation of desegregation orders has had its share of unintended consequences. On May 4, Missouri resident La’Shieka White filed a lawsuit against the state’s Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, a nonprofit responsible for the implementation of a metropolitan area desegregation program, because it denied her son, E.L. White, admission to a St. Louis public school in another district because he is black. If E.L. White was white, his fate may have been different. Why? Because VICC’s black-white interdistrict transfer plan from St. Louis County to the City of St. Louis gives a preference to skin color as part of a desegregation remedy dating to the Liddell case of the 1970s.
But black families are not the only ones denied the right to transfer from one public school to another. On Aug. 31, 2015, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit upheld a decision to block white families from transferring their children to a wealthier school district with better educational offerings because the transfer would upset the racial balance formula in a desegregation order from the 1970s. These examples illustrate the fact that over time, educating students wherever they live has often taken a backseat to a “desegregation by any means necessary” mantra.
So, where do we go from here?
Fixing the “school segregation problem” is a tough web to untangle. With the majority of our 50 million public school students coming from Hispanic, black, Asian and multi-racial households, it is unlikely that we will be fully able to integrate them with a shrinking pool of white students, many of whom are poor, too. But exceptions to the rule exist. For example, the Metropolitan Council for Economic Opportunity program, which began in 1966 as an outgrowth of a parent-led effort to address racial imbalance in public schools, has more than 3,300 Boston and Springfield students (the majority black and Hispanic) attending school in surrounding, mostly white suburbs each year.
However, the biggest threat facing education today is inequality of opportunity, not school segregation. Closing the opportunity gap requires, among other things, smart investments in technology to deliver cost-effective educational services to students in rural and city schools, and strategic partnerships with social entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations with proven track records of success.
On the nonprofit side of the equation, the Algebra Project, founded by civil rights advocate Bob Moses, is one model to consider. The program develops math curriculum, trains teachers and provides professional development. According to a National Science Foundation funded evaluation, low-income black, Hispanic and other high school students in the program improved on-time graduation and mathematics proficiency between 2009 and 2013.
For social entrepreneurship, we could turn to One University Network and UniversityNow, founded by social entrepreneur Gene Wade, a participant in Boston’s public school busing program in the 1970s. His company is using an innovative technology platform to deliver an affordable postsecondary education to students in the United States and abroad, one that we could adopt to better prepare our high school students for college.
Given that all students require academic competencies to flourish in our knowledge economy, it is these efforts to leverage innovative solutions and foster creative partnerships that should be the enduring legacy of Brown and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — not perpetual desegregation plans that color-code classrooms.