What Will It Take to End School Segregation in America?

Kids attending majority-minority schools continue to get the short end of the education stick.
(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
May 23, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Even though white, African American, and Latino children benefit from sharing the same classroom, there’s growing evidence that more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, it’s less likely to happen: A government study released last week shows that economic and racial segregation in the classroom is increasing nationwide.

The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal investigative agency, examined Department of Education data and found that the percentage of the nation’s public elementary schools and high schools with a mostly impoverished African American or Latino student body jumped by nearly 10 percent during the last decade.

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At a time when postsecondary education is all but required for a middle-class income, those majority-minority schools were far less likely than their suburban counterparts to offer advanced math, science, or college preparatory courses and far more likely to flunk students or suspend them for disciplinary violations.

Students who attend those schools, experts and analysts agree, are at high risk of being severely disciplined or dropping out before finishing high school and are increasingly likely to end up in the criminal justice system or at menial jobs instead of in college or the American workforce.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education banned separate-but-equal schools, the study confirms “we’re not going in a direction towards increasing educational equity” between whites and poor minorities, said Carla Shedd, a Columbia University professor and author of the new book Unequal City: Race, Schools and Perceptions of Injustice.

“We’re still putting money towards discipline and policing” of low-income black and Latino students, and “not thinking systematically about the kids being left behind,” Shedd said.

The problem is “largely an equity issue” in which majority-minority schools get less funding than their white counterparts, said Kimberly Quick, an education policy analyst at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit think tank.

At the same time, according to Quick, the end of legally mandated busing for desegregation—coupled with housing segregation, the increase of options such as charter schools and private schools, and the failure to adequately fund neighborhood schools—has amplified the problem.

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Busing for racial parity “ended before schools were really desegregated,” she said.

According to the GAO report, from school years 2000–2001 to 2013–14, “the percentage of all K–12 public schools that had high percentages of poor and Black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent.”

Those schools “were the most racially and economically concentrated: 75 to 100 percent of the students were Black or Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch,” a commonly used indicator of poverty,” the report's authors wrote.

Meanwhile, GAO's analysis of education data also found that compared with other schools, segregated schools offered disproportionately fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses and had disproportionately higher rates of students who were held back in ninth grade, suspended, or expelled.

Though the GAO report also examined schools that tried to address racial and economic disparities, on those campuses institutional barriers often still got in the way of desegregation efforts. In one such effort, a district created a “state-of-the-art” magnet school in a majority-minority area, only to find it resulted in unintended consequences—including draining funding from other traditional schools that needed it more and subsequently “declined in quality,” according to the report.

“Further, according to officials, some magnets with openings could not accept minority students because doing so would interfere with the ratio of minority to non-minority students that the district was trying to achieve,” the report's authors wrote.

GAO recommended several steps to address the issue, including closer monitoring of complaints by the Justice Department and the Department of Education. But both Shedd and Quick said more needs to be done to ensure majority-minority schools in poor neighborhoods get the same amount of funding as schools in well-off suburbs.

“Those who are the most advantaged are [still] getting the best,” Shedd said. “I think our policy makers are much more interested in investing in people and not places. They’re happy to give people [private-school] vouchers, but they’re not thinking about those people who are left behind” and can't travel across the city to a better school.

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Quick says part of the answer involves convincing white parents that diversity in the classroom helps their children too—by teaching them critical thinking skills and giving them experience navigating a world in which they will soon be the minority.

Opponents of parity “are perpetuating some really negative stereotypes for black and brown kids,” Quick said. “They believe something magical happens” when minority kids sit next to white ones, when in reality “it’s more likely that that school will have advantages and [superior] resources” than a school in a hardscrabble neighborhood.

Integration and parity in education is in everyone’s best interests, Quick said, particularly because most of the nation’s schoolkids are black or Latino—and the nation will become majority-minority within the next half-century.

Those children, she said, “are going to be the ones to lead the country in the future.”