Louis Freedberg

Louis Freedberg

Fifty years after the March on Washington, a major challenge facing California and the West in general is increasing segregation of black and Latino students, reviving a debate that Brown v Board of Education was supposed to resolve: whether it is possible to have “separate but equal” schools.

As Gary Orfield, director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, noted, “We seem to be on a path to return step by step to the ‘separate but equal’ philosophy that so clearly failed the country for six decades between 1896 and 1954.”  Orfield, then a recent college graduate and an intern at the State Department, attended the1963 March being commemorated today.

Echoing his remarks is a report issued this week by the Economic Policy Institute lamenting the increasing educational isolation of black students nationally.  “The educational goal of the March on Washington — school desegregation — is a condition affecting black students in which we are sliding backwards,”  Richard Rothstein, its author, wrote.

The challenge is especially compelling in the West, including California, with its burgeoning Latino school population.  Latinos comprise 52 percent of California’s student enrollments. Whites, by contrast, comprise only 26 percent of public school enrollments, and blacks only 6.5 percent.

Researchers from The Civil Rights Project noted that “in states with significant shares of Latino students extreme patterns of isolation were evident.”

In California, in 2009-10, 91 percent of Latino students were in schools that had 50 percent to 100 percent minority enrollments – and 52 percent were in schools with 90 percent to 100 percent minority enrollments. Only in New Mexico did Latino students experience a greater level of racial isolation.

In the West, three out of four Latino students are in schools with 90 percent to 100 percent minority students – compared to two-thirds in 1968. Other indicators show the same trends: the typical Latino student in the 1960s attended a school with a 54 percent white student enrollment, compared to only 16.5 percent 40 years later.

Yet school desegregation is an issue that has been virtually absent from education reform debates and policies enacted over the past 13 years. The No Child Left Behind law, the major education reform effort of the last decade, is overlaid by a gloss of civil rights rhetoric, but it has done nothing to address the concentration of black and Latino students in the same schools, and the lack of resources they face.

In fact, just the opposite has occurred. The NCLB law gives parents the choice to withdraw their students and send them elsewhere, rather than address the concentration of low-performing minority students – typically poor ones – that did not have the resources to get find their way to more distant schools in their own districts.

Orfield and his colleagues concede that the segregation is not due to the explicitly racist laws that prescribed school attendance by race. In an interview with EdSource, Orfield noted that the racial isolation didn’t occur by happenstance, but reflects residential segregation that has been shaped by explicit policies affecting where people live, such a whether communities allow affordable rental housing in their communities, as well as how school boundaries are drawn.

“It is not done by the state constitution, but that doesn’t mean it has not occurred without public action of some kind,” he said.

While the sheer number of Latino students in California makes the task of having less concentrated enrollments of black and Latino students in many schools very difficult, Orfield rejects the view that if more racially integrated schools can’t be achieved for all students, it shouldn’t be attempted at all.

He says that by taking steps like establishing magnet schools that attract students from diverse backgrounds and regulating the expansion of charter schools, more children could benefit from higher quality schools, which typically have more resources, including more experienced teachers.

“Can we use non coercive measures to do it? Yes,” he said. “Would it solve the problem for everyone? Of course not.”

The debate is not simply one of balancing percentages of students from different racial or ethnic groups. It is clear that academic outcomes in the vast majority of schools with overwhelming black and Latino enrollments fall far behind those with high numbers of white and Asian students.

“There is a real clear connection between segregation – which in California almost always means double segregation by race and ethnicity as well by social class – and the probability that you will achieve certain levels of education attainment,” he said.

Having high concentrations of poor children in the same schools makes no academic sense, says the Economic Policy Institute’s Rothstein.  “When low-performing students are concentrated in the same schools, it is more difficult to raise their achievement than when these children are integrated into the middle-class population,” Rothstein writes.

The reality is that schools serving high proportions of black and Latino students – typically in low-income communities – tend to suffer from a range of stresses that affect the quality of the education they can provide, including factors such as high teacher turnover, shortages of basic materials, fewer counselors, overcrowding, and poorly maintained facilities.

The segregation on school sites is reflected in the ongoing achievement gap that is still disturbingly large. The NCLB legislation, whose goal was to get every student to a “proficient” level on state tests by this spring, has done little to close the gap. In California, scores on the California Standards Tests have risen significantly for all racial groups over the past decade, but significant gaps remain, because scores for white and Asian students have increased by almost the same level as those of blacks and Latinos.

As a result, black and Latino students are still between 20 and 30 percentage points below whites in proficiency levels in math and reading on state tests  – a just slightly narrower gap than in 2002-03, the first year results broken down by racial and ethnic groups were available.

What disturbs Orfield and his colleagues is that the issue of school desegregation is completely absent from the nation’s political and education agenda.

“Can we have separate and equal schools?” researchers from the Civil Rights Project asked in a paper on “severe segregation” of Latino students published last September. “The answer has been historically, and continues to be, a quite demoralizing, ‘no’.”

 Louis Freedberg is the executive director of EdSource.


Filed under: Commentary, ED Corner, Equity issues, Featured, K-12 Reform, Poverty

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  1. Jeff K says:

    The statistics cited in this article are misleading. Latinos are a much larger percentage of the school population as a whole, so of course they are less likely than in the past to attend a school that is less than 50% Latino. While this doesn’t mean that segregation is not a problem, it’s questionable whether it’s actually getting worse as the article states.

    1. navigio says:

      Maybe at the state level, but if you look at districts or especially individual schools, its clearly worse. It’s also worth nori that in a district like lausd about 90% of Hispanics are also socioeconomically disadvantaged. That kind of homogeneity is not good.

  2. gregt says:

    It’s not only the “economy”. It’s cultural. Go thru an Asian or white neighborhood at 10 at night and then go through a hispanic neighborhood. Which one is the loudest, with music playing and people enjoying life on the porches and in the street?

    What is the average age a woman has her first child? What is the average number of children she has? What is the average number of years of education she has? And what is the rate of obesity?

    These aren’t questions to be disparaging, but they’re questions that people need to talk about and the issues they point to are NOT going to go away by throwing a few more Asian kids into a school. We can assume all parents want their kids to learn and to excel in school. But if your parents have not completed high school, although they know you should, they are less likely to be able to demonstrate to you as a child, in their daily lives, how to be a good student. They may be wonderful people, but as a kid, you’re going to be disadvantaged. And as a result, your economic upside is going to be limited.

  3. Manuel says:

    We talk about segregation as if the state’s population centers were homogeneous. I venture to guess they are not.

    For instance, the percent of white births back in 2000 was 32.31% across California, while blacks were 5.38%, Asians were 12.29% and Latinos 49.73%, according to the CA Department of Finance. If the territory served by LAUSD was homogeneous, this would mean, roughly, that LAUSD should have roughly similar figures 13 years later. It does not: 9.19% white, 9.43% black, 4.02% Asian, and 73.61% Latino.

    Are most white kids going to private schools? Probably not as 25.52% are attending public schools statewide. What this means to me is that economic segregation is what is driving this. Whites sold their houses in the Valley and West L.A. and moved to Santa Clarita, Lancaster, Palmdale, or Simi Valley. In other cities, as pointed out by Caroline, the reverse happens and it gets too expensive for the poor minorities to remain in place.

    I don’t think we can solve this segregation problem through the schools. Unless there is a complete changeover in how we run our economy, this problem is not going away any time soon. Black kids will be collateral damage and so will a good chunk of the Latino population. I do wonder, though, what happened to the poor white of yore? Where are they? In rural communities? Are they the new invisible community?

  4. Eric Premack says:

    It’s worth noting that under the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, funding entitlements related to the old desegregation aid programs is continued in perpetuity for districts that have historically received the funds. This was one of a few very unfortunate compromises that LCFF proponents were forced to make in the political horsetrading.

    Few would argue that the current distribution of the funds has any rational basis. Recipient districts may spend the funds without any state restrictions and without regard to whether students are segregated. At over $855 million/year, this is not chump change. Los Angeles Unified alone gets $460 million/year. San Jose Unified gets nearly $1,000/student.

  5. Richard Moore says:

    Take a moment and check the demographics of the private school Obama sends his girls to. Compare them to the public schools in DC. Then come back and tell me about segregation.

  6. el says:

    I think racial segregation is probably less important than economic segregation. Communities of schools with overwhelmingly low income and disadvantaged kids are … disadvantaged. Regardless of color or culture.

    The school Caroline linked to is a classic example of pulling out kids who are motivated or who have motivated families and setting them amongst only motivated peers. It’s also an example of a small school where none of the kids fall through the cracks… and those that aren’t working out will end up going elsewhere. This is definitely a recipe for success for those kids, more because of the peers than because of the teachers or anything else endemic to the school. Peers matter and we don’t really acknowledge that. The question is, how do we handle the kids left behind in a concentration of less motivated and less resourced peers?

    1. CarolineSF says:

      Read the story and watch the video and see what you think, @El.

  7. CarolineSF says:

    Petrilli is a conservative who made a conservative choice, for what that’s worth.

    In San Francisco, whites and Asians are moving INTO traditionally black neighborhoods as African Americans continue a longtime exodus from the city. So that’s the opposite of paying extra to live in segregated neighborhoods, but prices rise in those neighborhoods and push lower-income people out.

    Also, The Chronicle’s Jill Tucker profiled an Oakland charter school that’s segregated by design.


    Discuss among yourselves.

  8. Paul Muench says:

    I’m guessing Asians and Whites in CA are paying 2 to 3 times what housing would otherwise cost to live in segregated neighborhoods. This is a huge premium and a huge investment in maintaining segregation. Does that make sense? Well even people who take a serious look at this issue, Mike Petrilli in his new book, seem to make a decision in that direction. How to convice people otherwise? I don’t know. At least in CA we now have LCFF and we will see how that makes a difference.