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.