Despite Brown ruling, integrated schools in California a vanishing dream

May 15, 2014

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision there can be no complacency in California when it comes to achieving integrated schools.

A compelling new report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project titled, “Segregating California’s Future,” describes how California leads the nation in the disproportionate enrollment of black and Latino students in schools with few white students.

It is a reality that undercuts the self-image of an open, progressive state committed to advancing opportunities for all its residents, according to the report’s authors, Gary Orfield, a former Harvard professor who moved The Civil Rights Project to UCLA eight years ago, and his co-author, Jongyeon Ee:

Californians rush to condemn racist comments by visible leaders, public or private, but accept astonishing inequalities in school opportunities by race as normal reality, and rarely seriously discuss ways to change it or even to stop its spread.

The reports makes the startling assertion that California “has tacitly accepted the Plessy v. Ferguson standards of ‘separate but equal’ and that California educators and local leaders act as if they can make equal schools that the Supreme Court said in Brown were inherently unequal.” As Chief Justice Earl Warren, a former California governor, wrote, “separate but equal has no place in the field of public education.”

The notion that California wittingly or unwittingly is not only perpetuating but creating separate and unequal schools is hard to grasp, or accept.

These are not the all-white or all black schools of the American South. Rather, Orfield and Ee argue, this is a different kind of segregation, in which blacks and Latinos are overwhelmingly concentrated in underfinanced schools with few – or in some cases no –white students.

Some of this segregation is the result of the transformed racial and ethnic make-up of our schools, which makes integrating schools across the state virtually impossible today. Whites comprise only 25 percent of the state’s public school enrollment – compared to 80 percent in 1968.

But as the report describes in painful detail, a lot of the racial imbalance in schools is the end product of specific policy decisions and laws, including at least two initiatives approved by California voters limiting school desegregation, court rulings that have allowed school districts to give up on achieving racial diversity, and exclusionary zoning and housing policies.

The report acknowledges that “housing segregation is a root cause of school segregation” and that “any long-term policy to foster increased and lasting school integration must determine how to enforce fair housing and affordable housing policies more effectively.”

But whatever the cause, the report points out, black students in the South are more than three times as likely than those in California to be in a majority white school. California ranks, it says, “as the most segregated state in terms of the share of blacks who attend majority white schools, a measure often used in the state during the civil rights era.”

Meanwhile, the average Latino student in California is likely to be in a classroom with fewer whites than a Latino student in any other state. California is now “the state in which Latinos are the most segregated,” the report states.

Not surprisingly, in a state as large and diverse as California, there are major differences among schools and districts. According to the report, “Some are far more integrated than others, showing that a pattern of segregation is not inevitable and offers models for other communities.” But as a state, the goal of school integration has been abandoned not only as an educational policy but also as an ideal to strive for.

The concentration of poor black and Latino students in certain schools and districts is not just a question of numbers, but has a rippling impact on the lives of children. According to the report, students in those schools are likely to get a lesser education than they would in schools attended by the majority of white and Asian students:

The consensus of nearly 60 years of social science research on the harm caused by school segregation is that racially and socioeconomically isolated schools are strongly related to an array of factors that limit educational opportunities and outcomes.

These factors could include less experienced and less qualified teachers, high teacher turnover, less successful peer groups, less challenging curricula, fewer AP or honors level courses, and inadequate facilities and learning materials.

The report also points to other more severe forms of segregation – “double segregation” in schools where students are overwhelmingly black or Latino as well as poor, and even “triple segregation” in schools with heavy concentrations of poor, black and Latino students, as well those who do not speak English well.

Can anything be done? The first priority, according to the authors, is to acknowledge that the unequal concentration of black and Latino students is occurring on a massive scale, and to document it. The second is to consciously create schools that welcome diversity and that provide resources, such as transportation, that help overcome the reality of housing segregation. A third strategy is to create regional collaborations that allow students to take advantage of educational offerings in other districts, transfer to other schools, and attend magnet schools that draw students across district boundaries. A fourth is to expand learning opportunities for children in segregated settings, such as providing greater access to preschool and afterschool programs.

One positive development is the new Local Control Funding Formula championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, which for the first time specifically targets funds to improve education outcomes of low-income students and English learners. The UCLA report says that some of those funds should be used “to help address some of the inequalities that face students in these unequal and separate schools while also expanding their real choices.”

“Now is the time to think about how to use that money and other resources to make California schools less separate and more equal,” its authors argue.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, these are uncomfortable truths Californians must face, unless they are willing to accept the state’s contemporary version of separate but equal schools.

Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource.

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