WASHINGTON ― Progress toward integrating America’s schools since the landmark Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision 60 years ago is being chipped away, and it’s no longer just a Black-and-White issue.
Latinos, the largest minority group in the public schools, are less likely to have White classmates than other students are. In New York, California and Texas more than half of all Latino students go to schools that are 90 percent minority.
For Black students, the South now is the least segregated section of America. Outside of Texas, no Southern state is in the top five in terms of most segregated for Black students. But more than half of Black students in New York, Illinois, Maryland and Michigan attend schools where 90 percent or more are minority.
Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and author of Brown at 60 about the Supreme Court decision, says the changes are troubling, with many minority students receiving poorer educations than White and Asian students who tend to be in middle-class schools.
Educational policy since the 1980s has largely ignored race, he says, with an emphasis instead on accountability measures that assume equal opportunity can be achieved in separate schools.
When people ask if there is any great advantage to sitting next to a White person, Orfield said, his answer is no. “But there is a huge advantage to being in a middle-class school where most of the kids are going to go to college and almost everybody is going to graduate and you’ve got really good teachers who know how to get you ready for the next education step and you’ve got a class of other students you can learn from.”
Although segregation is more prevalent in central cities of the largest metropolitan areas, it’s also in the suburbs. “Neighborhood schools when we go back to them, as we have, produce middle-class schools for Whites and Asians and segregated high poverty schools for Blacks and Latinos,” he said.
Housing discrimination ― stopping or discouraging minorities from moving to majority-White areas ― also plays a role in school segregation and “that’s been a harder nut to crack,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which argued the Brown case in front of the Supreme Court.
School performance can be entwined with poverty, too.
“These are the schools that tend to have fewer resources, tend to have teachers with less experience, tend to have people who are teaching outside their area of specialty, and it also denies the opportunities, the contacts and the networking that occur when you’re with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program.
For students like Diamond McCullough, 17, a senior at Walter H. Dyett High School on Chicago’s South Side, the disparities are real. Her school is made up almost entirely of African-American students. She said her school doesn’t offer physical education classes or art, and Advanced Placement classes are only available online.
“Our school is named after a famous musician, Walter H. Dyett, and we don’t even have band class no more. We don’t have a music chorus class. We barely have the basic classes we need,” McCullough said.
Aquila Griffin, 18, said she transferred from Dyett to another high school 20 blocks away because she needed biology and world studies to graduate. The two traveled to Washington this week for a labor-sponsored rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in support of public education.
“Many blame the schools for failing, or teachers, but they never blame the bad policies put in place in schools,” Griffin said. “A teacher can only teach to a certain extent with the resources. It’s the policies put in place that’s failing the students.”
Sixty years ago Saturday, the Supreme Court ruled that, “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
In the aftermath, scores of cities and towns implemented desegregation plans that often included mandatory busing, in some cases triggering an exodus of Whites to private schools or less diverse communities.
John Rury, an education professor at the University of Kansas, said the work at UCLA has revealed how many of the advances to desegregate schools made after the Brown ruling have stopped ― or been reversed.
While racial discrimination has been a factor, other forces are in play, Rury said. Educated parents with the means to move have flocked to districts and schools with the best reputations for decades, said Rury, who has studied the phenomenon in the Kansas City region.
In the South, many school districts now encompass both a city and the surrounding area, he said. That has led to better-integrated schools.
Still, around the country, only 23 percent of Black students attended White-majority schools in 2011. That’s the lowest number since 1968.
Advocates point to rulings by federal courts that have freed many of the schools from Brown-related desegregation orders since the 1990s. That, they say, is leading the country back toward more segregated schools.
At the same time, there’s been a demographic change in public schools. Between 1968 and 2011, the number of Hispanic students in the public school system rose 495 percent, while the number of Black students increased by 19 percent and the number of White students dropped 28 percent, according to the Education Department.
Today, many Hispanic students are attending segregated schools, particularly in the West.
Chuck Brothers, a retired social studies and psychology teacher who taught in a low-income school in St. Lucie County, Florida, said the nation trips over how to solve these issues.
“I think we haven’t taken the time, and it’s across the board, politically and socially, to really understand what we really do want out of education and how are we really going to make it available for everyone,” Brothers said.