The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights assembled a panel of experts on Friday to discuss whether students benefit from diversity in elementary and secondary schools.
The briefing was prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to weigh in later this year on the extent to which K-12 schools can use race in school assignments. In two cases before the court, out of Seattle and Louisville, Ky., White parents sued the school districts after their children were denied enrollment in the school of their choice because of the districts’ efforts to maintain racial balances.
An enhanced learning environment, increased social interaction, improved attitudes and citizenship, as well as educational and occupational gains were some of the benefits of attending a diverse school, said Dr. Michal Kurlaender, assistant professor of education, University of California-Davis.
“Studies also show White students’ proximity to Black students leads to their likelihood of cross-racial interactions and friendships which continue later in life and in the workplace,” Kurlaender said.
However, Dr. David Armor, professor of public policy at George Mason University, said the benefits of racially balanced school environments were limited.
“I believe a comprehensive review of social science research shows that the academic and social benefits of racial balance are limited, quite aside from whether they meet constitutional requirements,” he said.
While he accepted that Black students in desegregated schools were likely to be found in desegregated colleges or work environments later in life, it was only due to self-selection. “Research literature… fails to reveal any strong and consistent benefits of desegregated schools on academic achievement, college attendance, self-esteem, racial attitudes and race relations,” he said.
Attorney Arthur Coleman said there were “substantial” and “real” benefits associated with a diverse student body.
“If, in fact, we expect not to… use race as a factor in college admissions in 22 years because, presumably, we have made sufficient strides as a nation… then we should seriously consider the ramifications of challenging the benefits of diversity as an important – compelling – goal that districts may pursue,” said Coleman.
In a debate on the role of the state and the public policy, Coleman added: “I am averse [to racially segregated schools] for a host of reasons… we still haven’t fulfilled the promise of Brown v. Board of Education and we’re still living the No Child Left Behind Act. So we have a lot of work to do.”
Commissioner Michael Yaki asked if and when government should step in to ensure racially balanced schools in places like Seattle. Dr. Stephan Thernstrom, a professor of history at Harvard University and co-author of America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, said diversity was not a cause for concern since there were no “ghettos in Seattle,” or in areas like Berkeley, Calif., where there were 50 percent Asian Americans.
Added GMU’s Armor: “If I believed that predominantly minority schools was a problem and a cause for low achievement, making it mandatory [to have a racially balanced school] is not going to solve the problem either.”
– Shilpa Banerji
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