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Civil Rights Commission Takes On Diversity In K-12 Schools

Civil Rights Commission Takes On Diversity In K-12 Schools

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights assembled a panel of experts last month to discuss whether elementary and high school students really benefit from a diverse school environment.

The briefing was prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to weigh in later this year on the extent to which public K-12 schools can use race in school assignments. In two cases before the court, one from Seattle and the other from Louisville, Ky., White parents sued their school districts after their children were denied enrollment in their preferred schools because of the districts’ efforts to maintain racial balances. 

According to Dr. Michal Kurlaender, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Davis, attending a diverse school can provide an enhanced learning environment, increase social interaction, improve attitudes and citizenship and lead to educational and occupational gains.

“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 work place,” Kurlaender said during the panel discussion.

Dr. Stephan Thernstrom, a professor of history at Harvard University and co-author of America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, took the opposite opinion, calling race-based student placement in public schools “morally repugnant.”

And, Dr. David J. Armor, professor of public policy at George Mason University, disputed the assertion that students are best served by racially balanced schools.

“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.”

Armor cited evidence from the 2003 National Assessment for Educational Progress Report, which clearly showed an association between racial composition and academic achievement for all races, at all grades and for all tests. But the results did not prove that Black students performed poorly in segregated schools. In fact, predominantly Black schools in North and South Carolina posted some of the highest eighth-grade math scores in the nation.

Attorney Arthur Coleman, who wrote briefs in support of University of Michigan’s affirmative action program, argued that the state should intervene with public policy that promotes diversity on behalf of families that can’t escape neighborhoods with poor-quality schools.

“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,” Coleman told the commission.

— By Shilpa Banerji

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