Sixty years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown v Board of Education has anything changed? Are schools desegregated? Have educational opportunities improved for minorities? The answers are complex, given the advent of charter schools and choice, growth in Latino students and re-segregation trends, but a new report basically says the fact is that segregated education persists today.
UCLA’s Civil Rights Project (CRP) took a detailed look at the nation’s schools, public and charter. They issued a new report Thursday on Brown at 60, with a telling subtitle: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future. The Brown court ruling in 1954 questioned whether “separate but equal” schools were fair and ignited a hailstorm of forced segregation, busing, flight to private schools and a lot of educational changes from the 1960s on. The research and report look at the state of school segregation today, which is vastly different in some ways and not in others.
The issue Brown addressed 60 years ago was segregation between black and white. Now, with more Latino students in the mix, segregation persists, but the divisions have changed. The authors of the UCLA report indicate that Southern schools are not as segregated as before. While gains from the civil rights era have been erased, it is the least segregated region for black students. This is largely because of the transformation of the U.S. school population the last 60 years has resulted in a 30 percent decrease in white students and almost quintupling of Latino students.
The South, traditionally the home of the largest population of black students, now is tri-racial. Out West, white students are now the second largest group. However, the schools are still segregated, most dramatically for Latino students, particularly out West.
In the aftermath of the Brown ruling, many unhappy white parents put their children in private schools while minority children boarded busses to head to schools in nicer areas. Now, both races are fleeing the local public school in many cities for charter schools that accept all students. However, many are de facto segregated. This begs the question, is it better to be in a desegregated school or a good one? Should inner-city charters be required to lure others from suburbia or be forced to close?
Currently, charter schools disproportionately enroll inner-city blacks, who are often the lowest-scoring students. Their parents have made a conscious decision to abandon the neighborhood school (or the school district). But, unlike previous generations who put their children on busses to other neighborhoods, these parents are working to make their local charter schools, which are largely all black or slightly integrated with Hispanics, into successful learning environments.
Nelson Smith, president and chief executive for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, recently commented that they are proud that “charter schools enroll more low-income kids and more kids of color” than other schools do. He pointed out that the real civil rights issue is forcing kids to be “trapped in dysfunctional schools.”
Charters have been effective according to statistics and studies. For example, according to the California Charter School Association, charter schools enroll 19 percent of Los Angeles high school students are enrolled, but deliver 37 percent of the college-ready graduates.
The New Orleans schools have long been heavily black and continue to be. But their resurgence offers a telling example that other cities are starting to emulate. New Orleans schools were failing before Hurricane Katrina destroyed many. Since then, the city has rebuilt with mostly charter schools (90 percent) and is essentially a district-less school district. The public and parents have rallied and, with new enthusiasm, test scores and graduation rates are climbing. In 2012, 77.8 percent of NOLA’s high school students graduated within the normal four years, versus only 54 percent in 2004 (the year before Katrina). Back then, less than 6 percent of students in schools identified as failing had ACT or SAT scores that were high enough to qualify for college scholarships. By 2013, 27 percent qualified. Given this success, does it matter more what the racial makeup of the students is or if the schools actually teach?
The Civil Rights Project at UCLA reports that 70 percent of black charter school students in the U.S. have few white classmates. Education Professor Gary Orfield, who oversaw the study, told the Washington Post that racially segregated schools tend to be inferior. The study made recommendations that the government push for racial diversification of charter schools, according to the Post.
There is no denying that some progress seen post-Brown is gone. But, parents choosing to send their child to a good school in their neighborhood should be encouraged, as long as the school is open to all. Forced segregated education is a fact of history, the true legacy of Brown v Board of Education, but – given a choice between returning to bussing or establishing successful schools in what may be segregated neighborhoods – one can argument things are getting better today.
Opinion by Dyanne Weiss