Desegregation of Public Schools Then and Now

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Desegregation of the nation's public schools was mandated by the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling. Nine years later, racial tensions related to segregation reached a critical point. Early in 1963, the Alabama Governor George Wallace kicked off his reign by stating "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever" (Elliot, 2003). Later that year, Wallace would stand in the doors of the University of Alabama in an attempt to physically prevent African-American students form enrolling. Civil rights leaders championed Wallace's failures as a victory for school desegregation and proof that the movement was progressing.

Wallace's failed attempts did not kick start the movement as most civil rights leaders had hoped, however. In 1975, Marian Wright Edelman (1975) of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, DC, wrote:

The current status of school desegregation is complex. Twenty-one years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, school desegregation is caught in a crossfire of opposition. There are those who have always opposed it; those who say they are for it but eschew the means to achieve it; those who feel the costs of achieving it are not worthwhile because the early experiences have not produced instant brotherhood or IQ gains; and those who, after twenty years of resistance, struggle, and mixed progress, pronounce it irrelevant and a failure because three hundred years of slavery and segregation have not died by decree.

Edelman went on to conclude that if school desegregation continued to progress t the same pace as housing desegregation in the 1960's, then America would see schools desegregated in about twenty-five decades.

While the ruling most often regarded as the foundation for school desegregation is Brown v. Board of Education, not much changed in public schools following the Supreme Court decision. A full decade following Brown saw less than one percent of black students in the south begin attending previously all white schools. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed that desegregation began transforming the face of public schools, especially in the south. While the broad language of the legislation gave minorities the right to file suits forcing desegregation, Title VI of the Act allowed the federal government to withhold funding for any programs that discriminated against students based solely race. By the end of 1968, the percentage of black students in the south enrolled in previously all white students had climbed to twelve percent. By 1973, these numbers had climbed from less than one percent in 1964 to over forty-six percent (Edelman, 1975).

While the desegregation movement has hit stumbling blocks along the way, the policy has long been instituted in the nation's public schools. What have been the results? Some would argue that today's public schools are more segregated than schools prior to Brown. Much of the discussion about school reform in the United States in the past two decades has been about racial inequality. While goals of the No Child Left Behind Act and institution of high stakes testing in high schools have been to end a perceived low-expectation from all students, especially minority students, a disproportionate number of the schools being officially labeled as failures have been segregated minority schools. Inner-city school systems are making major efforts to break large segregated, high-poverty high schools into small schools. This is being done in an attempt to create schools better equipped to reduce inequality. Some argue that charter schools and private schools could substantially reduce racial inequalities, even though both of these settings often create more segregated schools than traditional public schools. Additionally, Harvard University researchers have found no evidence to support claims for either of these school settings (Orfield & Lee, 2005). Even so, court orders and plans for equal opportunity and desegregated schools are being challenged in court and sometimes terminated. Leaders of the small number of high achieving segregated schools in some inner-cities are being heralded as proof-positive we can have educational success within the context of existing segregation (Thernstrom, 2003).

It appears that the new movement champions the idea that separate schools can be equal. In fact, since the 1980's, there has been increasing segregation among both African-American and Latino students. A common misconception over the issue of re-segregation of schools is that many people view segregation as a simple change in the skin color of the students in a school. If skin color were the only variable and other issues associated with inequality were not linked to varying skin tones, then skin color would be of little or no significance to social policy, including educational policy. In our society, however, no issue is so simple. Race is linked to many other issues in society. Like some experts, I take the position that schools today are more segregated than schools of yesterday, but not necessarily by race. Instead, it is socioeconomic status of families and students that have led to segregation by income in many cases.

Socioeconomic segregation multidimensional and causes much of the educational inequality in today's society. Our nation's schools contain less Caucasian students than ever. Forty-one percent of all students are not white and the great majority of the nonwhite students attend schools which show substantial signs of socioeconomic segregation (Orfield & Lee, 2004). Achievement scores are strongly linked to school racial composition the presence of highly qualified and experienced teachers (Schellenberg, 1999). The high level of poverty among children, together with many housing policies and practices which exclude poor people from most communities, force families living in poverty into inner-city neighborhoods with housing projects or low-value property. This geographical isolation of low-income families mean that students in inner-city schools face isolation not only from more prolific community members, usually white families, and from middle class schools. With only access to poverty-stricken schools, children from poverty have limited access to resources that will help break the poverty cycle. Because of this, minority children are far more likely than whites to grow up in persistent poverty.

Another reason for the apparent re-segregation of schools is immigration. African-American students are no longer the most prolific minority. As the number of black students grew slowly during the last 15 years, the number of Latinos and Asian students exploded. Proportionally speaking, white enrollment continuously declined. The total number of white students did not decrease, but the percentage of white enrollments compared to minority enrollments has continued to fall. Latinos are now the largest minority group at 18 percent, closely followed by black students at 17 percent.

Together, these two groups are now more than a third of the total student population (Orfield & Lee, 2005). African-American and Latino students comprise at least 30 percent of the student population in most of the states. Asians now outnumber black students in some regions of the West while Latinos are the most prevalent minority in the Northeast.

With the decrease in white students and the increase in minority presence in education, one may conclude that segregation should be a non-issue. It is important to understand that segregation was never just a black-white problem. It was never just a Southern problem and most definitely not just a racial problem. By the time Dr. Martin Luther King organized his last movement, the Poor Peoples Campaign, his approach was openly multiracial, emphasizing poverty as well as racial discrimination. Just a few days before his assassination, Dr. King addressed this issue directly by saying that it was "absolutely necessary now to deal massively and militantly with the economic problem…. So the grave problem facing us is the problem of economic deprivation, with the syndrome of bad housing and poor education and improper health facilities all surrounding this basic problem" (Washington, 1986). This raises some intriguing questions. What would have happened if Dr. King had not died so abruptly? Would the relationship between racial and economic isolation have been brought to the forefront of American politics? Would desegregation of public schools actually have addressed the issue at the heart of student performance, socioeconomic status not race?

In the purest sense of the words, the civil rights movement was never about blacks sitting next to whites on busses or in restaurants. It was about equalizing opportunities. Opportunities for education are of the utmost importance. If high poverty schools are systematically unequal and segregated minority schools are almost always high poverty schools, it is much easier to understand how schools segregated on the basis of socioeconomic status do not provide the same equal access to educational opportunities as non-segregated schools. Plans must be enacted to addresses what some educators and sociologists have long known to be the greatest barrier to equal educational opportunity: poverty. We must recognize that separate schools for rich and poor are, by design, unequal. Consideration of socioeconomic status also makes sense in the broader context of school desegregation. While it is inappropriate for today's educational leaders to say that predominantly black schools are inherently inferior or that blacks need to sit next to whites in order to learn, it needs to be understood that if we educate rich and poor students in separate schools, the high-poverty schools will undoubtedly be of lower quality. It is important to understand that regardless of ethnic makeup, research has found that a student of low-socio-economic status will perform worse academically at a low-income school than if that same student attends a predominantly middle-class school. In fact, the converse has been found to be true as well. Students from middle and upper-class families perform worse at high-poverty schools as well (Kahlenberg, 1999). Critics of these findings suggest that steps be taken to supplement high-poverty schools rather than desegregation by socioeconomic status. Some have said to simply provide more funding to supplement needs or to raise standards if the curriculum is watered down. If teachers in such schools are not qualified or unprepared, simply improve teacher training. While each of these ideas may be worthy of consideration, could we not achieve more sense of equality by addressing the underlying cause of school inequality, economic segregation.

High-poverty schools, even with extra funding, are problematic. A good school fosters a student culture that values learning. Students learn from one another. For instance, students expand their vocabularies when exposed to classmates who know more words than they do. Often students have a broader vocabulary that comes from experiences outside of the school that are often missing in low-income students' lives. Instead, poor practices and misconceptions are often reinforced by peers because actions are accepted as the norm. Some experts point to this phenomenon as the root cause for the developing "ebonics" dialect among students from some inner-city schools. Rather than encouraging advancement, peers may actively denigrate achievement in high-poverty schools. The extra needs poor students often bring to school can effectively overwhelm schools with large numbers of needy kids.

How do we address these issues as a nation? What is the next step? San Francisco officials have implemented a unique approach to school zoning that attempts to address the issue of socioeconomic segregation. Historically, in San Francisco and other cities across the country, policy has not attacked poverty concentrations. Instead, policy has focused solely on racial desegregation, in part because the 14th Amendment has been read to address segregation by race but not by class. Today, school districts are beginning to turn directly to the socioeconomic factors in determining a school's quality. This has led leaders to work to redraw school zones based on socioeconomic considerations.

San Francisco is considering many socioeconomic factors in developing school zones, including parental education, income, and geographical location. Children with parents who did not attend college and children who receive free or reduced-price lunch, live in public housing, or live in high-poverty neighborhoods will be integrated with more-affluent students. Goal of the redistricting is to distribute the city's wealth throughout the school system so that no one school is wealthier than another. Likewise, no one school will have a higher percentage of low-income students than another (Kahlenberg, 1999).

While this seems like a novel concept, San Francisco has set in motion a plan that, if enacted correctly, will sufficiently desegregate city schools in a manner consistent with the goals of the civil rights movement. The concept is not new. Reaching back to Horace Mann's concept of "common schools," the plan will provide all students equal access and opportunity to a quality education regardless of socioeconomic status.

While the concept may be foreign to many in the education field, this concept, is adopted nationally, is the best process for once again making public schools engines for social mobility.

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