School Segregation and the Stimulus

In 1968, when the United States first began to survey the racial and ethnic makeup of its public schools, 80 percent of students were white. Today, 44 percent of public school kids are minorities. Yet school desegregation reached its peak over 20 years ago. In 1988, one-third of black students attended schools that were at least 90 percent black. Today, thanks to the work of the conservative judiciary in overturning desegregation orders, 40 percent of black students attend such a school. Black and Latino children are more segregated in 2009 than they were at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death.

Those are just some of the disturbing statistics from a new report on school desegregation written by Gary Orfield of UCLA's Civil Rights Project. The paper makes clear that increased housing segregation in inner-ring suburbs is responsible for the school re-segregation trend. Many people assume that efforts to de-segregate public schools are doomed to fail in a nation so deeply stratified by race and class. School reform, they argue, should be about either alleviating poverty broadly, or should focus on improving instruction in low-performing, minority majority schools. Those goals are important. But those who overlook segregation ignore research showing that low-income and minority students who attend integrated schools perform better academically and on the job market than their similar peers who attend segregated schools. In addition, surveys show that students of all races who have attended integrated public schools report higher rates of tolerance and routinely describe the experience as formative and positive.

With an unprecedented amount of federal money being funneled to local school districts and states by President Obama's stimulus package, now is a good time to ask what can be done on the ground to de-segregate schools — and I'm not talking about 1970s style busing. The creation of high quality urban magnet programs would be a good start. With those in place, urban and suburban districts can forge partnerships in which suburban schools accept a certain number of high-risk urban students in exchange for spaces for suburban kids in competitive urban magnet programs. Such a program has worked well in Hartford, Conn., and is now oversubscribed. NCLB should also be updated in order to incentivize urban-suburban school transfers by moving extra federal dollars along with high-risk kids.

Granted, many districts will use these federal dollars just to prevent layoffs and fix crumbling buildings. But if just a few localities chose to launch some high profile experiments in desegregation, it would alert Washington to another way of thinking about education reform.

Hat tip: The Bay State Banner.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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