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Desegregation Now. Segregation Tomorrow?

by Hanna Bordas

Students in classroomIn 1995, lawyer Michael McLaughlin filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of his daughter, Julia, who had been denied admission to the prestigious Boston Latin School (BLS), even though her score on the BLS entrance exam was higher than 149 other students who had been admitted to that year's class. For years, her parents had been preparing her for eventual acceptance into BLS, and when she was denied admission, her father began asking questions to find out why. He discovered that the BLS had a "set-aside" plan-a result of U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity's 1974 Morgan v. Hennigan ruling-reserving 35 percent of slots for students of color. The suit was not contested by the Boston School Committee and resulted in Julia being admitted, and eventually in the abolishment of the "set-aside" plan. "This is not a crusade against affirmative action per se," McLaughlin said at the time of the lawsuit. "It's a lawsuit that says government cannot discriminate against my child based on her race, period."

According to Charles Willie, Eliot Professor of Education, Emeritus, the McLaughlin suit was the beginning of the end of the successful run of Boston's desegregated school system. Willie-the author of over 100 articles and 30 books on issues relating to equality, and a member of the HGSE faculty since 1974-was one of the architects of the "controlled choice" system of school desegregation that was developed in the 1980s and was in place until the late '90s. Saving the controlled choice plan in Boston would have been "the right thing," Willie says. "The right thing is to make sure that everyone has access to all of the opportunities in a school district. The right thing is to make sure that those who know how to get there first don't take all of the goodies."

Boston's era of desegregation began 30 years ago with Morgan v. Hennigan, when parents of black students brought a suit charging that the dual school system-one for black children, one for white children-was unequal. In his 1974 ruling, Judge Garrity agreed and ordered a new plan to end the segregated school system. The solution drawn up by Charles Glenn, C.A.S.'69, Ed.D.'72, featured the busing of students, an idea which set off bitter conflict-and, on occasion, violence-because it appeared that the more affluent communities were not required to comply. In all, less than half of the students in the Boston School District were subject to the plan, which was considered unfair by many whose communities were affected.

Judge Garrity presided over the desegregation efforts of the Boston Public Schools until 1989, when he turned over administration to the Boston School Committee with a specific order that the school system could not be resegregated.

HGSE alumnus Raymond Flynn, Ed.M.'81-a former advisee of Willie-went on to become mayor of Boston in 1984. "When the court withdrew in Boston, the school committee was dragging its feet in terms of developing another plan," Willie says. "Some parents went to Mayor Flynn, and asked him if he would take leadership in developing a new desegregation plan for Boston." Flynn asked Willie for his help in doing so.

Around this time, Willie joined his efforts with another of his former HGSE students, Michael Alves, who had worked on a desegregation plan for neighboring Cambridge called "controlled choice." Together, they developed a new plan for Boston, which was implemented during the 1989-90 school year and remained in effect for about 10 years.

Controlled choice divided the city of Boston into three zones, each with an evenly distributed racial makeup. The zones were drawn up with the purpose of keeping traditional neighborhoods together as much as possible. "Each of these three zones was supposed to replicate the proportional distribution of people by race in the school district," explains Willie.

Students could attend any school within their zone, and their school assignments were based on criteria including the student's preference, sibling attendance, the school's proximity to the student's home, and the racial makeup of the student body. "We had what we called racial fairness guidelines," says Willie. "Whatever the racial populations are in each of those zones is what the racial population should be in each school within the zone. If the proportion goes up one year, then each school enrolls a larger proportion of that particular group. If the proportion goes down for a group the next year, then each school enrolls a smaller proportion of that particular student population.

"[Controlled choice] made it possible for every student who lived within a zone to choose any school in that zone... Eighty-five to ninety percent of people got their first or second choice.""[Controlled choice] made it possible for every student who lived within a zone to choose any school in that zone," Willie explains. "Eighty-five to ninety percent of people got their first or second choice." According to Willie, 35 of the 120 schools were continually "over chosen" by parents and students. "Upgrading under chosen schools each year so that they are more attractive will enhance the whole school system," Willie asserts. "This is a useful way spend the limited funds available to school systems each year."

The plan as it was implemented in Boston, as well as in other cities, is largely considered to be a success. A 1995 study by the consulting firm Bain and Company found that 80 percent of parents said they were satisfied with the controlled choice method of school assignment and the options it offered; 72 percent said they preferred having a choice of assignment based on neighborhood schools. The controlled choice system was adopted by other school systems around the country, including in Florida, Illinois, California, and Washington.

But in 1999, a group calling themselves "Boston's Children First" filed a suit charging that white students were unfairly denied their rightful places in neighborhood public schools, and the Boston School Committee voted to eliminate race as a consideration in school assignments. The new policy went into effect in 2000.


HGSE Professor Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, has been documenting school segregation in national reports for 30 years, the last decade through the Civil Rights Project, founded in 1986. His most recent report, "Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation," coauthored with Chungmei Lee, Ed.M.'04, analyzes up-to-date research about current school resegregation trends. According to the report, when data were first collected in the late 1960s, white students made up more than 80 percent of the nations' public school students; today, that number is only 58 percent. Latinos are currently the largest minority group, comprising 19 percent of public school students. (African Americans currently make up 17 percent, Asians are 4 percent, and Native Americans are 1 percent.) Orfield and Lee predict that "within a decade there will be fewer than half white students in our nation's public schools," and that "the end of the white majority will lead to a nation of schools without a majority of any one racial group."

"Whites are now the most segregated group, particularly outer suburban whites," he says, "whose children are being severely isolated from learning experiences that would prepare them to live, work, and participate in public life in a society that will become majority nonwhite in their lifetimes if existing trends continue."

Many educators echo this concern, that children who grow up in segregated communities and school systems won't be as comfortable with other racial groups when they grow into adulthood. A desegregated education, they say, is not only a realistic response to a multiracial society, but off ers the benefits of understanding other cultures who share the same environment.

When asked why desegregation should matter, Willie references the work of his colleague, Hobbs Professor Howard Gardner, who first put forth the theory of "multiple intelligences."

"No one can be expert in everything, even the people who are experts in mathematics, or language, or literature," he says. "Since no one can be expert in everything, you have a better deal if you have a desegregated school. One person who is good in one thing can help the other who is not good in that thing.

"And that's why I have always lobbied for diversified schools, so people with multiple intelligences can be present to do for each other what the other cannot do for oneself."

"I have always lobbied for diversified schools, so people with multiple intelligences can be present to do for each other what the other cannot do for oneself."Michael Contompasis, headmaster of Boston Latin School during the McLaughlin case, also sees diversity as a positive effort, but admits it's difficult to quantify. In a 2000 cover story for the Boston Latin Bulletin, he said, "We were able to create a more diverse student body that brought a lot of positive outcomes. Does diversity solve all of the social ills of the world? No. But were there kids who left Latin with a higher level of sensitivity? Absolutely."

Despite agreement that desegregation is important and beneficial, there hasn't been matching agreement concerning the best way to go about making it happen. Charles Glenn, the HGSE alumnus who wrote the original busing plan for Boston, says that the time has come to move away from racial preferences in school assignments. "It was done as a remedy where it seemed overwhelmingly necessary," he says. He points out that these kinds of racial classifications are "fundamentally offensive to all of our principles" as a democracy based on equal opportunity, and would like to see schools integrated in other ways, such as through magnet schools and a method called programmatic differentiation. We can "identify programs which you calculate to be attractive to certain populations," he says, thereby bringing together children from a variety of backgrounds without emphasizing racial differences.


Willie, for one, is disappointed that the McLaughlin case went unchallenged by the Boston School Committee, and that racial fairness guides were later eliminated. "Without racial and/or socioeconomic enrollment fairness guidelines, school systems will drift back into segregated and unequal schools that are not only harmful to students of color, but also to white students," says Willie. "Diversity is an enhancement factor in education at all levels."

But many court decisions nationwide in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in school desegregation orders being removed, point toward a trend in the opposite direction.

Orfield, whose 1996 book Dismantling Desegregation explores the phenomenon in depth, attributes it to the conservative majority of the Supreme Court. "Seven of the nine justices have been appointed by conservative presidents who ran against civil rights," he says, which is creating a climate less than accommodating to desegregation.

It is well-known that there is a link between poverty and race in this country, and those with the most privileges-or "goodies," to quote Willie-have an advantage over those with much less before they even begin school. Many students from wealthy families live in neighborhoods with higher-performing schools. Their parents encourage them academically beginning at a very early age, and can afford "extras" outside of class that poor children are never provided, preparing them to succeed on entrance examinations for schools like BLS.

In his 2005 book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Jonathan Kozol talks about exceptional and very expensive early education programs available to wealthy families. He writes, "The most exclusive of the private preschools in New York, which are known to those who can afford them as 'Baby Ivies,' cost as much as $22,000 for a full-day program. Competition for admission to these pre-K schools is so extreme that private counselors are frequently retained, at fees as high as $300 an hour, to guide the parents through the application process."

As a result, there are many children with an extra three or four years' preparation that poor children do not have, giving some kids an advantage on the very first day of school. "Three years later, in third grade, these children are introduced to what are known as 'high-stakes tests,' which in many urban systems now determine whether students can or cannot be promoted," Kozol writes. "Children who have been in programs like those offered by the 'Baby Ivies' since the age of two have, by now, received the benefits of six or seven years of education, nearly twice as many as the children who have been denied these opportunities; yet all are required to take, and will be measured by, the same examinations.""Increased testing requirements for high school graduation, for passing from one grade to the next, and college entrance can only be fair if we offer equal preparation to children, regardless of skin color and language."

In a 1999 Civil Rights Project report titled "Resegregation in American Schools," Orfield and coauthor John Yun point out the direct link between poverty and low achievement in schools. "[W]hile debates over the exact academic impact of desegregation continue," the authors write, "there is no question that black and Latino students in racially integrated schools are generally in schools with higher levels of average academic achievement than are their counterparts in segregated schools." This does not necessarily mean that those students will immediately achieve academic excellence, but that they will be exposed to an overall better set of opportunities.

"Thus, knowledge of trends in segregation and its closely related inequalities are even more crucial now," the report continues. "For example, increased testing requirements for high school graduation, for passing from one grade to the next, and college entrance can only be fair if we offer equal preparation to children, regardless of skin color and language. Increasing segregation, however, pushes us in the opposite direction because it creates more unequal schools, particularly for low-income minority children, who are the groups which most frequently receive low test scores."


"My first summer out of Harvard, I learned that every child could learn," says Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.'75, director of the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) in New York City. Canada grew up in the South Bronx, a tough neighborhood where kids learned the intricate codes of conduct of street fighting early, and pursued psychology at Bowdoin College and education theory at HGSE to figure out how best to address the problems of inner-city children. While at HGSE, he took a behavior-modification class with Bruce Baker, who invited him to work at Camp Freedom, a summer camp for difficult kids in New Hampshire. Canada describes the children as "so deeply disturbed they couldn't go to school. This was back when they thought kids with Down's [syndrome] couldn't learn."

Canada describes Baker as a "superhero" who could modify the behavior of children who were previously thought of as uncontrollable. There were kids who had wet the bed their whole lives; Baker and his staff eliminated that behavior. There were psychotic kids; Baker and his staff got them to sit still. Parents would come to the camp for a visit and observe their kids sitting quietly, learning, and paying attention, and they would sometimes cry because they had never imagined their children could behave that way.

After Canada's experience at Camp Freedom, he worked at the Robert White School, a private day school for troubled inner-city youth in Boston, and then returned to New York City in 1983. He was struck by the children there who had "perfectly healthy brains" who were seven years old and didn't know the alphabet, even though they had been in school for two years. After his experience at Camp Freedom, where they had achieved extraordinary results in only six weeks, Canada knew that this was a situation that could be fixed. "Kids with perfectly healthy brains are falling behind," he says. "This is clearly the fault of adults. There's no reason that all of our children in this country are not able to learn at higher levels."

Making that happen is the goal of HCZ, a community-based nonprofit organization that encompasses a 60-block area in Harlem. HCZ has 15 centers that serve more than 12,600 children and adults, offering education, social services, and other supports to strengthen the neighborhood as a whole to provide a safety net for children from infancy to when they leave for college. "We [as a country] have accepted the fact that certain children are going to learn and some are not," he says, "and we have balanced that not learning on the backs of poor children and children of color." To rectify that imbalance, HCZ provides services in a famously majority-black neighborhood-services that many middle-class and wealthy families consider a part of everyday life.

Like most conversations about progress, money and how it is spent is a factor-a very big factor-in the conversation and concern about resegregation.

"My belief is that the market ought to help drive teacher excellence," says Canada. "In other words, if when you became a teacher you started off with $80,000, we would get a lot more people who were talented and committed and prepared to work hard. The market would then allow you to get rid of teachers who weren't performing, because there'd be lines of people waiting to take their jobs.

"If I were able to redesign it," he continues, "I would make it so the best teachers in America were lined up at the worst schools, knocking on the doors and upset, absolutely furious that they couldn't get hired. And I would do that until the more affluent schools are showing a decline because they weren't getting the best teachers."

"We [as a country] have accepted the fact that certain children are going to learn and some are not, and we have balanced that not learning on the backs of poor children and children of color."Kozol compares the current per-pupil spending in New York City schools-$11,700-to that of the wealthier suburban district of Manhasset, Long Island: in excess of $22,000. He writes, "The present New York City level is, indeed, almost exactly what Manhasset spent per pupil 18 years ago, in 1987, when that sum of money bought a great deal more in services and salaries than it can buy today. In dollars adjusted for inflation, New York City has not yet caught up to where its wealthiest suburbs were a quarter-century ago."

"It is my fundamental belief that our government, the federal government, as well as the states, are paying much too little for the education of our children in this country," says Canada.

Society's solution for dealing with many kids from impoverished backgrounds who end up involved with petty crimes is to put them in jail, and there needs to be another way, Canada says. At approximately $30,000 per year to house a prisoner, a 10-year sentence costs us $300,000 for one man who might not have been afforded opportunities in education as a child. "I daresay," Canada points out, "we are not spending $30,000 a year on our children."


Despite the obstacles in place, those who are working for positive changes in our education systems remain hopeful that the tide will turn.

Orfield and Lee's prescriptions for the future include a broader view of the entire segregation debate. They point out that there are a few basic principles that would help us frame solutions for going forward: First, "segregation by race and ethnicity is almost always related to seriously unequal opportunities for all races, including whites, and it should be minimized. The second is that, to the extent that we can increase the access of students from historically excluded to stronger middle class schools without jeopardizing those schools and their students, that is a very desirable goal for many reasons relating not only to the students' own destinies but also to the broad goals of creating a successful and stable multiracial society."

And their third principle looks back at the history-the civil rights movement and controlled choice included-that has shaped what our society has become to create a better future. "The third is that successful models for lowering segregation have been demonstrated for decades in various districts and programs."

Evidence from the Civil Rights Project's studies has been influential in winning recent U.S. Court of Appeals decisions in Louisville, Kentucky and Lynn, Massachusetts authorizing school districts to continue using race-conscious measures to achieve integration, seeing integrated schools as a "compelling interest" of school systems. A survey of Cambridge (Massachusetts) high school students showed that students of all races in that diverse school felt well-prepared to live and work in that diverse city, reporting overwhelmingly positive experiences that influences the school board's decision to continue to pursue both socioeconomic and racial integration.

"I have no doubt in my mind that we could in the next 20 years begin to eradicate the kinds of generational poverty and outcomes we've seen in [the past]," says Canada. "I think that we're right on the precipice of breaking over into a new way of thinking about communities, and education, and our responsibility to America's children."


About the Article

A version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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