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Still Separate After All These Years?

An interview with Professor Gary Orfield, Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard May 2004 marks 50 years since the landmarkBrown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that declared "separate not equal" and jumpstarted a legally mandated approach to desegregate the nation's schools. But how far have we come? Research from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and Professor Gary Orfield indicates that American schools are not nearly as desegregated as one might think and that while we should recognize the 50-year anniversary of Brown, it is not necessarily a time for celebration.

Professor Gary Orfield (photo: Susie Fitzhugh © 2002)
Q: 50 years after Brown, how effective has the enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act really been? A: The Supreme Court decisions and the enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that followed the Brown ruling forced the South to desegregate. The region went, between 1964 and 1970, from almost complete segregation to becoming the most integrated region. After 1974, however, school integration efforts outside the South were stymied by the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Milliken v. Bradley, which prohibited heavily minority urban systems from including nearby suburbs in desegregation plans. School districts in the North usually run coterminous with municipal borders. Thus, Northern school districts usually reflect housing segregation rates, which are highest there. In the 1990s, a new set of decisions by a more conservative Supreme Court required that many large (and successful) desegregation plans be dismantled across the country. Q: And what's happening to the racial composition of schools today?

The most recent statistics...reveal that America's schools are now in their 12th year of a continuing process of racial resegregation

A: Martin Luther King's dream is being honored in theory and dishonored in the decisions and practices that are turning our schools back to segregation. The most recent statistics we have compiled reveal that America's schools are now in their 12th year of a continuing process of racial resegregation. The integration of black students, the new study shows, had improved steadily from the 1960s through the late 1980s. But, as of the 2000-01 school year, the levels have backed off to lows not seen in three decades. Nearly 40 percent of black students in 2000 attended schools that were 90 to 100 percent black—up steadily from a low of 32 percent in 1988. In 2000, about one-sixth of blacks attended schools where I percent or less of their fellow students were white. In 90 percent of these schools, the majority of children were poor. The average black student, meanwhile, attended a school where just 31 percent of students were white. What this all adds up to is that we're in a major process of resegregation. There is a cowardice about this issue. People are afraid to talk about it because it is so sensitive. So we are slipping back into separate-but-equal schools, a policy we tried once without success. Q: Who is responsible for this move backwards to resegregation? A: I believe there has been a vacuum of leadership. There used to be a program to help integrated schools deal with race relations, improve opportunity for everyone. That was repealed during the Reagan administration and hasn't been restored. We are creating thousands of new charter schools with no civil rights requirements at all in the federal law. So, we haven't had leadership, and we had negative leadership from our courts. The courts are now dominated by anti-civil rights majorities that were appointed over the last several administrations, and they are dismantling desegregation. They have adopted a set of rules that make it very difficult even for communities that have had very successful desegregation to maintain it. We have a tremendous lack of leadership and understanding in the part of many of our courts these days. Q: You've called No Child Left Behind "the most important thing to affect the education of minorities over the next five years." How was the work of the Civil Rights Project incorporated into the legislation? A: We in the Civil Rights Project went around the country to identify the best researchers who could say something about how you could spend this money usefully for poor kids. We commissioned and delivered 14 studies to Congress. We worked with Congressional staffers fairly intensively, having hundreds of discussions. We titled our report, "Hard Work for Good Schools: Facts, Not Fads in Title I Reform," but unfortunately what has been enacted is mostly the fads. Almost none of the researchers who had serious knowledge about the effects of legislation on poor children were invited to testify about this legislation before either the House or Senate. Some of the only good ideas that we were able to identify in the bill—such as targeted tutoring programs or lowering class size—come primarily from good educational research. (Unfortunately, there is very little money for research in this bill: less than 1% of the money is going to go to research on programs.) What emerged was a bill that reflected none of what is known in educational research, primarily because of the extremely partisan processing: an almost complete rejection of everything, except some research on phonics. What emerged was an 1100-page document calling for impossible achievements that have never been accomplished anywhere; use of 50 different sets of standards; and very rigid sanctions. Some of these sanctions are going to take hold this fall for thousands of schools and the states are utterly unprepared to implement them. (There is nothing in the law that will equalize the schools before they are sanctioned.)