A recent desegregation order from the U.S. Department of Justice includes a lot of the checkmarks experts say are important for school districts to meet to reach meaningful school integration, but it is also only one school district in a nation of schools that have failed to integrate after Brown v. Board of Education.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana approved a three-year plan for desegregation in its lawsuit against the Avoyelles Parish School Board. The desegregation case was filed as far back as 1967. In 2008, district officials planned to realign its schools. During the approval process, the U.S. District Judge in Alexandria said the superintendent and board members should hire an expert to get the district to fulfill certain requirements, such as desegregation of transportation, student assignment, teaching staffs and extracurricular activities.
Desegregation in Louisiana
The consent decree calls the district “unitary,” which means the school is desegregated but an outside expert will have to monitor the district’s progress for the next three years. In the entire 5,500 student-school district, slightly more students are white than black, but at individual schools, the racial breakdown varies widely, according to the Associated Press. At Bunkie Elementary Learning Academy, the student population is 82 percent black and at Larfargue Elementary School, the population is 80 percent white.
The increased focus on desegregation in Louisiana is due in part to the state’s voucher program, which some critics say is making segregation worse by giving parents incentives to take their children out of public schools and put them in schools with children of similar racial makeup.
Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) introduced the voucher program, which would direct public funds toward private schools but a state court ruled the funding mechanism was unconstitutional, so he found funds elsewhere to continue the program.
The voucher program has been in court battles for some time now, with a federal judge ruling the state may be required to give more information on the details of the program in 2014, such as enrollment and racial breakdown, due to a 1975 court order and a 1985 consent decree in a desegregation case. Now a federal appeals court in New Orleans will hear arguments from pro-voucher groups on whether they need to provide reports on the program.
Segregation in the United States
But segregation of schools isn’t just a problem for Louisiana or the South in general, despite the focus on school segregation in the Southern U.S. over the years. A study from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that across the country, 43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students go to schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white, and more than one in seven black and Latino students attend schools where less than 1 percent of their classmates are white. The report also noted that schools with high-minority populations usually have low-income populations, making the schools economically homogeneous as well.
“Some of the greatest fights against integration of schools were fought in the North, such as Boston, Denver, Detroit,” said Howard Fuller, civil rights activist and education reform advocate and author of the book, “No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform.”
“When people talked about school desegregation they almost always just talked about the South, without understanding the history of the battles for desegregation of the North,” Fuller said.
Fuller protested the building of a segregated school in Cleveland in 1964. At the protest, Reverend Bruce W. Klunder was run over by a bulldozer when he tried to stop construction.
“What happened back then in Cleveland, they were busing black children out of the black community and once kids got there, they were forced to stay in their classroom even though they were quote ‘fully integrated.’ They wouldn’t let the kids eat lunch with the other children,” Fuller recalls of school desegregation at the time.
The report shows that although there is an increasing prevalence of segregated schools for black students in the Southern United States, Northern states such as Michigan, New York and Illinois tend to have the most segregated schools for black students. California, New York and Texas have the most segregated schools for Latino students.
Black and Latino students are also less likely to receive a quality education, since they are more likely to be taught by less qualified and experienced teachers, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
But recent U.S. Supreme Court cases haven’t helped with the enforcement of desegregation. The court ruled 5–4 to not implement public school assignment plans which “take account of students’ race” in a 2007 case affecting students in Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, which had implications for students in segregated schools across the country. The school districts choose to use individualized racial classifications to increase diversity through student assignment.
“With the Department of Justice, there seems to be an uptick in pursuing segregation cases, which I think is good and important, but there are limits on what the department can do, given what the court has laid out in school integration,” The Century Foundation’s Kahlenberg. “The U.S. Supreme Court has, over time, made it easier and easier for school districts to get out from under school desegregation orders.”
Economic and political factors
The resegregation of schools has also been affected by school districts redrawing their boundaries in ways that further divide communities by race and economic status. Students living in areas that have declining populations and low property value are unable to benefit from the revenue that had once been shared in a larger district that included more affluent communities, for example. There is a growing movement of towns voting to secede from school districts, in order to have “local control” and increase “academic excellence,” according to The Nation.
Housing discrimination and generational poverty also help to keep schools segregated. Without acknowledging many of the economic factors, it’s difficult to integrate schools effectively, experts say.
For example, affordable housing is often placed in neighborhoods that have been traditionally black or Hispanic, banks can charge higher loan rates in black and Hispanic communities and landlords may only accept applications from residents with certain credit scores. Landlords may offer white residents certain privileges while putting off repairs to apartments belonging to people of color. Sometimes residents face blatant racism, such as this poster specifically instructing black residents to be quiet.
The Obama administration finalized a Department of Housing and Urban Development regulation in 2013 that was supposed to make it easier to file allegations of housing discrimination by using “disparate impact,” as one way to show evidence of discrimination, but in November of last year a D.C. District Court judge threw out the rule.
“In some of these cities, there are not enough white people to even have a discuss about integration,” Fuller said. “So if we think we can do school desegregation in the absence of dealing with economic policies, in the absence of dealing with housing policies, if you don’t attack those policies and just sit here and think you can talk about school desegregation, that’s ludicrous.”
One often ignored issue is not simply integration of a school district but attention to integration within classes, since some classes may be majority people of color while others are majority white. A Duke University paper, “Race, School Integration and Friendship in America,” notes that even when a school is declared integrated, the experience of students is anything but. At a certain age, children stop forming cross-racial friendships and socialize along racial lines. One of the ways to avoid purely superficial integration would be to ensure classrooms are racially mixed as well as extracurricular activities, but schools may be held back from making those changes due to the aforementioned 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
What is the best way to desegregate schools?
Richard Kahlenburg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, said that research broadly shows the importance of integration in improving the student outcomes over simply increasing funding for districts with mostly impoverished students.
“The message coming out of Washington has been we don’t need to worry about integration because we can provide opportunities for students through highly segregated charter schools and that’s been very discouraging to proponents of integration who realize that on the ground its very difficult to make high poverty districts work,” Kahlenberg said.
Fuller said that while he understands the research clearly illustrates the importance of integration, he wants to focus on what he can do to raise standards for students now to prepare them for the global marketplace, regardless of whether those schools are integrated.
“The question is is racial integration the biggest thing or is class the biggest thing to focus on? I get what people are saying about the research on what integration does and the impact it has on these children’s lives,” Fuller said. “But if I spent the next 10 years talking about integration, it would have no impact on these children’s lives, because given all the other things that impact these children’s lives, given all these policies and the environment they live in, I don’t see integration as a feasible struggle to take on.”
Kahlenberg said he has seen examples of schools with majority students of color succeed, but that they tended to also be economically mixed.
“The key here is not to create white and wealthy enclaves of privilege within the public school system but to ensure a racial and economic mix in those schools,” Kahlenberg said. “It isn’t the racial mix per se that drives the student achievements, it’s the socioeconomic mix, so I’m not saying majority minority schools can’t be successful but that all students are do better when there’s an economic mix than when there is a high concentration of poverty.”