School Segregation: A Lesson not Learned (Part 1)
March 23, 2016
Students of minority groups attend schools with fewer and fewer whites and white students attend schools that are almost exclusively white. Almost 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, school districts are still grappling with the problem of racial segregation in our school system.
To put it simply, school districts today are at their highest levels of segregation since 1968. During the 1968-69 school years, 14 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 77% of Black students and 55% of Latino students attended public schools that were comprised of 50% to 100% racial minorities. In the 2009-2010 school year, more than 74% of Black students and 80% of Latino students attended schools that were 50% to 100% racial minorities. In addition, the average white student attends a school where 77 percent of his or her peers are also white. A report from the UCLA’s Civil Rights Project puts it even more bluntly, finding that “fully 15% of black students, and 14% of Latino students, attend ‘apartheid schools’ across the nation, where whites make up 0 to 1% of the enrollment. This is the dirty little secret of public education. For all the talk about the declining racial achievement gap and rising graduation rates for minority students, policy makers have remained silent on the shocking and massive resegregation of public schools.
Policy makers and academics have explored some causes for this deeply troubling phenomena. One reason for school resegregation is due to the rollback of court ordered desegregation policies. For about 15 years after the Brown decision in 1954, school districts remained segregated and there was virtually no indication of progress until the late-1960s. During this time, local school districts faced immense legal pressure to desegregate because of two developments: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when Title VI of the act threatened to cut federal funding for school districts that were still segregated and the Green v Kent County case where the court struck down a “free choice” plan that gave school districts flexibility in determining their desegregation methods. These policies in combination with a barrage of civil rights litigation forced many districts to issue court ordered desegregation plans for their schools. So the 1970s and 80s were the peak of the desegregation efforts. But in the 1990s, several Supreme Court decisions in the cases of Dowell, Pitts, and Jenkins declared that these court ordered desegregation plans were never meant to be permanent and many of the school districts that were under court oversight have since been released. Researchers from Stanford University analyzed 200 school districts that terminated their court ordered desegregation polices since 1990 and found that “following the release from court order, white/black desegregation levels begin to rise within a few years of release and continue to grow steadily for at least 10 years…. This is not to say that segregation patterns revert to those of de jure segregation present in the South prior to the Brown … but segregation does increase substantially relative to levels attained under the court orders.” 
Another reason for this rapid resegregation is the growing residential segregation within American communities. In the 1950s segregation largely occurred within school districts as black and white students living just blocks apart went to different schools. Today poor and minority students are separated from wealthy mostly white students by municipal boundaries, and property tax lines. School desegregation plans were in fact a significant stimulus of white flight as many middle class white families fled from urban communities to the suburbs. A case in point is Clifton Junior High in Maryland, Virginia. Before desegregating in 1957, the school had 2,023 white students and 34 black students. Ten years later, the school had 12 white students and 2,037 black students. As white families moved to the suburbs, they left in their wake urban school districts with higher poverty, more concentrated minority enrollment and diminishing property tax revenues. Furthermore, many of these newly established suburban communities started enacting exclusionary zoning laws in a not so subtle attempt to deliberately price out low income and minority families from their neighborhoods. Municipalities began enacting minimum lot size, square foot and yard size requirements and these practices persists even until today. Many residential neighborhoods actually pride themselves on ‘2-acre zoning’, which as the name suggests, prohibits the building of homes on lots smaller than 2 acres. The cumulative effect off all these policies was that suburban schools became much richer and whiter than their urban counterparts. Thus residential segregation also has a part to play in the ongoing phenomena of school resegregation.
This article is Part I of a Wonk Tank multiple-part piece on school resegregation. Watch for the next part to come in the next few weeks!
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