All people should have the opportunity to succeed in life, regardless of their race. But a recent Illinois district court decision jeopardizes that possibility.

In U.S. v. Board of Educ. of City of Chicago, an Illinois district court ended a twenty-three year old consent decree, which was intended to ameliorate segregation in Chicago public schools. Viewing the Chicago public school system through the lens of the particular constitutional violations that had warranted the initiation of the decree in 1980, the court determined that the consent decree was no longer necessary, because those "vestiges of discrimination" identified in 1980 were "no longer."

With an eye towards racial progress and expanded opportunity in the United States, this narrow view of segregation in public schools is deeply problematic. Although we might hope that race does not matter, too often it does. Even though over fifty years have passed since Brown v. Board of Education, according to a 2005 report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, almost 2.4 million students—including about one in six of both black and Latino students—attend schools in which the student population is 99-100% minority.  Nearly 40% of both black and Latino students attend schools in which the student population is 90-100% minority; conversely, only 1% of white students attend such schools. Additionally, 72% of black and 77% of Latino students attend schools in which minorities constitute a majority of the students.
As context, in citing the improvement of diversity in the Chicago school system in the years since 1980, the Illinois district court noted that the Board of Education of the City of Chicago’s student population was, as of September 2009, "8% white, 47% African American, and 39% Hispanic."  It is difficult to see these figures as evidence of racial integration.

In an amicus curiae brief submitted in support of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 553 social scientists voiced their opposition to the de facto segregation occurring in U.S. schools and attested to the profoundly harmful educational implications that segregated schools have on minority students. In particular, they noted that race has been shown to be the driving factor in predicting teacher turnover, even more so than working conditions or student poverty, and that these patterns persist even when accounting for teacher salary. This higher teacher turnover means that black and Latino students in predominantly minority schools typically have a greater proportion of teachers who are inexperienced and have lesser qualifications.

The social scientists further noted that racially isolated schools have concentrated educational disadvantages, such as larger class sizes, inadequate facilities, lower per-pupil spending, a lack of curricular resources, and are often located in neighborhoods with high poverty and crime rates, which also negatively influence a broad range of educational factors.

The 553 social scientists also found that students in segregated minority schools tend to have lower graduation rates (even when holding constant the effects of other school performance indicators), and they are less likely to graduate from college (even when factoring in students’ prior test scores and socioeconomic status). Thus, if this trend of de facto segregation in U.S. schools continues, our nation risks an intergenerational decline in its educational levels, which drastically threatens the ability of America to compete and prosper in a knowledge-based global economy.

But even in the absence of continued enforceable desegregation consent degrees, the goal of equality in education is not lost. Consistent efforts to collect data and initiate policies supporting the active integration of U.S. schools would significantly expand opportunity in education. In the same amicus brief mentioned above, the 553 social scientists affirmed that racially integrated schools provide significant benefits to students and communities and that, for all students involved, racial integration: (1) promotes cross-racial understanding and reduces racial prejudice; (2) improves critical thinking skills and academic achievement; (3) improves life opportunities; and (4) better prepares students for a diverse workforce, reduces residential segregation, and increases parental involvement in schools.

The Department of Education recently proposed changes to its Civil Rights Data Collection protocol, which would provide much of the data necessary to identify the extent and significance of disparate impacts in the U.S. education system. To further enhance these data collection measures, and thus provide the necessary evidentiary basis for proactive policy changes supporting integration, the Department of Education should also collect the following additional information.

Where students are assigned to school, and which classes they are assigned to within those schools, are two of the root causes of racial imbalance within a school system. Thus, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights should begin collecting data indicating whether counties or cities have adopted a written student assignment policy at the school-wide level and at the classroom level, which explicitly take race is taken into account along with other diversity factors, in making those student assignments. According to the amicus brief of the 553 social scientists in Parents Involved, race-neutral policies (including those relying on socio-economic status) are not as effective as race-conscious policies in achieving racial diversity, and resegregation has typically resulted when school districts do not maintain race-conscious policies in previously desegregated school systems.

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights should also use the Civil Rights Data Collection process to consistenly require counties and cities to report whether they are under existing court desegregation orders which require the maintenance of either a student assignment policy or a certain level of desegregation. Although the decision in U.S. v. Board of Educ. of City of Chicago could warn us of a larger effort to erode desegregation orders, greater public knowledge of these orders would be useful in pressuring educational systems to support integration efforts.

We can still achieve the promise of opportunity for youth of color, but only with concerted and relentless efforts to dismantle existing racial segregation in U.S. schools.

Read more at The Opportunity Agenda website.

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