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Fighting School Resegregation

January 27, 2003

Fighting School Resegregation

When Trent Lott resigned as the Senate Republican leader last month after praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign, it may have appeared that the nation was finally putting racial segregation behind it. But segregation is, in fact, alive and well. A new Harvard study shows that public schools are highly segregated, and becoming more so. And the Bush administration's best idea for promoting diversity in colleges is one that relies on the perpetuation of segregation at the high school level. With the Lott firestorm over, the nation should now turn to the problem of racial segregation, and resegregation, in public education.

The Harvard study, which was conducted by the university's Civil Rights Project, found a pervasive pattern of racial separation in public schools. Although minority enrollment now approaches 40 percent nationwide, the average white student attends a public school that is 80 percent white. At the same time, one-sixth of black students — the figure is one-quarter in the Northeast and Midwest — attend schools that are nearly 100 percent non-white.

In the 1960's and 1970's, the nation waged an imperfect battle against segregated education. Courts struck down de jure, or legal, racial segregation in the schools. And they applied remedies like busing and magnet school plans in an effort to minimize de facto segregation, which arose largely from segregated housing patterns. Progress was real, if fitful. From 1964 to 1988, the Harvard study notes, the percentage of black students in the South who attended majority white schools rose to 43.5 percent from 2.3 percent.

Today, however, the trend lines are going the wrong way. In the 1990's, the proportion of blacks attending majority-white schools declined 13 percentage points, reaching the lowest level since 1968. And in the same decade, white enrollment fell substantially in schools attended by black students. The average black student now attends a school that is just one-third white. Public schools, the Harvard report concludes, have been undergoing a "process of continuous resegregation."

Much of the blame goes to the courts' increased hostility to desegregation suits. In 1991, the Supreme Court radically altered the standard for freeing school districts from desegregation orders. The impact has been most striking in the South, where many desegregation plans were dismantled.

School resegregation hurts minority students by condemning them to separate, and unequal, education. It leads to schools with higher concentrations of poverty, less-qualified teachers, weaker curriculums and lower test scores. The students who attend these schools are less likely to go on to college, and to work and live in racially integrated settings.

Rather than fight school segregation, the Bush Administration has been happy to exploit it. Its briefs in the University of Michigan affirmative action case now in the Supreme Court praise plans in use in Texas, California and Florida that guarantee admission to state universities to students who graduate in the top 4 percent to 20 percent of their class.

Such plans are only partly effective in integrating higher education. They do nothing for graduate schools, and they often shunt minority students to a system's least selective campuses. But to the extent they work at all, it is by harnessing segregation at the high school level.

Relying on segregation in K-12 education to integrate higher education is cynical and wrong. It also creates troubling incentives. By telling minority parents that their children's best chance of attending a good college is to attend a segregated high school, these programs exert pressure on minority communities not to fight for integration in court, or in their school districts.

In their public statements over the Michigan case, members of the Bush administration, including the president, have said they would like to see increased racial diversity in education. If that is indeed their goal, they should begin by coming up with a plan to reverse the current trend, and start integrating the public schools.

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