The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 6, 2016

Race-neutral policies may be well intentioned, but can they truly desegregate schools?

June 6, 2016

Last month marked the 62nd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which called for the desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed.” If we fail to actively and affirmatively consider structural racism, are well-intentioned public policies sufficient for achieving true equality in our nation’s public education system?

Over the past six decades, the federal government has engaged in a slew of initiatives, campaigns, and races to end segregation in our public schools from forced bussing to magnet schools. But a recent US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report  found that “more than 60 years after the Brown decision…disparities in education persist and are particularly acute among schools with the highest concentrations of poor and minority students.”

Given the entrenchment of school segregation and the inequity in opportunities, is it not a time to stop, reflect, and question?  Have our past public policies considered the full picture of why school segregation persists?

The link between housing, schools, and segregation

Despite clear laws prohibiting discrimination in real estate markets, a lack of affordable housing in high-performing school districts, discriminatory lending practices and exclusionary zoning, and white families’ tendencies to seek predominately white neighborhoods have led to de facto segregation. Residential location is a primary determinant of a student’s school meaning that continued housing segregation influences the racial composition of schools and the resources afforded to their students.

But residential segregation does not fully explain the troubling results in the GAO report. Evidence tells us that these disparities are partially a result of the persistence of structural racism and related systemic barriers  that maintain advantages for some and not for others, both within and outside the public school system.

Schools can have a direct role in creating barriers to opportunity

The GAO report finds that only 49 percent of high-poverty schools that are attended by predominately black or Hispanic students offered seventh- or eighth-grade algebra compared with 65 percent of all other schools.  Similarly, only 48 percent of these same schools offered Advanced Placement (AP) courses while 72 percent of low-poverty high schools in which fewer than a quarter of their students are black or Hispanic offered them.

And when AP courses are available, enrollment among Black and Hispanic students is relatively low. African Americans account for 16 percent of the student population nationally but only 9 percent of students enrolled in AP courses.

What causes these barriers?

Resource limitations and a lack of qualified teachers in schools that serve communities of color are among the many reasons why some schools do not offer AP classes. And in schools that do offer AP classes, teachers and administrations have different expectations of students, moving some into gifted and advanced tracks early in their educational paths while not providing enough information to others—preventing many black and Hispanic students from enrolling in these classes.

These examples illustrate how policies and practices continue to disproportionately disadvantage communities of color and why we need to consider these realities for future public policies aimed at closing the racial educational gap.

How can we move forward?

In its recommendations, the GAO called for better use of civil rights data collected by the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education to track and monitor disparities, which can inform future policymaking. These recommendations for evidence-based decision-making and monitoring are commendable and promising.

But data can only be part of our path forward.  If we as a nation are going to make progress toward equality in our public school system, we need to intentionally and affirmatively consider how structural racism perpetuates these long-standing disparities. Schools are not going to be fully integrated anytime soon. We need to start tackling these structural barriers within the classroom, particularly in schools that are primarily composed of students of color.

Ronald Ferguson’s recent report documents many in-school barriers: biases in the selection process for gifted and talented programs have long-term consequences on eligibility into advanced coursework. Teachers hold different expectations for high and low achievers and for certain schools, as reported by the Tripod survey. Ferguson identifies strategies that may alleviate some of these barriers:

  1. Policies such as universal screening programs into gifted and talented programs reduce biases associated with more ad hoc referral policies into such programs.
  2. Training educators to better “engage students, help struggling learners, and manage behavior” may enable young students of color to succeed both academically and behaviorally.

But these strategies are only the first steps in addressing the issue. We cannot accept segregated schools as an inevitable reality. We must try to dismantle the structurally racist policies and practices that are maintaining long-standing residential segregation if we are going to see true progress toward the goals set forth by Brown v. Board of Education.

Students and their parents ride the bus from the east-side Cranwood School to their new assignments at schools across town, under the desegregation plan of the Cleveland School Board, on September 6, 1979. Photo via Bettmann/Getty Images

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