On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board decision that school segregation was unconstitutional. Yet 65 years later, schools in major US cities remain more segregated than neighborhoods, and many students attend classes filled mostly with students who look like them.
At the same time, opportunity and achievement gaps exist between low-income children and children from more affluent families and communities.
Rucker C. Johnson, author of the recent book Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, said this situation is partly the result of “amnesia” regarding school integration policies. Speaking at an Urban Institute event last week, Johnson described three myths that continue to impede progress on school integration.
Myth 1: We tried school integration for a long time
Johnson described how America truly enforced school integration for only 15 years. “We reached peak integration levels in 1988, and each year since, we regressed… to the point where the levels of segregation are back to where they were before integration began in earnest.”
Matt Gonzales, director of the School Diversity Project for New York Appleseed, offered a local example when describing the New York City public school system. “In a system that is 70 percent black and Latinx and low-income students… We have schools that are 50, 60, or 70 percent white students serving less than 20 percent low-income students,” he said. “That is not by accident.”
Gonzales added, “The history of New York City admissions policy, coupled with racist residential policy, has created concentrated areas of privilege.”
Research shows that residential segregation and school segregation are indeed related. “The problem has been characterized that residential segregation is what determines school segregation,” said Tomas Monarrez, research associate at the Urban Institute. “Our research indeed found that, but that isn’t fate."
Monarrez elaborated, “There are policies that school districts have that can alleviate segregation, including how school attendance boundaries are drawn, and new school choice policies, which we are currently researching.”
Myth 2: School integration didn’t work
As Johnson put it, “We turned away from school integration as a goal and desegregation as a strategy partly because of the myth that integration didn’t work.”
But Johnson’s research found far-reaching, long-lasting benefits from school integration and progressive education policies. “We traced the life outcomes of children from birth to adulthood, across three generations, from the children of Brown to Brown’s grandchildren,” he said.
“What we document is not only that these policies have lasting impacts on education attainment, earnings, and breaking the cycle of poverty, we also show integration affected not just the children of desegregated schools, but that it had impacts on their children as well.”
Myth 3: School integration is irrelevant
Segregated schools are still a reality and still contribute to achievement gaps. “Despite the unprecedented diversity of the nation’s schoolchildren, more than half attend hypersegregated schools, in which more than three-quarters of their peers are of the same race,” said Johnson.
According to Johnson, the achievement gap has grown by about two-thirds over the past three decades and now represents a one-and-a-half-grade difference between poor students and those from affluent backgrounds.
Student activists have grasped the importance of this issue and are pushing for a more equitable education system. Ananya Tadikonda, student member of the Board of Education for Montgomery County Public Schools, described how the journey began.
“Our work as students on this issue started when we saw the clear differences in our incredibly diverse Montgomery County. We are majority minority. But when student government leaders got to high school, we noticed there were schools right next to each other that looked completely different.”
“The schools had a complete disparity in the number of honors or AP classes and teacher experience.”
Tadikonda and other students have since worked to pass a diversity resolution while pushing for community input outlets that don’t favor whiter, more affluent families who can afford to attend a late afternoon meeting. In the past, Tadikonda explained, “The communities who were able to come and voice their opinions were the exact same communities who wanted anything but school integration.”
The playing field created by America’s education system is clearly uneven, but activists, practitioners, and researchers agree that school integration can support equal opportunity. “Diversity is going to be a centerpiece of our collective future,” said Johnson. “The only question is whether we are preparing our students for that reality.”