De Facto Segregation in the 21st Century

Among the myriad of issues facing public education in the United States, the lack of diversity across schools and districts, and in particular the concentrated poverty and anemic outcomes found within an unacceptable number of schools and districts that are predominantly black and Hispanic, is one of the most ignominious as well as one of the most difficult to address through top down policy.  It is a tremendously complex and vexing issue, in no small part because the sort of inequities that define it are not confined to education, but are indeed pervasive throughout much of society.  A complicated and at times troublesome history, racial bigotry, concentrated poverty, and very real concerns about constitutional rights all play a role in both making de facto segregation an ongoing problem and in molding the debate over what measures should be taken to address it.     

Years of research have shown the measurable benefits offered to students by maintaining racially and socio-economically diverse schools, especially for those who are minority and low-income.  The reasons for this vary, but may include higher expectations, increased parent involvement, and greater resources, as well as the more abstract social benefits of diversity itself.  The importance of socio-economic diversity has been particularly stressed in recent years, although in many parts of the country race and socio-economic status heavily coincide.  Lifting communities out of cyclical poverty and increasing their capacity for mobility through creating better opportunities to obtain a quality education is not only just, but leads to increases in economic growth and efficiency as well.   It would then seem to follow that a greater level of student heterogeneity in schools would bolster educational outcomes for students, and, in addition, be in the best interests of the nation as a whole. Despite this however, up to 92% of K-12 students in the United States attend racially and socio-economically homogeneous schools. This high level of segregation disproportionately places its adverse effects upon the economically disadvantaged, and in particular low-income blacks and Hispanics, with schools containing a majority of this demographic witnessing some of lowest levels of funding, highest level of teacher turnaround, and poorest outcomes in the nation.   

Paradoxically, the same integration that would most likely benefit society as a whole is to a certain extent resisted by that very society who’s laws, in their function as a preserver of its liberties, often serve to protect that opposition.  America’s complex struggle with this issue is exemplified by the debate over the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education.  Does it implicitly promote integration and proactively serve to augment the progress of a historically oppressed minority group?  Or does it act to eliminate race altogether from the considerations of districts and schools?  Several court cases in past decades, including Gratz v. Bollinger and Meredith v. Jefferson County School District, have effectively ruled unconstitutional the instituting of quotas and point systems and the reserving of seats as a way to increase racial diversity, which provides a partial answer to the legal question as it relates to the present day.  At this point in time, and in the wake of the lifting of court orders mandating integration during the Civil Rights Movement, segregation in schools is at a level not seen since the 1970s.  Since the largest determining factor in deciding which students attend what public school is largely determined by zoning and geographical proximity, the segregation of housing and neighborhoods can be seen as the primary driving force behind the current trend.  Indeed, the value we place on personal liberty as Americans and belief in the free market is a major factor in maintaining socio-economic partition, and, unfortunately, racial segregation, proving that the same rights and freedoms that allow us to accomplish wonderful things often enable us to express our prejudices in ways that impede our way forward.

Despite the incredible legal difficulties and moral ambiguity of attempting to force change from the top, it is also irresponsible and tepid to simply do nothing.  Fortunately, the last several years have revealed bright spots in the way of encouraging diversity.  More districts have been introducing efforts designed to increase socio-economic diversity, including rezoning and seat allocations, which, in addition to being a positive in its own right, often indirectly promotes racial diversity.  The number of school districts who use policies to explicitly encourage this type of diversity is at 91, up from just 40 in 2007.  The method of reserving seats for low-income students is particularly effective in urban areas undergoing demographic change, such as New York City, where students can be more easily assimilated during a time of rapid transition.  And on the federal level, President Obama recently announced the “Stronger Together” initiative, offering $120 million in competitive grants to districts that develop innovative policies in order to enhance socio-economic diversity.

Despite these efforts, there still exists a tremendous amount of progress to be made.  Methods such as setting aside seats for low-income students can be effective for promoting diversity in certain areas, but many others lack the necessary heterogeneity of population and economic dynamism to make such methods uniformly viable.  In all likelihood, society as a whole will have to progress considerably before the problem of school segregation is substantially palliated, with evidence-based and community involved policy being implemented along the way to expedite the process.  With proceeding generations of Americans becoming increasingly educated and cosmopolitan, this is a hopeful prospect.  When race becomes increasingly decoupled from class, when economic mobility for all Americans increases, and when communities are lifted out of states of cyclical poverty, then racial and social inequity will be reduced, leading to greater integration across schools.   In turn, greater equity in our education system will lead to an acceleration of the societal gains that make further integration possible.