Undoing the Chances for School Integration?

July 23, 2006

Editor’s Note: Good one. Carry on, ladies. -Elisa

We have never accomplished it, rarely even come close–but I still believe that integrated schools are worth fighting for. By integrated, I mean schools that reflect, proportionally, the ethnic diversity of their district. I mean districts where  Black and Latino kids are not stuck in schools with fewer resources and less experienced teachers than those serving Whites and Asians across town.

Brown v Board of Education was the historic Supreme Court decision that, over 50 years ago, declared  “separate but equal” an absurd contradiction in terms and paved the way for courts to order districts to desegregate their schools. Soon the Supreme Court will make another landmark ruling, on two race-based school assignments schemes in Seattle and Louisville.
I am no law expert, but I think a decision against these plans could leave the whole country vulnerable to the position that San Francisco’s been in for a few years now. We have been required to desegregate our district’s schools, but forbidden to assign students to schools by race. San Francisco’s most recent school assignment system, designed to comply with both mandates, is complex, controversial and up for change. Basically parents were allowed to list 7 schools of their choice. Then schools with more applicants than openings were assigned students to increase the school’s diversity, as measured by data such as mother’s level of education. My family was happy with the assignment system: we were able to choose a range of Spanish Immersion schools and got our 2nd choice. The schools we chose provided fairly good ethnic balance, too.

Unfortunately San Francisco’s carefully designed race-neutral plan has contributed to resegregation. Seattle and Louisville’s schemes do use race directly, but still allow for a fair amount of parental choice. San Francisco used a similar system in the late 80s that did increase integration across the district. If the court rules against such systems, what will be next? Will more school systems simply abandon the goal of integration, as New York Public Schools has?

Some question the importance of racial balance in today’s schools, as if racism is an old, already solved problem. Ralph Martire, in this Chicago Sun Times editorial, lays out the facts to refute that assumption. Dire as these facts are, the reasons to integrate and improve our public schools goes beyond redress of current inequities for Blacks and Latinos. All kids lose out when the schools they attend don’t reflect the make up of the cities they live in.