Unless you're living under a rock, you've probably heard that today is the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the case that legally ended desegregation. I say "legally" because desegregation is still alive and well in most of the United States. Sadly, the major difference between now and the era of Brown is that today's desegregation is de facto rather than de jure.
First, why integration is important. I honestly believe that diversity in educational institutions is an important benefit in and of itself. The United States is still a country filled with extreme racism. I'm not saying that mixing students of different racial backgrounds will automatically erase this racism. Obviously, elimating racism (besides probably being impossible to do in totality) would take a whole lot more than that. However, the first step to breaking down prejudice is simply letting people get to know each other. I know people who didn't know a person of a different ethnicity until college.
Why didn't Brown work? (Disclaimer: I'm not at all trying to belittle the importance of Brown here. It was a huge milestone in the civil rights battle and continues to be an inspiring example of good things the judiciary can do. All I'm saying is that the promise made by Brown: fully integrated and equal education for all students, regardless of race) has yet to be fulfilled.) The first reason is that, as I mentioned earlier, the United States is still a country filled with extreme racism. When cities and towns across the country began implementing their desegregation plans, many white families responded by moving to the suburbs where their kids could attend schools filled (almost entirely) with people of their own race, leaving the central urban areas to the (often lower-income) people of color. Shockingly, the resources available to the city schools took a precipitous drop at this point. Michigan (along with a few other states, I believe) tried to remedy this situation by instituting desegregation plans that took place across district lines, most notably in the Detroit metropolitan area. Angry Oakland County parents responded with a lawsuit, Milliken v. Bradley, which, in 1974, made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled cross-district desegregation plans unconstitutional. These days, regardless of race most students attend schools primarily filled with other students that look like them.
All of this wouldn't be as big of a problem were it not for the troubling business of the achievement gap. Like I said, diversity is obviously a Good Thing in and of itself, but the resegregation of American schools wouldn't be nearly as troubling if students of all races were performing equally well. They aren't. Every year the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a representative survey of student knowledge, is carried out among the nation’s fourth and eighth grade students. In 2003, black and Latino eighth grade students scored an average of 34 points lower than white and Asian Pacific Islander eighth grade students on the mathematics assessment and 27 points lower on the reading assessment. In 2001, white students had a 93% high school completion rate, as compared to 87% of black students and 63% of Latino students. Post-secondary education attainment rates follow the familiar achievement gap even for those who complete high school. White adults aged 25-29 in 2001 were almost twice as likely as black adults in the same cohort and three times as likely as similar Latino adults to have completed four or more years of university. This gap, I would argue, is almost entirely due to the disparity in resources between schools in different areas.
You probably already know how school funding works. Just in case, here it is: money for public schools is raised primarily through property tax. In wealthy areas, this is enough. However, in low-income areas, even if citizens are taxed at a higher rate, the property tax is not enough. At this point, the government steps in with enough money to raise the poorer schools, not to the level of the rich schools, but to a basic "foundation level", or enough to provide a "sufficient basic education". (If you haven't already read Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, you really, really should.) Add to this the fact that most public schools have no spending autonomy and you get a pretty bleak picture.
Listen. I went to "fancy" Boston public schools my whole pre-college life (woo magnet programs). Here's what I remember: crap out of date computers, sharing one of those desks with the arm attached with two other people, no toilet paper EVER, classes taught by five teachers over the course of the year, nasty out of date books and recesses spent out on concrete "lawns". (It is very much worth noting that I also remember a lot of amazing teachers and that all those schools (with the possible exception of Latin School) gave me a really excellent education. I'm not at all trying to paint an entirely negative picture of city schools.) To be totally honest, I didn't think all that much about this during school. I vaguely knew that schools like Brookline High and Newton North were nicer, but I think I kind of assumed that most schools were like mine, but with a campus. Then I came to college and heard about some of the schools my friends had gone to: schools with student kitchens, electives that sounded like college classes, climbing walls in the gym, theatres that would make a Broadway producer cry with envy. There is simply an enormous divide between what schools in cities and schools in suburbs are able to afford. There is also an enormous divide between the racial makeup of schools in cities and schools in suburbs. In short, schools are separate and schools are unequal.
No Child Left Behind is not going to help this because it doesn't address the underlying problem of inequitable funding. This problem is going to require a radical solution. While I would advocate a retrying of Milliken, that's pretty unrealistic. Also probably unrealistic is the idea of radically overhauling the current system of school funding in favor of one entirely centralized and equal. I think that the biggest challenge (and perhaps, the ultimate solution) is going to come from CFE v. State of New York.
I have more I want to say about this, but I'm tired as hell, so tune in tomorrow to hear more about why Brown didn't work.