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PERSPECTIVE ON SCHOOL DESEGREGATION : America Lacks Equal Opportunity . . . : The Supreme Court was right in 1954, and it still is right: Separate is,inherently, unequal.

December 26, 1993| Gary Orfield | Gary Orfield is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of its Project on School Desegregation. and

America's schools are slipping backward toward increased isolation of African American and Latino students by both race and poverty. Black students are losing some of the gains of the last 25 years and Latino students have become steadily more segregated over the same period.

This national backward movement is not the result of white flight to private schools; the proportion of whites who attended public schools in 1992 was actually higher than it was 20 years ago; their absolute numbers are down, however, because of a declining white birth rate. Instead, it is a result of government policies, the spread of residential segregation, the fragmentation of school districts in our metropolitan areas and the great increase in the numbers of minority students, particularly Latino students, in our country.

One of the most dramatic consequences of the conservative triumph of the 1970s and 1980s was the implicit assumption that nothing could be done about the nation's racial pattens. The conservative analysis held that government attempts were doomed to failure, and that, somehow, people in isolated minority communities would pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if only they were forced to do so. People were led to believe that vast amounts of taxpayer money were wasted on desegregation, and that we should try to upgrade neighborhood schools instead.

The truth is otherwise.

Americans of all racial and ethnic groups share a vision of college and middle-class success for their children, but only white children routinely go to schools that are middle class. Only 4% of white schools have a majority of poor children, compared with three-fifths of schools with more than 90% black and Latino students. These schools are far less likely to give students the credentials and connections necessary to function in middle-class settings.

Many people in big cities look at their overwhelmingly minority school enrollments and say that while desegregation might once have been a good idea, nothing can be done now. They are partially right. Under existing policies, it is unlikely that many of the students inside the district can be integrated with whites. Much can still be done, however, particularly in encouraging balance in suburban schools.

It's also wrong to see integration with whites as the only relevant standard. In San Francisco, the outstanding high school, Lowell, has a large nonwhite majority, with Chinese students as the dominant group, but it represents a valuable opportunity for integration and educational gain for African American and Latino youths. We have to think about integration as a path into a much more broadly defined and multiethnic middle-class mainstream. Institutions of any sort that serve only the poor are unlikely to be highly effective. Multiracial middle-class schools, however, offer excellent preparation. The fact that a total solution is not possible is no excuse for doing nothing to alleviate obvious inequalities of schooling.

In cities with well-designed programs, desegregation has been a success, even where busing was required. Metropolitan Louisville, Ky., has practiced city-suburban busing and instituted major educational reforms since 1975. A court order was lifted in 1980, but residents rejected proposals to quit using a smorgasbord of desegregation methods. Desegregation has not eliminated racial gaps, but it tends to produce better educational preparation and better chances for college and careers. In fact, what the Supreme Court found in 1954 is still true: Separate is unequal.

While we have spent vast amounts of money unsuccessfully trying to upgrade segregated neighborhood schools, the only significant program that supported integration, the Emergency School Aid Act, was repealed during the first Reagan Administration. This program did not coerce anyone and it did not pay for busing. It did pay for help in working out the education and human-relations problems of interracial schools and supporting innovations. ESAA had bipartisan support in Congress, was widely popular among urban school districts and produced positive evaluations of its benefits in human relations and educational achievement. It was madness to repeal this program in a fragile, multiracial society. It should be reinstated.

Successful school desegregation programs can make a tremendous difference. Ultimately, of course, to provide a sound education for poor, minority children, we will have to address the broader issues of unemployment and isolation in strictly segregated, poverty-stricken communities. We must free our society from its greatest historical burden: the eviscerated promise of equal opportunity. We have lost sight of that goal in a generation of politicians exploiting racial fears on a national level.

We are still blessed with reasonably strong institutions and a set of dreams shared across racial and ethnic lines. It is very important that there be a real possibility of this vision coming true for all children if our society is to be viable. Integrated schools are not the whole answer, but they are a vital step.

\o7 Last week, the Harvard Project on School Desegregation released a nationwide survey conducted for the National School Boards Assn. \f7

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