Resegregation of Schools

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Resegregation of Schools


In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court declared separate schools to be inherently unequal and outlawed segregation in schools. Desegregation efforts were slow, but succeeded in reducing the number of students in racially isolated schools. Despite problemsmost prominently the phenomenon of within-school segregation, which led to minority students frequently being concentrated in the lower academic tracksdesegregation helped to narrow the achievement gap.

Since 1988, however, there has been a growing trend toward resegregation. The number of black students in the South attending predominantly white schools grew from 0.001 percent in 1954 to 43.5 percent in 1988, to again drop to 32.7 percent by 1998. Nationwide, the number of African American students attending schools with more than 90 percent African American students has grown from 62.9 percent in 1986 to 70.2 percent in 19981999. A new phenomenon is the increasing segregation of Latinos, who by 1998 experienced a higher degree of segregation than in 1968. This trend toward increasing segregation of Latinos and African Americans is concentrated in large cities, but also occurs in some smaller cities and in suburbs of large metropolitan areas.

Three reasons have been proposed to explain this trend. First, a growing Latino immigration, particularly in the West, has led to Latinos now making up the largest population in many major cities and older suburbs; second, residential segregation remains and thus contributes to the perpetuation of segregated schools. Residential segregation had become deeply entrenched in the first half of the twentieth century through public policy that disproportionately benefited whites and created predominantly white suburbs. Fair housing laws since the 1970s have had limited success in curbing ongoing discrimination in housing and mortgage markets.

White flight, or the tendency of whites to leave neighborhoods with growing numbers of black residents, has also been cited as a cause for a growing isolation of African Americans and Latinos in metropolitan centers. Charles T. Clotfelters study (2004) shows a trend toward integration in all areas of the United States, except in the Northeast. However, Clotfelter also identifies a series of contrary forces that have hampered or limited desegregation, several of which support the idea of a white flight. These include, first, whites avoiding mixed schools with high percentages of minority students; second, whites having options available to escape from desegregation (private schools, suburban schools, academic tracking, segregated school activities), while still appearing to support desegregation in principle; and third, white parents ability to exert pressure on track assignments, assuring their children attend predominantly white schools or classes.

One of the most far-reaching causes hindering further desegregation and preventing resegregation, however, is the alarming trend in Supreme Court decisions toward turning away from a commitment to integration. In Milliken v. Bradley (1974), the Supreme Court adopted a position of suburban innocence. Declaring that suburbs could not be held accountable for residential segregation, it decided against interdistrict busing, thus making it impossible to achieve integration in highly segregated school districts in Detroit. In Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk (1986), the Supreme Court allowed districts to dismantle their desegregation efforts once they were integrated, or had achieved unitary status, even if such practices would lead to resegregation.

Two new large-scale and controversial educational reforms emerged in the 1990s: first, school vouchers, and later, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy. Both moved the debate on school reform away from the goal of integration. The idea of school vouchers (1994) was to provide federal funding to parents who wanted to send their children to private schools, giving parents the right to choose, irrespective of their financial status. Critics argued that only a fraction of students would have been able to be offered these funds, which typically would not cover the entire tuition. Poor students would likely be left behind in schools with declining student enrollment and public funds. While vouchers now only exist in a few metropolitan districts, the NCLB initiative became a nationally adopted reform in 2002, promising to overcome the soft bigotry of low expectations through rigorous high-stakes testing. Proponents argue that NCLB has increased achievement, but its critics counter that while it adds little to already well-achieving schools, it is damaging to the poorest ones with the most disadvantaged student populations. With NCLB forcing schools to produce significant and sustained improvement, but often without being granted adequate funding, many urban schools face the likelihood of failure or closure.

As of 2006, many Latino and African American students are attending schools with more than 90 percent Latino and black enrollment. While there is considerable debate about whether the resegregation of schools is due to public policy or to natural demographic changes across region and by race, few question that integrated schools, despite the problem of within-school segregation, tend to provide better conditions for students of color than segregated schools.

SEE ALSO Segregation, Residential; Segregation, School


Clotfelter, Charles T. 2004. After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kozol, Jonathan. 2005. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishers.

Logan, John. 2004. Resegregation in American Public Schools? Not in the 1990s. Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, University at Albany, State University of New York.

Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation.1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.

Annegret Staiger