Recent Changes in School Desegregation. ERIC Digest.
by Weiler, Jeanne
This digest presents some of the major trends and changes that are taking
place in school desegregation in the 1990s. One of the most prominent current
trends is the increasing number of court cases which release school districts
from court supervision of their desegregation efforts (known as granting
"unitary" status). The result has been that many urban school districts
are moving toward increasing resegregation of their schools as students
return to neighborhood schools (Orfield, 1996).
A second important trend in school desegregation is increased attention
to access to education and academic performance of minority students (Willis,
1994). Both school districts involved in court cases and those involved
in desegregation planning have shifted attention away from a focus on desegregation
efforts, which primarily concern student assignment to achieve racial integration,
and toward increased attention to issues related to within-school equity
During the 1970s and 1980s, the focus of desegregation was on the physical
integration of African American and white students through such measures
as busing, school choice, magnet schools, use of ratios, redrawn school
district boundaries, mandatory and voluntary intra- and interdistrict transfers,
and consolidation of city districts with suburban districts (Willis, 1994).
While many of these efforts are continuing in school districts across the
nation, courts are declaring more and more large urban districts unitary
(e.g., Denver, CO; Wilmington, DE; Savannah, GA; Kansas City, KS; Cincinnati
and Cleveland, OH; Oklahoma City, OK; Buffalo, NY; and Austin, TX).
RECENT DESEGREGATION CASES
THE U.S. SUPREME COURT
In Board of Education of Oklahoma v. Dowell (1991), the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled that formerly segregated school districts could be released
from court-ordered busing once they have taken all "practicable" steps
to eliminate the legacy of segregation. This meant that districts could
be freed from court oversight if they had desegregated their students and
faculty and met the other requirements of mandatory desegregation, such
as transportation and facilities. The court further ruled that school districts
are not responsible for remedying local conditions, such as segregated
housing patterns (Fife, 1996). In essence, with this ruling, the Supreme
Court made it easier for districts to be declared unitary, or to be released
from desegregation orders (Orfield, 1996).
In the case of Freeman v. Pitts, the 1992 Supreme Court ruling held
that Federal district courts can have discretion to order incremental withdrawal
of court supervision over school districts (Fife, 1996). In other words,
a school district does not need to achieve unitary status in all six of
the "Green factors"--student assignment, faculty, staff, transportation,
extracurricular activities, and facilities--before being released from
court supervision. The Green factors, codified by the Supreme Court decision
in Green v. School Board of New Kent County, are typical components of
a school system where desegregation is mandatory. Thus, the Freeman decision
effectively weakened the Green standards by allowing schools to desegregate
incrementally, although it did not release districts from their obligation
to desegregate (Fife, 1996).
Missouri v. Jenkins is one of the most complex desegregation cases to
date in the United States. Since 1985, the state of Missouri has spent
$1.4 billion on the court-ordered desegregation plan for the Kansas City
school district. In 1995, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a
desegregation plan does not have to continue just because minority student
achievement scores remain below the national average. The state of Missouri
could not be required to provide funding for programs and various kinds
of school improvement activities, or to pay for a plan aimed at attracting
white students from suburban districts for an undetermined amount of time,
simply because minority student achievement scores remained below the national
average. The state could only be required to do what is practicable for
remedying the vestiges of past discrimination; it was not responsible for
remedying inequities that may exist between students within schools (Fife,
1996). Recently, a Federal judge ruled that the state be freed from financial
responsibility by approving a settlement paying $315 million that would
cut out $100 million in annual state subsidy for school desegregation efforts
after 1999. The court ordered that the district narrow the gap in test
scores between black and white students by the end of 1998-99 (Hendrie,
THE CONNECTICUT SUPREME COURT
In a ruling that has been hailed by civil rights advocates, the Connecticut
Supreme Court, in the 1996 case, Sheff v. O'Neill, found that the racial
and ethnic isolation in the Hartford school district was a violation of
the state constitution's protection against segregation, and that the extreme
racial and ethnic isolation in and around Hartford schools denied students
their constitutionally guaranteed rights to an education. The court ordered
state officials to desegregate the schools (Archer, 1996). The state legislature
then approved a plan that would allow students to transfer between public
school districts throughout Connecticut and enhance the urban schools with
magnet and charter schools (Archer, 1997). Although this case is clearly
a victory for desegregation advocates, plaintiffs in the case argue that
a statewide interdistrict transfer plan will still not integrate Hartford's
IMPACT OF COURT DECISIONS
Many educators, parents, community members, and politicians are relieved
to see an end to the desegregation orders that for years heavily influenced
decisions about educational and fiscal policies. Conversely, critics and
civil rights advocates argue that the current trend toward dismantling
court-ordered desegregation in many school districts is a step backwards
toward segregated schooling. Recent studies indicate that school segregation
and the creation of school districts with numerous poor students, which
have been increasing during the 1990s, are also affecting Latino students.
Latino students are increasingly isolated from whites, and are more highly
concentrated in high poverty schools, than any other group of students
(Orfield, Bachmeier, James, & Eitle, 1997).
THE RETURN TO NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS
When a school district is released from court supervision, it is often
free to send students back to their neighborhood schools. Community members,
parents, and educators often support a return to neighborhood schools because
they believe that desegregation is costly, that it has not accomplished
what it was intended to do many years ago, and that it has resulted in
meager improvements (Neuborne, 1995). They also hope that whites and middle-class
residents who fled during desegregation will return to the schools closer
to their homes (Orfield, 1996). Other people claim that African American
children would be better off staying in neighborhood schools rather than
being transferred out of their communities to unfamiliar and often unwelcoming
Despite this belief in the value of neighborhood schools, the reality
is that many urban students return to schools that are segregated and inferior.
Often new funding for upgrading school facilities and educational programs
is promised but not delivered. However, as is the case with many large
urban schools, even an infusion of extra funds is often not enough to transform
a school, as schools must struggle with the profound and increasing poverty
and joblessness in their local communities.
Gary Orfield and his colleagues at the Harvard Project on School Desegregation
have reported that school segregation has increased steadily over the past
15 years, particularly in non-southern states. The increase in school segregation
has profound consequences for urban minority students. For example, while
only 5 percent of segregated white schools face conditions of poverty among
their students, more than 80 percent of segregated African American and
Latino schools do (Orfield et al., 1997).
This means that a student who moves from an integrated school back to
a segregated neighborhood school will most likely exchange the resources
of a middle-class school for a poverty-stricken one, the result of the
end of court-mandated busing or desegregation choice plans. High poverty
schools have generally lower levels of educational performance and are
less likely to prepare students for college than more affluent schools.
IMPACT ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE
It is clear that desegregation has little relevance for many of the
nation's largest cities: a number of the biggest urban districts are one-
sixth or less white, and thus lack a sufficient number of white students
to meaningfully desegregate. Desegregation plans in many smaller cities
are becoming increasingly ineffective with the tremendous growth of white
suburbs and the expansion of inner-city neighborhoods without adjustments
to racial balance mandates. Even within desegregated schools, claims persist
that segregation still continues under the guise of school tracking and
grouping practices. Because of these trends in the 1990s, desegregation
planners across the country are increasingly turning their attention from
desegregation remedies such as student transfer and reassignment to achieve
racial balance to a focus on access, equity, and the academic performance
of minority students (Willis, 1994).
As more school districts have fulfilled their responsibilities insofar
as the above-described Green factors are concerned, plaintiffs in desegregation
cases have shifted their focus to what are sometimes referred to as "educational
vestiges." They argue that the educational achievement of racial and ethnic
minority students continues to lag behind that of white students in the
school district, and that this achievement gap, a vestige of legalized
segregation, must be eliminated before a school district can be released
from court orders (Lindseth, 1997). This argument is critical, and it will
most likely be the subject of further Supreme Court decisions. The gap
in performance on standardized test scores between white students and African
American and Latino students, and differences in the choice of courses
and curriculum available to different groups of students, is leading to
serious examination of what happens to minority students within individual
schools and classrooms. It will most likely lead to an era of desegregation
cases that focus on within-school integration (Willis, 1994).
Currently, several school districts across the country are engaged in
desegregation planning and are focusing on provisions that address internal
integration rather than the more conventional desegregation measures such
as student assignment. Willis (1994) uses the term "within-school integration"
to mean "the elimination of all vestiges of segregation from all policies,
practices, programs, and activities within a district's school" (p.7).
The focus of within-school integration is provision of the greatest possible
integration and interaction among students and staff regardless of the
student composition of the school (Willis, 1994).
Such a situation sparked a desegregation case in Rockford, IL, People
Who Care, et al. v. Rockford Board of Education (1993). The school district
was under District Court order to address within-school integration in
its high schools, all of which are racially balanced. The district was
also ordered to implement a student assignment plan utilizing controlled
choice; to develop programs for significant improvement in instruction
and achievement in a subset of elementary schools that for a short period
of time will remain minority, racially identifiable; and to integrate all
courses and other educational services offered in middle and high school.
The court had found the level of internal segregation within racially integrated
schools severe, as the district had maintained separation of white and
minority students in most courses and in extracurricular activities.
For many school districts engaged in desegregation planning, the emphasis
on within-school integration addresses both integrated schools and racially
identifiable schools (segregated schools) since a school district often
has a combination of both schools. For integrated or racially balanced
schools, plans are developed to address equitable participation and performance
of minority students compared to white students attending the same schools.
Monitoring equity within schools in the implementation of desegregation
plans has often been difficult, in part because of the reliance on inadequate
data from school districts. In the past, school districts were not required
by the courts to provide discrete information on different groups of students.
At best, statistical indicators such as achievement and attendance data
were provided for only two student categories: white and minority. More
recently, this limited categorization has been considered inadequate as
the demographics in school districts change, and as school officials, plaintiffs,
and court monitors ask for a more extensive breakdown of data. Going beyond
simple separation by race, they seek data disaggregated by poverty status
and fluency of English, and equity indicators such as information on enrollment
levels in special education, extent of mainstreaming, courses and grades
of students, grade retention rates, graduation rates, access to services,
participation of parents, etc. (For a complete list of equity indicators
developed by the Southwest Center for Educational Equity, see Willis, 1994.)
RACIAL DIVERSITY AS AN EDUCATIONAL GOAL
As desegregation cases come to a close, many educators are questioning
the extent to which they should attempt to promote racial and ethnic integration
without court orders to do so (Hendrie, 1997). As the nation becomes more
multicultural, educators argue that public school diversity is more important
than ever, since many school districts have retained or implemented school
policies, such as the institution of selective admissions criteria to special
schools or magnet programs, which sometimes adversely impact minority students.
It is, however, unclear how the judicial system will respond to desegregation
efforts, as advocates argue that diversity policies are in the national
interest and critics respond that they are unnecessary unless there are
specific wrongs to be righted. Legal challenges have already been brought
against two top high schools in the nation: Lowell High School in San Francisco
and Boston Latin School in Massachusetts. In San Francisco, Chinese American
students who were denied admission brought a lawsuit against the school
district, particularly centered on Lowell High School, challenging the
40 percent cap on Chinese American students. Before the court could rule,
the school changed its quota policy. Subsequently, a judge upheld the cap
but left open the possibility that it might be time to end the policy (Reinhard,
Archer, J. (1996, December 4). Student Transfers proposed on Conn. Desegregation
plan. Education Week, XVI(14), p.9.
Archer, J. (1997, April 23). Conn. bill to seize Hartford school passes.Education
Week, XVI(30), p.1, 30.
Fife, B.L. (1996, September). The Supreme Court and school desegregation
since 1896. Equity and Excellence in Education, 29(2), 46-55. (EJ 535 176)
Hendrie, C. (1997, April 2). Judge decides state funds for desegregation
to end in K.C. Education Week, XVI(27), p.1, 30.
Hendrie, C. (1997, April 30). Without court orders, schools ponder how
to pursue diversity. Education Week, XVI(31).
Kunen, J.S. (1996, April 29). The end of integration. Time Magazine,
Lindseth, A.A. (1997, April). The changing face of school desegregation.
Paper prepared for the Conference on Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity
in Public Schools, Atlanta, GA.
Neuborne, B. (1995). Brown at forty: Six visions. Teachers College Record,
96(4), 799-805. (EJ 510 938)
Orfield, G. (1996). Turning back to segregation. In G. Orfield, S. Eaton,
& The Harvard Project on Desegregation (Eds.), Dismantling desegregation:
The quiet reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (pp.1-22). New York:
The New Press. (ED 410 363)
Orfield, G., Bachmeier, M.D., James, D.R., & Eitle, T. (1997, September).
Deepening segregation in American public schools: A special report from
the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. Equity and Excellence in Education,
Reinhard, B.(1997, May 21). Judge blocks bid to ax quotas in S.F. schools.
Education Week, XVI(34), p.3.
Wells, A.S., & Crain, R. (1997). Stepping over the color line: African
American students in white suburban schools. New Haven: Yale University
Press. (ED 412 308)
Willis, H.D. (1994, November 1). The shifting focus in school desegregation.
Paper presented to the SWRL Board of Directors and The 1995 Equity Conference.