Historic Reversals, Accelerating Resegregation, and the Need for New Integration Strategies
American schools, resegregating gradually for almost two decades, are now experiencing accelerating isolation and this will doubtless be intensified by the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. This June, the Supreme Court handed down its first major decision on school desegregation in 12 years in the Louisville and Seattle cases. A majority of a divided Court told the nation both that the goal of integrated schools remained of compelling importance but that most of the means now used voluntarily by school districts are unconstitutional. As a result, most voluntary desegregation actions by school districts must now be changed or abandoned. As educational leaders and citizens across the country try to learn what they can do, and decide what they will do, we need to know how the nation’s schools are changing, what the underlying trends are in the segregation of American students, and what the options are they might consider.
The Supreme Court struck down two voluntary desegregation plans with a majority of the Justices holding that individual students may not be assigned or denied a school assignment on the basis of race in voluntary plans even if the intent is to achieve integrated schools—and despite the fact that the locally designed plans actually fostered integration. A majority of the Justices, on a Court that divided 4-4-1 on the major issues, also held that there are compelling reasons for school districts to seek integrated schools and that some other limited techniques such as choosing where to build schools are permissible. In the process, the Court reversed nearly four decades of decisions and regulations which had permitted and even required that race be taken into account because of the earlier failure of desegregation plans that did not do that. The decision also called into question magnet and transfer plans affecting thousands of American schools and many districts. In reaching its conclusion the Court’s majority left school districts with the responsibility to develop other plans or abandon their efforts to maintain integrated schools. The Court’s decision rejected the conclusions of several major social science briefs submitted by researchers and professional associations which reported that such policies would foster increased segregation in schools that were systematically unequal and undermine educational opportunities for both minority and white students. The Court’s basic conclusion, that it was unconstitutional to take race into account in order to end segregation represented a dramatic reversal of the rulings of the civil rights era which held that race must be taken into account to the extent necessary to end racial separation.
The trends shown in this report are those of increasing isolation and profound inequality. The consequences become larger each year because of the growing number and percentage of nonwhite and impoverished students and the dramatic relationships between educational attainment and economic success in a globalized economy. Almost nine-tenths of American students were counted as white in the early l960s, but the number of white students fell 20 percent from l968 to 2005, as the baby boom gave way to the baby bust for white families, while the number of blacks increased 33 percent and the number of Latinos soared 380 percent amid surging immigration of a young population with high birth rates. The country’s rapidly growing population of Latino and black students is more segregated than they have been since the l960s and we are going backward faster in the areas where integration was most far-reaching. Under the new decision, local and state educators have far less freedom to foster integration than they have had for the last four decades. The Supreme Court’s 2007 decision has sharply limited local control in this arena, which makes it likely that segregation will further increase.