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PICS: Joint Civil Rights Centers Statement

Joint Statement of Nine University-Based Civil Rights Centers on Today's Supreme Court Rulings on Voluntary School Desegregation (McFarland v. Jefferson County Public Schools & Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1)

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged the well-documented benefits of racially and ethnically diverse schools, but severely limited the very tools school districts need to achieve integration and avoid segregation.

Ironically, today's decision comes at a time when, more than ever, social science research offers powerful evidence of the strong benefits of diversity for students, communities, and a democratic society. Similarly, research has also long demonstrated the detrimental effects of segregation and its ever-present attendant, concentrated poverty, in our public schools on educational opportunity, race relations and the psychological development of young people.

Public policy, thus, should encourage rather than hamstring local educators who have come to recognize both the benefits of desegregation and racial/economic diversity and the harmful effects of segregation. Like educators in Louisville and Seattle, so many local educators across the country had voluntarily taken action to foster diverse learning experiences in public schools, usually through choice-based programs that allow parents greater opportunities to choose their children's schools. Educators took such actions voluntarily and not because any court had ordered "busing" or "mandatory" desegregation.

Today's decision striking down the student assignment plans in these two districts is inconsistent with the ever-growing body of research accumulated during a half century in studies of both segregated and desegregated schools. The ruling comes at a time when school segregation rates for racial minority students are rising in every region of the nation following earlier Supreme Court decisions leading to the termination of desegregation court orders. It is a trend lamented by experienced educators who have not merely studied the research, but who have decades of on-the-ground experience with the harm of racial and economic segregation.

Although today's ruling is a disappointment, the majority of the Court recognized that integration is a compelling interest and that there are some legally acceptable techniques including zoning and site selection and that choice plans that consider multiple factors could be upheld with appropriate educational justification. In reviewing today's decision, it appears that several avenues for maintaining diversity are still open and legally permissible. Also, courts generally grant communities time to come into compliance with rulings such as this.

Each one of our centers, located across the nation, pledges to work in the coming months and years with educators and advocates in local communities who wish to foster integration, avoid segregation and keep the uniquely American aspiration of Brown alive. Permissible options may include race-conscious efforts that do not single out any one student on the basis of his or her race such as siting schools in areas that would naturally draw students from a mixture of racial/ethnic backgrounds or magnet schools that have special programs that draw students from different backgrounds. Some communities have crafted assignment plans that bring together students from various geographic areas of cities (or metropolitan areas) into individual schools. Similarly, under the No Child Left Behind Act, children in schools in need of improvement are permitted transfer to other schools within their district. If interdistrict transfers were permitted, this too, might be lead to greater racial and economic diversity.

School districts under existing court orders to remedy racial discrimination are not affected by this ruling. Districts should continue to thoughtfully consider the consequences of ending their desegregation plans given today's decision. School districts should also investigate the experience of other districts, the consequences of abandoning integration policies, and carefully consider all their options before deciding how to change their existing policies. We will make every effort to put districts in touch with legal and educational experts from their region to think about ways to comply with the Court decision with the least adverse consequences.

Similarly, we will collaboratively document the effects of the Court ruling on rates of segregation, student achievement, graduation rates and the nature of educational opportunity in what we expect will be an increasing number of racially segregated schools. Just as important, our centers will continue to study and report on what is known about how to construct successful multiracial schools. In our increasingly multiracial, multiethnic and multi-linguistic nation, it is more crucial than ever that we continue to develop and promote working models of educational institutions that approximate the larger society students will someday join. Although the Court has spoken, the American people and their elected representatives have not yet responded. When they do, it is our hope and firm belief that today's decision will be regarded as ill-reasoned, ill-advised, but not insurmountable obstacle to realizing our cherished ideal of a vibrant integrated society.

A variety of academic institutions and research organizations, including the American Educational Research Association and the American Psychological Association, had submitted briefs to the Court in these cases about the benefits of diversity and harms of segregation. The general findings bear repeating.

Generally, students in segregated, high-poverty schools -- disproportionate numbers of whom are African-American, Latino and economically disadvantaged -- are taught by less qualified, less experienced teachers. The course offerings in such schools are generally severely limited, including a lack of college preparatory instruction often required for college entry and the levels of academic competition are usually not nearly as rigorous as a student would experience in predominantly middle-class more diverse schools. Further, these schools have far lower relative graduation rates (research strongly suggests that concentrated poverty and segregation itself – as independent variables – contribute to low relative graduation rates). Such schools are often overwhelmed with myriad social problems that are symptoms of poverty. In addition, both white and nonwhite students lose increasingly critical opportunities to deepen understanding of complex social and political issues and to prepare for successful life, work and citizenship in our profoundly changing society. Research demonstrates that racially and ethnically mixed schools promote cross-racial understanding in ways not possible in segregated school environments, making integrated student bodies essential ingredients in preparing children for citizenship and work in a society where whites are projected to be a minority group by 2050.

In the 2004-05 school year, more than 42 percent of students in our public schools are nonwhite. Our two largest regions – the South and West – have a markedly multiracial enrollment with white students in the minority. Experience has long shown that increased racial segregation brings with it increased economic segregation. In many cases, it also brings linguistic segregation.

Cutting off remedies to segregation, in the manner that the Court has done today, will not make these inequalities disappear. There exists no evidence that current educational policies will significantly reduce the large racial and economic gaps in achievement and graduation rates. The concomitant rise of segregation and educational inequality has long been evident in districts that had been forced by lower federal courts to drop desegregation policies. Civil rights groups and local communities will, and should, aggressively pursue every permissible route to provide more equitable opportunities for students in resegregated schools.

The nation's highest court upheld the sham of Plessy v. Ferguson's "separate but equal" doctrine for 58 years until it held in Brown v. Board of Education that it was unworkable where schools were concerned. As a result of today's decision, and in light of the Supreme Court's devastating 1973 holding in Rodriguez, that there is no Constitutional right to equal funding of public education, the Court more deeply institutionalizes “separate and unequal” for minority children.

As Justice Douglas observed in 1974, dissenting in Milliken v. Bradley, limiting the scope of permissible desegregation “puts the problem of [minorities] and our society back to the period that antedated the ‘separate but equal' regime of Plessy v. Ferguson.” The legal standard now, it seems, is “separate but nothing.” This policy accepts racial and ethnic inequality and leaves minorities at the mercy of state and local politics, in much the same way we did before Brown. As segregation deepens, communities and citizens should closely monitor what happens to achievement, graduation levels, college access and persistence, and success in adult life.

Brown v. Board of Education has long been widely celebrated as the greatest Supreme Court decision of the last century. It recognized that "separate but equal" was a legal fiction and it was the trigger for the dismantling of hundreds of apartheid laws of the Southern and Border states. After Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court in Green v. New Kent County supported mandatory and comprehensive desegregation, the schools in the South became the most integrated in the nation for the next third of a century. The legacy of the widely celebrated Brown decision, though, has been undermined in a series of Supreme Court decisions over the past three decades which includes today's ruling. We have already lost much of the progress in desegregation achieved in the last 40 years for black students. Latino students, now our largest minority group face even more extreme isolation and educational inequality, often facing triple segregation by ethnicity, poverty, and language.

When the Court handed down Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, there were no civil rights research centers in the nation's great universities documenting the negative results. A small cadre of dedicated lawyers and scholars at the preeminent historically black Howard University Law School, aided by a few researchers led to the legal theories and cases that culminated with the triumph of Brown.

The national debate on this issue is far from over. Today, ever more researchers and advocates are watching. As civil-rights research centers, we consider it our duty to carefully document the consequences of today's ruling and to assist school districts struggling with decisions about what direction to take now. We stand even more strongly committed to making the aspiration of equal life chances, most clearly manifest in the Brown decision, alive in our time.


The Civil Rights Project, University of California at Los Angeles

Center for Civil Rights Center, University of North Carolina School of Law

Institute for Race and Poverty, University of Minnesota

The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity, University of California at Berkeley

Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Harvard University

Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Center for Multicultural Education, University of Washington


Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Ohio State University

Campaign for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University

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