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A study released by the Civil Rights Project (CRP) at Harvard argues that 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education advances made through school and residential desegregation efforts are being reversed.
Gary Orfield, co-founder and co-director of the CRP and professor of education and social policy at the Graduate School of Education authored “Brown at 50: King’s Dream or the Plessy Nightmare,” which was released to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr.’s 75th birthday.
Covering the last decade, the study charts the effects of the Supreme Court’s Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell decision in 1991, which weakened the mandate to desegregate schools.
Orfield—who has conducted a number of similar studies in the past—argued that as a result of the decision white students are not learning alongside minority students, especially blacks.
“Except in the South and Southwest, most students have little contact with minority students,” he said.
Another contributing factor is the growth of the Latino and Asian populations, he said. Public schools that were previously 80 percent white in the 1960s are now only 60 percent white and, according to Orfield, the percentage of white students in the classroom is falling across the country.
Segregation, though also an issue for the Hispanic population, differs from the black community, he said, because there have never been any desegregation efforts aimed at the Hispanic population. He said that Latinos have lived in increasingly segregated neighborhoods since the late 1960s.
The study found the West to be the most segregated area for Latinos, but Orfield contended that New York is now the epicenter for both Latino and black segregation. He also said that in general rural communities are more integrated than suburban and metropolitan areas.
The study found Kentucky to be the most integrated state, and Orfield portrayed Louisville as a model because desegregatation policies are supported by the community.
The larger implications of these findings, Orfield held, are the strong correlations he found between segregation and lower test scores.
Arguing that diversity enhances education, Orfield recommended a number of social policy solutions meant to reverse the resegregation trends.
Denouncing President Bush’s recent decision to bypass Congress and seat a Federal judge from Mississippi on the Fifth Circuit’s Court of Appeals, Orfield called for judicial appointees who “understand race.” He also criticized both Democrats and Republicans for their inability to address segregation issues.
Orfield also derided the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative, saying that in demanding that all schools progress equally, the program will punish segregated schools that lag behind.
Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom said Orfield’s past findings of increased segregation are simply not true, asserting that Orfield examines types of segregation that yield the results he is looking for.
Thernstrom further argued that Orfield’s conception of diversity as an essential component of education is flawed.
“Racial composition does not determine the level of learning,” said Thernstrom, who along with his wife Abigail recently published “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Education.”
He said he recognizes the challenges associated with race and education, but emphasized that focusing on desegregation is not the way to improve education.
“It is a very curious view that black or Latino or Asian children cannot learn without a majority of white classmates. It is old-fashioned, liberal ideology,” said Thernstrom, asserting that the logic behind Orfield’s assumption about integration’s potential to improve minority education assumes that blacks and Hispanics must be able to model their white peers in order to have a “proper education.”
And citing the same statistics used by Orfield, Thernstrom said that trends which appear to show resegregation are simply a function of declining white enrollments.
“It is inevitable in schools that there are fewer whites in schools. There are less to go around. We can’t helicopter kids in from Utah or Vermont,” he said.
Thernstrom agreed with Orfield on the need to improve the nation’s schools, but instead of focusing on problem-plagued urban schools, Thernstrom advocated giving parents vouchers that would allow them to enroll their children in private, charter or parochial schools.
He cited KIPP Academy in Bronx, NY, and Frederick Douglass in Newark, NJ as examples of excellent charter schools without a white population, attributing their success to discipline, excellent teaching and more hours devoted to instruction.
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