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Why We Can't Accept De Facto School Segregation

Student achievement at majority-minority schools is critical, but we should put equal energy into creating effective, integrated campuses.

After the historic election of America's first black president, Barack Obama, one would think racial segregation would be on the decline. But the reality is that segregation is alive and well in America: The Brookings Institute reports the average white family lives in an area that is 79 percent white, while the average black family lives in a neighborhood that is 46 percent black. And while Latinos comprise only 15 percent of the population, fully 45 percent of their neighbors are also Latino. Despite the fact that the U.S. population will shift from majority-white to majority-minority by 2042, our kids are still growing up in neighborhoods where the concept of the "melting pot" is foreign.

This is equally true in schools as it is in neighborhoods. The National Center of Education Statistics says that 52 percent of black students and 58 percent of Latino students attend schools where 75 percent or more of students are minorities.

Over the last decade, a subset of educators have been working on building "90/90/90 schools"—90 percent low-income, 90 percent minority, 90 percent proficiency on achievement. This is extremely important work, providing access for students to attend a high-performing school in their own neighborhood, and I applaud the efforts of many of my colleagues across the country, who have unequivocally proven that all students can achieve at high levels, regardless of background.

However, we must put equal energy into creating integrated school models that bridge the racial chasm that exists in our public schools today. Martin Luther King Jr. once said about segregation in churches: "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning." One could say that today the most segregated 35 hours of a child's week could be the time she spends in school.

Desegregation policies, popular in the 1970s and 1980s as a tool to force integration, have largely failed. Both mandatory busing efforts, and more voluntary efforts like those in Wake County, North Carolina, have failed to generate staying power. In 1995, a judge ruled that Denver Public Schools could discontinue its mandated desegregation plan and send students to their nearest neighborhood schools. By the 2003-2004 academic year, 84 percent of Latino, 74 percent of black, 52 percent of Asian—but only 27 percent of White students—attended schools with more than 70 percent minority students. The inertia of segregated communities and ultimately segregated schools set in.

One of the most pressing questions in public education today is: In an increasingly diverse world, are we really adequately preparing students for citizenship in a minority-majority America? The answer is no. The efficacy of diversity curricula and tolerance programs pales in comparison to the efficacy of building understanding through living, working, and learning together in schools. Young people learn to appreciate and celebrate economic and ethnic diversity through experience in community and understanding peers from other backgrounds. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in one Supreme Court desegregation case, "Unless our children begin to learn together, then there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together." He couldn't be more right.

Our soon-to-be majority-minority country deserves better. While student achievement continues to be the larger factor impacting our country’s education system, taking on the segregation of American school children demands increased awareness and a new set of solutions.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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