Educators Need to Speak Up Louder for School Equity, Says Civil Rights Expert

On May 17, the nation will observe the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v Board decision which declared “separate but equal” education unconstitutional. Despite the progress that was achieved in the years following the ruling, the nation has been moving backwards for decades, as a daunting mixture of court rulings, political inaction, public apathy and economic inequality have steadily undermined the promise of Brown and led to a resegregation of our schools. These trends have been documented and analyzed over the years by Gary Orfield, the co-founder and director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, and current co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, the nation’s leading research center on issues of civil rights and racial inequality.

Orfield recently spoke with NEA Today about the legacy of Brown, the resegregation of America’s schools and the struggle to shift the national conversation about education away from destructive reforms to the vital issues of poverty and inequality.

Looking back at the Brown decision, what should people know about its success and limitations?

Gary Orfield: There’s no question that Brown is a landmark decision and it helped generate a great social movement. Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movement were inspired by Brown and wanted it be realized – not just for schools but also as a way to change the whole structure of society. To a significant extent it did, especially in the South.

But what a lot of people don’t understand is that Brown was a very limited decision and was primarily about the South.  It didn’t have any application to the other 33 states until 1973 when the Supreme Court extended some desegregation requirements to the North and recognized the rights of Latino as well as black students from illegal segregation.

Although the Court said it was unconstitutional to segregate schools by race, it didn’t say what should be done or how it should be done. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the promise of Brown began to be realized. The courts and politicians came together and produced dramatic changes and made the South the most integrated part of the country. The mid-1960s to the early ’70 were the high point.

What factors triggered the rollback?

GO: The turning point from the executive branch was the election of Richard Nixon, who gutted the enforcement process and started a real anti-busing frenzy in the country.

The turning point in the Courts was in 1991 and the Dowell decision from Oklahoma City. The Court essentially said you could dissolve desegregation plans and gave the lower courts broad latitude to do just that.

How have schools changed since the early 1990s?

GO: What we’ve seen over the past two decades is a slow but steady increase in the isolation of Black and Latino students. Latino students are now in the most segregated schools. It’s not just an issue of race. There is ‘double segregation’ of race and poverty.” Or even triple segregation – race, poverty, and language.

We also have an increasing number of apartheid schools, which are schools that have zero to 1 percent of white students. They’re growing and nothing’s being done about them at all.

Gary Orfield

How has the idea of school choice affected segregation patterns?

GO: We learned the conditions under which choice worked and didn’t work in the 1960s. We had freedom of choice in thousands of districts throughout the South and open enrollment in many places in the North. It never produced desegregation and often produced high stratification. It was therefore rejected by the Johnson administration and the Supreme Court as an adequate remedy.

If schools choice is going to work in a positive way, it has to meet three basic civil rights conditions: 1) good, reliable information had to be provided to parents 2) there has to be clear goal of diversity and 3) free transportation has to be provided.

These conditions together don’t exist generally, especially in charter schools. Without them, choice  tends to deepen segregation and inequality by social class. But it can be beneficial if there really is a good educational alternative. That’s the lesson of the magnet school movement, were you have good choice and civil rights provisions and you can achieve diversity through voluntary means.

What’s the impact of high-stakes accountability, especially in lower-income schools?

GO: As these schools have become resegregated, students systematically score lower on test scores. People then look to the teacher and say “Do your job better.’ But when you bring up poverty and inequality, you’re accused of making excuses.

We can do a lot better and teachers should be held accountable, but don’t hold them accountable in crazy ways, blaming them for inequalities that were around before their students ever came to school. We should demand that there be broader social policies. If 10 percent of the kids in your district are homeless, there’s a housing policy that has to be addressed. If kids come to school with chronic health problems, that’s a health problem that needs to be coordinated with the school. So we need better coordination between institutions.

Why do you think the resegregation of schools isn’t more of a national concern? Do people feel powerless to stop it or just don’t believe it really matters?

GO: There are three important things to remember. First of all, the courts have stripped people of their leverage. Not only have they made it easier to drop desegregation plans, they’ve also made it more difficult to take more voluntary action for desegregation. The Courts have really led us backwards.

Petition: Demand Great Public Schools for Every Student
Despite the vision of equal opportunity in the historic Brown v. Board ruling, poverty and racial isolation in our public schools has increased since 1980. On this 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, join the call to demand great public schools for every student.

Secondly, there’s no political leadership. Republicans generally don’t care or are pretty hostile to integration efforts. Democratic administrations try to avoid it. A coalition of civil rights groups have been pressing the Obama administration to take at least modest steps to do something, but we haven’t got any sort of meaningful response from the White House yet.

Third, I don’t think educators have been vocal enough.  The teaching profession has been on the defensive. They know that segregated schools are unequal and that it has serious negative effects on student learning. But unfortunately, too many teachers believe they have to say that they alone can make the difference, that’s it all up to them, let’s be heroic. The mantra since the Reagan administration has been that race, poverty, and segregation aren’t the issue. That was picked up by the reformers who insist  it’s all the teachers fault.  It’s just not true. Of course issues of poverty and equity matter. They’ve always mattered. We’ve never had separate and equal schools. We have to have the courage to start telling people that again.

There are thousands of suburban communities that are going through racial change right now and no one is talking about it. If you don’t, you have to realize that the default built into our institutions is segregation. But if you talk about diversity and integration, you have to do it in a positive way. We must talk about the value of diversity and the success of stable, integrated communities so we can start to reverse these dismal trends in our schools.