The June 2007 by the US Supreme Court will make harder to attain racially diverse classes.

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Racially diverse schools harder
to attain after US court decision

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

8 July 2007: For over 50 years, the US Supreme Court consistently ruled that federal, state, and local governments had the right to create a racial balance between white and minority students in public schools. The Supreme Court’s long-standing support of government-sponsored public school integration essentially ended in June 2007. By a 5-4 vote, the Court held that public schools could not, in effect, articulate numerical goals, or quotas, for ‘racial balancing’ and use these as the basis for assigning or transferring children to schools.

The Court’s decision will significantly limit the ability of public school districts in the US to pursue student selection and transfer programs that increase racial diversity. The decision impacts primarily urban school districts where most poor minority students live.

All-black and all-white public schools were the norm in most of the US until 1954 when the US Supreme Court – in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case – ruled that state-sponsored school segregation was unconstitutional. For the first time in the eyes of the law, segregated schools were viewed as inconsistent with America’s moral and historical commitment to creating an integrated society.

In the years immediately following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, many school districts, faced with local opposition, balked at integrating their schools. As a result, in the late-1960s, federal courts intervened and forced the desegregation of schools in New York, Charlotte, North Carolina, and several other cities.

Court-mandated desegregation was not without controversy. Since cities housed most minorities, it was city school districts that were forced to integrate. Suburban schools generally did not have to integrate because they had few, if any, minority students to integrate. Court orders to desegregate fomented violence in Boston and other cities; prompted hundreds of legal challenges; and often accelerated the flight of middle-class residents from cities to suburbs. Many whites preferred to move out of the city rather than let their children be bussed to schools outside their neighborhoods for the sake of integration.

In the short term, however, court-ordered desegregation achieved its primary purpose of reducing segregation. Between 1968 and 1980, the number of black children attending a school where minority children constituted more than half the school fell from 77 per cent to 63 per cent. As a result of this progress, federal courts during the 1980s increasingly ruled that the effects of past segregation had been remedied, and many school districts, including those in Boston and Louisville, were no longer forced to integrate their schools.

Several states such as Massachusetts and New York continued (and still continue) to provide financial incentives for racially diversifying schools, even in the absence of federal mandates. And as many as 10 per cent of all school districts in US, including Seattle and Chicago, still maintain voluntary desegregation plans.

Rochester, New York, for example, has the oldest voluntary school desegregation program in the country. The state-funded Urban-Suburban Transfer Program, begun in 1965, allows about 500 minority children in the 35,000-student Rochester City School District to attend better-performing suburban schools.

Public school districts support voluntary desegregation plans, often at considerable expense, largely in the belief that integrated schools help break down racial stereotypes, promote cross-racial understanding, and better prepare students for an increasingly diverse work force and society.

All such voluntary state and local school desegregation programs are now threatened by the Supreme Court’s June 2007 decision.

Limited options for cities
School districts in the US are now searching for alternative ‘race neutral’ means to achieve racial diversity. The recent Supreme Court decision struck down racial quotas, but specifically endorsed “strategic site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods; allocating resources for special programs; and recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion.”

Another option is to assign students to schools based on income. Schools could enroll a mix of high-, middle-, and low-income students. Since most low-income students in cities are minorities and most higher-income students are white, income-based quotas could theoretically lead to racial diversity in a manner acceptable to the courts. School districts in Raleigh, North Carolina, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other cities currently utilize income-based assignment plans for their schools.

“But these options are bogus for many cities,” argues Bolgen Vargas, former president of the Rochester School Board. “When 80 to 85 per cent of the students in a school district are poor and black, it’s impossible to integrate by income or any other means. If 80 per cent of a school is poor and black and 20 per cent is white and middle-class, how can you call this integration? Yet this is the demographic we have to work with.”

More than 80 pe rcent of the students in the Rochester City School District are poor and minority. Similar situations are found in Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, New Haven, and many other cities.

School enrollment patterns follow housing patterns. In regions where the white middle class left the cities for the suburbs, city schools are populated mostly by poor minorities.

“These school districts are just impossible to integrate from within,” says Vargas.

Statistics bear this out. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of black children attending a school where minority children constituted more than half the student body rose from 63 percent to 72 percent. In other words, in spite of voluntary measures, American public schools have re-segregated nearly to the level that prompted federal intervention four decades ago.

A step back
The iconic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision wrought a revolution in US race relations by ending legally-segregated public schools. The current Supreme Court’s decision will not have a similar effect.

It appears to be a step backward in America’s long journey toward a society where segregation by law or practice will end.

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