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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Civil Rights 101 - Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund - 2001

School Desegregation and Equal Educational Opportunity

IT IS NO ACCIDENT that the pivotal Supreme Court decision launching the modern civil rights movement was an education case -- the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling.

IN MANY WAYS, the drive to end segregated education and to put African American and white children in the same classrooms was the most radical and potentially far-reaching aspect of the civil rights movement.

SUCH CHANGE WAS MEANT to alter the attitudes and socialization of children -- beginning at the youngest ages -- as well as end the inequality inherent in all "separate but equal" facilities, whether they were drinking fountains, public accommodations, or the schools.

"THE AFRICAN AMERICAN STRUGGLE for desegregation," observes Gary Orfield, co-director at the Harvard Civil Rights Project and among the nation's leading experts on desegregation, "did not arise because anyone believed that there was something magical about sitting next to whites in a classroom. It was, however, based on a belief that the dominant group would keep control of the most successful schools and that the only way to get full range of opportunities for a minority child was to get access to those schools."

THE STRUGGLE FOR INTEGRATED SCHOOLS has gone through a number of phases since the 1954 decision and has been shaped -- both encouraged and constrained -- by various court rulings and emotional political and public policy battles. Following Brown and Brown II (which called for desegregation with "all deliberate speed" in 1955), education became the focus of what was called the South's "massive resistance" to the Court's rulings.

MASSIVE RESISTANCE was symbolized most dramatically by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus' order that his state's national guard unit block the admission of nine African American students to Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. The nearly month-long confrontation ended when President Eisenhower sent in U.S. troops to protect the students.

FAUBUS' ACTION WAS JUST ONE OF A VARIETY 0F METHODS employed by states and localities to resist implementing the Supreme Court's rulings. In one prominent example, Prince Edward County, Virginia, abandoned its entire public school system, leaving education to private interests that excluded African American children from their schools. Many African American children were essentially locked out of school for several years until the Supreme Court ruled Virginia's action unconstitutional.

SUCH DILATORY AND DELAYING TACTICS were at least partially successful. After desegregation's first decade, only 2.3 percent of African American children in the Deep South attended integrated schools. But such tactics also tried the patience of African Americans and the federal courts. Enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in response to the nonviolent civil rights movement finally spurred action. In 1966, the Fifth Circuit Court, in United States v. Jefferson County Board of Education, ordered school districts not only to end segregation but to "undo the harm" segregation had caused by racially balancing their schools under federal guidelines. Jefferson was followed by the Supreme Court's Green v. County School Board of New Kent County decision in 1968, requiring desegregation plans that promised to work right away.

A STRONG FEDERAL COMMITMENT to enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved critical. In the first five years after the Act's passage, with the federal government threatening and sometimes using fund termination enforcement provisions (i.e., cutting off federal funding to school districts that failed to comply with the law), more substantial progress was made toward desegregating schools than in the 10 years immediately following the Brown decision. In 1964, 1.2 percent of African American students in the South attended school with whites. By 1968, the figures had risen to 32 percent.

BY the 1970s, according to studies by Gary Orfield, the South had become the nation's most integrated region. In 1976, 45.1 percent of the South's African American students were attending majority white schools, compared with just 27.5 percent in the Northeast and 29.7 percent in the Midwest. These gains occurred in the context of the second great controversy of the school desegregation effort -- busing.

THE CONTROVERSY CAME TO A HEAD in the Supreme Court's 1971 decision, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, one of the first attempts to implement a large-scale urban desegregation plan. Swann called for district-wide desegregation and allowed for the use of busing to achieve integration, finding that the times and distances involved in the desegregation plan were no more onerous than those involved in the busing already undertaken by Charlotte for non-desegregation purposes. Court-ordered busing, as it came to be known, was fiercely attacked, not least by the administration of President Richard Nixon. Busing was criticized as undermining the sanctity of neighborhood schools, as social engineering, as impractical and unworkable, and as intrusive and inappropriate judicial meddling.

WHILE BUSING DREW A GREAT DEAL of public attention, critics largely overlooked the facts that few students were bused for the purpose of desegregation and, indeed, that busing worked -- especially in the South where school districts are often countywide and include both central cities and suburbs.

IN 1972, PRESIDENT NIX0N, partially in fear of Alabama Governor George Wallace's independent presidential campaign, mounted an attack on busing and asked Congress to ban it. Although President Nixon's effort failed, the drive for desegregation slowed. In 1974 the Supreme Court, in Milliken v. Bradley, a case involving the Detroit metropolitan area, effectively halted busing at a city's borders. The Court's 5-4 decision blocked a city-suburb desegregation plan in Detroit that would have involved busing across school district boundaries. Ignoring evidence of state governments' past and continuing involvement in housing and school segregation, the Court said that "local control" was an important tradition in education. The decision allowed for proof of "interdistrict violations," while placing heavy burdens on plaintiffs in future cases.

IN 1977, THE COURT took up another issue arising out of the Detroit litigation and sought to ease the impact of denying interdistrict desegregation. In Milliken II the Court ordered the state of Michigan, along with the Detroit school system, to finance a plan to address the educational deficits faced by African American children. These deficits, the Court suggested, arose out of enforced segregation and could not be cured by physical desegregation alone.

AFTER MILLIKEN, private civil rights lawyers continued to pursue metropolitan school initiatives in a few areas, winning victories in the late 70s and early 80s in Wilmington (Delaware), Indianapolis, Louisville and St. Louis. But the federal government did not assist and, in some cases, resisted these efforts.

DURING THE 1980s, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, under the leadership of William Bradford Reynolds, actively sought to dismantle and dissolve both voluntary and mandatory school desegregation plans. Under Reynolds, the Justice Department opposed any remedy that specifically required desegregation and refused to support any funding for voluntary plans.

MILLIKEN II SET THE PATTERN for a number of court-ordered and voluntary plans that followed in Missouri, Ohio, Indiana and Arkansas, among other places. The concept of requiring states to provide resources for improving education as a remedy to segregation was further expanded in the Supreme Court's 1990 decision, Missouri v. Jenkins, which permitted courts to order school authorities to increase spending on education remedies even when voters rejected referenda raising taxes.

NOT ONLY is desegregation the law of the land, school integration has also shown positive benefits. As William L. Taylor wrote in "The Test of Our Progress", the 1999 report on civil rights enforcement by the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, "[s]triking evidence of progress in the performance of black children over the years is found in the scores of 13- and 17-year-olds on reading tests conducted by the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress," indicating a reduction in the gap between black and white students over the past 20 years of roughly 50 percent; the scores of black and Latino students from 1970 to 1990 increased by about two-thirds more than predicted.

EARLIER, education researchers Robert L. Crain and Rita E. Mahard reviewed a number of studies looking at the link between desegregation and achievement and found that where desegregation is begun early, it often resulted in educational gains for African American children. These conclusions are bolstered by the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a large-scale study for the Department of Education that showed major gains for minority children in the South during the 1970s when desegregation occurred on a large scale.

MORE RECENTLY, the high school completion and college graduation rates for African Americans 25 years old or older improved significantly to an all-time high of 79 percent and 17 percent, respectively, according to 2000 Current Population Survey data from the Census Bureau. Yet these figures continue to lag behind those of whites 25 and older, with an 88 percent high school completion rate and 28 percent college graduation rate in 2000. Moreover, a 1998 study from the Southern Education Foundation found that in the 19 states that were required to desegregate their colleges and universities as a result of a 1972 Supreme Court ruling, only 12 percent of the African Americans entering public institutions enrolled in traditionally white schools. The vast majority of African American in these 19 states attend historically black colleges, universities, and community colleges.

THE "SECOND GENERATION" OF SCHOOL DESEGREGATION PLANS, as Gary Orfield calls them, seek to address these and other issues. These plans continue to call for desegregation, including mixing mandatory and voluntary plans, magnet schools, and "controlled" choice (i.e., student choice of schools consistent with desegregation goals). But they also include educational improvements such as pre-school programs, early grade reading programs, reduced class sizes, and counseling. The tools for this new generation of plans are likely to be complex and require careful management by desegregation advocates in assessing their impact on long-term goals.

CONTINUING CHALLENGES TO EQUAL EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY also include disproportionate assignment of minority students to special education programs, while white students are disproportionately assigned to gifted and talented programs. Disparities in the rates and severity of discipline imposed on minority as compared to white students also remain a matter of concern, as does the use of tests for making high-stakes decisions about students' educational opportunities when such tests adversely affect minority students and are not shown to be required by educational necessity.

BILINGUAL EDUCATION

EVEN AS PRESIDENT NIX0N was leading the fight against school desegregation, the Supreme Court gave Latinos an important education victory in 1971.

In U.S. v. Texas (San Felipe Del Rio), the federal government sought to desegregate two contiguous school districts, one predominantly white and the other overwhelmingly Latino. In ordering the consolidation of the two districts, the district judge found that English language and cultural barriers precluded the successful integration of Latino students and that addressing the language limitations of both Anglo and Latino students was therefore an appropriate desegregation device. He ordered bilingual education for all students in the newly consolidated district.

THE RIGHTS OF "LIMITED ENGLISH PROFICIENCY" (LEP) students were further enhanced by the Supreme Court's ruling in Lau v. Nichols in 1974. The case involved a class-action suit brought by non-English-speaking Chinese students living in San Francisco, who alleged a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because only 1,700 of about 35,000 Chinese students in need of special English instruction were actually receiving it (Title VI prohibits federally funded programs, such as schools, from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin).

IN ITS RULING IN LAU, the Court said that:
[basic English skills] are the very core of what these public schools teach. Imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effectively participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic skills is to make a mockery of public education. We know that those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful.

THE LAU DECISION thus made clear that school districts are required to provide assistance to LEP (limited-English-proficient) students that ensure that they receive the same opportunities as fluent English students. Schools must thus do more than simply provide English-only instruction; they must provide LEP students with the skills necessary to compete academically with their peers who are fluent in English.

WITH CONTINUING IMMIGRATION, especially from Spanish-speaking and Asian countries, the issue of equal educational opportunity for non-English-speaking students remains increasingly central.

INDEED, Latinos are currently far less likely than African Americans and whites to complete high school and college, as only 57 percent of Latinos 25 and older had graduated from high school by 2000; only 11 percent had undergraduate degrees. Moreover, while more than one-third of Latinos are under 18 years of age, Latino children are underrepresented in Head Start, early childhood development programs, after-school programs, and advanced classes. Initiatives to cut back on bilingual education (such as that passed in California eliminating bilingual education in public schools) will only further limit educational opportunities for students with limited English proficiency.

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Brown v. Board of Education

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