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School integration narrows divisions, closes achievement gaps

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education remains familiar to Americans 65 years later. In a unanimous ruling declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional issued on May 17, 1954, the justices observed that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments’’ and concluded that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Less well remembered are three cases decided in succession a decade and a half later that sought to squelch outright resistance as well as go-slow “freedom of choice’’ plans in Southern states and communities. Allow me a quick review of the cases, along with a personal reminiscence.

In May 1968, the high court ruled in Green v. New Kent County that governments had an affirmative duty to eliminate dual school systems “root and branch.” In Alexander v. Holmes County in October 1969, the justices struck down “all deliberate speed’’ and ordered desegregation “at once.” Then in April 1971, the Supreme Court ratified bus transportation as a tool for desegregating schools in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

(The 1969 ruling led to my final project as a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I traveled down to my hometown, Baton Rouge, to report how the local school district was responding to the desegregate-now mandate. John Hohenberg, my faculty mentor, went beyond grading the paper to offering it to America magazine, which published it. Hohenberg served as a model that I still try to emulate in mentoring students at UNC-Chapel Hill.)

In a report issued earlier this month, The Century Foundation observes that those court rulings had a discernible educational effect until subsequent national back-sliding took hold. “The racial achievement gap in K–12 education closed more rapidly during the peak years of school desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s than they have overall during the more recent era in which desegregation policies were dismantled,” says the report.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, who directs the foundation’s K-12 studies, is the lead author of the report. A while back, he had spotlighted Wake County’s use of socioeconomic factors in developing its school assignments.

In its recent report, the Century Foundation proposes an agenda for federal action to restore an integration dynamic. Though it doesn’t mention Wake County, the report offers a scan of research and analysis pertinent to North Carolina as this state moves toward major education-policy initiatives under the Leandro case.

“On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) given to fourth-graders in math, for example, low-income students attending schools that are more affluent scored roughly two years of learning ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools,” says the report.

Students in schools desegregated by race and socioeconomic status, it says, are less likely to drop out and more likely to go to college than students in segregated or high-poverty schools. The report argues that integrated schools work to narrow racial achievement gaps, reduce racial bias, and dispel stereotypes.

Of course, political and legal winds have shifted since those federal court rulings of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Reagan administration opposed busing, and Congress restricted funding to local governments to use for busing. Finding that formerly “dual’’ systems had become “unitary,’’ federal courts lifted desegregation orders. In my report from Baton Rouge, I noted the “reluctance whites feel about sending their children to a school in which the majority of students is black…” In the face of such reluctance over the decades, it has been difficult to integrate a school that has reached a certain “tipping point’’ of black and poor students.

The Century Foundation calls for more investment in magnet schools and for federal funding to promote local “voluntary community-driven strategies.” While research has showed that charter schools have contributed to re-segregation, the foundation doesn’t oppose charters; rather it argues for provisions in charters to foster more integration.

“Racial and socioeconomic school integration has proven to be one of the most powerful strategies known to educators to improve the lives of students and reduce national division,” says The Century Foundation.

The days of Jim Crow-style legalized segregation have passed. And yet, in the current manifestation of partisan and cultural division across America, race remains a distinctive fault line. An education strategy that elevates North Carolina’s young people will require continuing to recognize and bridge that historically vexing fault line.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.