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School Segregation Persists, New Report Says

Sep 26, 2012
Originally published on September 26, 2012 1:49 pm



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a new documentary follows a harrowing day in an Oakland, California emergency room, where the policy questions about health care play out in real life. We talk with the director of "The Waiting Room." That's in just a few minutes.

But first, many Americans believe the battle to integrate the nation's public schools was won with the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education back in 1954. But nearly 60 years later, not much has changed, according to the Civil Rights Project. That's a nonpartisan research and policy center housed at U.C.L.A.

In fact, this report finds segregation has increased across the country for Latino students in public schools. Segregation for black students remains very high and re-segregation is on the rise in the South.

Joining us now, John Kucsera and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley. They authored the report. Welcome to the program.

JOHN KUCSERA: Thanks for having us.


HEADLEE: Genevieve, I just mentioned a couple of the bullet points. Was there anything in this report that really surprised you?

SIEGEL-HAWLEY: Well, I think the evidence from the South, as far as the re-segregation of black students, continues to mount. I mean we're talking about a region here where the most progress on desegregation was made, and to see those gains slip away is really concerning.

HEADLEE: Do you have - this report was really trying to see the state of segregation in public schools, but do you have an understanding of why that's happening?

SIEGEL-HAWLEY: I think a number of different factors are contributing. In the South, where there were a number of court ordered districts that were under judicial oversight to desegregate, a lot of those plans have been ending since 1991, and I think we're seeing a reversal of the progress in many of those districts after they've gained unitary status.

HEADLEE: And John, your report finds Latinos are attending more intensely segregated and impoverished schools than they have for generations. What's changed?

KUCSERA: Piggy-backing off Genevieve, talking about the lack of desegregation efforts across the region has really been occurring, but also more of the demographic transformation of the Latinos. Just the growth in this region has just been massive. You know, about 20 years ago there were a little over a quarter of Latino and poor in the region. In 2009, about 40 percent were Latino and over half were poor.

HEADLEE: But I mean you're talking about the changing demographics and you're also talking about the end of a number of desegregation programs. If that continues, those are - both things aren't necessarily going to change. That would mean the problem's only going to get worse. Right?

KUCSERA: Right. Yeah, the impact of segregation will steadily mount as we become a majority non-white nation. The Western region is kind of like a bellwether for the rest of the country. We can kind of see what's going on now in terms of the Latino population and those aspects and kind of - it kind of predicts a little bit of what's going to occur.

HEADLEE: Well, Genevieve, is this on the government's radar? I mean, you guys can't be the only ones studying this. Someone has to be following this and trying to see how to keep it from getting worse.

SIEGEL-HAWLEY: Well, I think politically this has been a non-starter for both parties for quite some time. We haven't really heard anything from either candidate this year on the issue of integration, which is unfortunate because, you know, we're talking around the issue when we look at things like school reform, charter schools - you know, this just isn't on the table.

HEADLEE: Well, we're going to talk more about that in just a moment. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee and we're talking about racial segregation in the nation's public schools with John Kucsera and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley of the Civil Rights Project.

So you're talking about what government has done or maybe hasn't done in the past few years. Is there any improvement historically when someone - one party takes over the White House from another?

SIEGEL-HAWLEY: You know, again, the South was the region where the most happened to desegregate black and white students, and the period of real progress was a very short window of time, from, you know, the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, and it was the last time that the Democrats had control over all three branches of government.

But since then we've sort of had a bipartisan failure to acknowledge and react to growing segregation.

HEADLEE: You know, John, your report also talks about double segregation, which means that students are separated by both race and poverty. Where is this happening, among what groups, and why?

KUCSERA: Yeah. That's probably one of the most important aspects of our report. A lot of people say, you know, we can have segregation and equality, or separation and equality. Differential racial exposure to concentration in school poverty is probably the fundamental reason why segregation is so strongly related to educational equality. You know, nearly 60 years of social science research indicates that separate schooling remains extremely unequal because of this concentration, differential exposure to poor students.

Across the West, it's happening mostly in intensely segregated minority schools, but also in majority minority schools. Wherever there's a large concentration of Latino and black students, that's also where we're seeing a high amount of poor students in those schools, which is related to, you know, lack of educational quality, you know, poor teachers, poor curriculum are commonly found, and those kind of aspects.

HEADLEE: You both keep talking about the South and that being the place where there is the most desegregation projects and how that actually worked for a short period of time. What were the most effective? Was it bussing that ended up being the most effective? Because that seems to have its own problems.

SIEGEL-HAWLEY: Well, the South was, you know, the region where we had segregation by law, so the most was done to dismantle that, but I think we have a lot of research that shows that desegregation across city suburban districts, metropolitan school districts, produces the most lasting integration, and it's in both schools and in housing - so places like Raleigh, Wake County, or Louisville, Jefferson County, where you have a city suburban school district that implements a desegregation policy.

And Louisville, Jefferson County is an interesting example. Throughout the report we've showed, you know, really low levels of black-white segregation in that metropolitan area, and their desegregation plan, at this point, is entirely choice-based.

HEADLEE: How do you then - John, how do you work it in a place like Detroit, where there's a high level of segregation in Michigan, but Detroit schools are probably not going to get a lot of cooperation from the suburban schools?

KUCSERA: You know, and that's where we're going to have to be a little bit creative. Creating high quality magnet schools, you know, or even supporting those, you know, having the school choice and also the charter policies that a lot of the - both candidates are looking to support - if we could somehow foster rather than undermine integration with some kind of policies within those, I think those two - and what Genevieve was talking about in terms of - housing policy is also, you know, school policy in terms of segregation, so it's also looking at, you know, new residences and those kind of things that are coming up.

HEADLEE: So your report says the significance of integrated schools is not about making sure white kids sit next to a black one, but if that's true, Genevieve, what is the significance of integration? The Supreme Court seems to accept the fact that having diverse students sit next to one another is an achievement in and of itself. What is the importance of integration?

SIEGEL-HAWLEY: Well, we do make that point in a number of different places in the reports, and what we're saying is that, you know, you can get - if diverse schools are structured so that all kids have equal status, you've got strong leadership supporting diversity, you're making sure that kids from different racial groups aren't being tracked into different level courses, then the experience of attending a diverse school can produce a whole host of academic and social benefits.

But when we're talking about not just plunking a black or a Latino student down next to a white student and automatically seeing those benefits, we're talking about opportunity structure and the different advantages and resources and teachers that tend to be linked much more strongly to predominantly white and/or wealthy schools.

HEADLEE: That's a really good argument, especially for people who are in underserved neighborhoods, but John, in order to make this fly, you're going to have to get buy-in from the people whose kids are enjoying the more resourced schools. How do you make the argument that desegregation is good for their kids?

KUCSERA: You know, probably one of the key important factors in reducing prejudice, discrimination and those kind of factors is inter-group contact, and then white students from integration, from desegregated educational context - they receive a host of benefits without affecting academic achievement from social science research. So those benefits are, you know, stereotype reduction, an increase in critical thinking skills - I mean even less inter-grouping anxiety, you know, having those anxious moments.

So somehow we need to sell them on these aspects, you know, the power of diversity and especially as our nation and our - and these regions are becoming more diverse, it's going to be more important in future aspects.

HEADLEE: John Kucsera, senior researcher, and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, research associate, both at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. John Kucsera joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California, and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley joined us from Richmond, Virginia.

Thank you both.

KUCSERA: Thank you.

SIEGEL-HAWLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.