- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered racial integration of public schools in the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, middle-class flight has resegregated most big-city public-school systems.

“Why are we not all joyfully dancing, celebrating our collective release from the bondage of prejudice and inequality?” asks Ellis Cose in a report to the Rockefeller Foundation about the results a half-century after the court ruled that state-enforced racial separation in public facilities was unconstitutional.

“The answer is simple: Brown, for all its glory, is something of a bust,” concludes the report titled “Beyond Brown v. Board: The Final Battle for Excellence in American Education.”

A major reason for the “bittersweet” celebration of the 1954 case that “wrestled American apartheid to the mat,” Mr. Cose says, is the huge academic achievement gap between white and minority students, which Education Secretary Rod Paige calls the country’s new civil rights crisis.

“It’s clear that after 50 years, we still have a lot of work to do,” Mr. Paige said last week at a forum at the Cato Institute to commemorate the landmark decision.

“Today, only one in six African-Americans can read proficiently upon leaving high school. The achievement gap in reading between blacks and whites is staggering. Nationally, it’s 28 percentage points at the fourth-grade level at or above proficient, and in the District of Columbia, it is more than double that,” the secretary said.

According to the latest fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 60 percent of black students and 56 percent of Hispanics are “below basic” — meaning that those students cannot read and understand basic reading material at their grade level. For Asians, it was 30 percent “below basic,” and for whites, it was 25 percent.

Mr. Paige noted, moreover, that black students, per capita, have almost three times more disciplinary problems than whites in kindergarten through 12th grade, as measured by suspensions, and earn proportionally about half the number of college degrees as whites do.

Nonetheless, Mr. Paige said the Brown decision was historic beyond the plain words spoken from the bench by Chief Justice Earl Warren: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Those words did much more than end state-mandated segregation, but “began a process of healing in America, still needed almost 100 years after the Civil War,” Mr. Paige told a Harvard University audience in April.

“The Brown decision affirmed the constitutional promise of equality and justice for all Americans. It set this country on a new course, affirming civil and human rights while demanding the full respect and protection of the law for all people.”

Massive resistance’

But the pace of change was much slower than predicted by Thurgood Marshall, the top lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who argued the Brown case. He said school segregation would perish within five years of the decision and predicted that by 1963, “all forms of segregation in America would be nothing but a memory,” recalled the Cose report.

“Massive resistance” in defiance of the decision, particularly in the 11 states of the Confederacy, continued “well into the 1970s,” said Mr. Paige, who grew up in rural Mississippi.

Lower courts would not enforce the decision.

“Countless politicians, governors, state legislatures, citizens, schools, and social institutions passionately worked to undermine the decision. Court cases were filed and then refiled again and again to delay implementation of the decision or to obfuscate the result.

“There was widespread violence. The sheer magnitude and force of the resistance have no domestic equivalent today, but in the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere, it was a second civil war. In Virginia, one school system, Prince Edward County, shut down for five years rather than accept desegregation. In some states, governors and other elected officials and the police actually led the resistance,” Mr. Paige said.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he spoke of their lips dripping with words like ‘interposition and nullification.’ They were proud to resist Brown. They looked for any means to continue segregation. And as long as segregation persisted, we were, in Dr. King’s words, ‘exiles in our own land,’” he said.

Mr. Cose said the fallout from the Brown case “helped jump-start a whole series of changes.”

“It led to the sit-ins, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the freedom marches. It helped give a jump-start to the movement,” he said in an interview.

But at the same time, the social upheaval, political activism, violence and rising crime in many U.S. cities throughout the 1960s and 1970s prompted a large exodus to suburban areas, which Harvard social scientists Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom call “middle-class flight.”

At the same time, immigrants flowed into U.S. cities. As a result, although white students make up 61 percent of the national school population, almost all the largest central-city schools systems throughout the country now have a majority of minority students.

The District’s public-school students are 85 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent white. By contrast, private schools in the District are more racially balanced, with 53 percent minority and 47 percent white students.

In Atlanta, public-school students are 93 percent minority; Dallas, 92 percent; Chicago, 91 percent; Los Angeles and Houston, 90 percent; Baltimore, 89 percent; and Boston and New York City, 85 percent. Private schools in those cities also are more evenly balanced between white and minority students.

Effect on achievement

“There is a constitutional obligation to remedy the deliberate separation of students on grounds of race; there is no mandate to create racially balanced schools,” the Thernstroms wrote in their book, “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.” “Racial imbalance may simply reflect residential patterns, which are beyond the purview of school authorities.”

Of the 26 largest urban school districts in the country, only one, Salt Lake City, has a white majority, according to the Thernstroms’ study.

“Just two more (Tucson, Ariz., and Albuquerque, N.M.) were as much as 40 percent white.

“Seven of these giant school districts had white enrollments below 10 percent, and another 10 were less than 20 percent white. In such districts, the most heroic efforts will not suffice to put the typical black or Hispanic pupil into a majority-white school. There simply aren’t enough whites to go around.”

Researchers differ on whether racial integration and diversity of schools makes a difference in academic achievement, although almost all agree that nothing can be done to change the racial mix.

The Thernstroms reviewed available studies through publication last year of “No Excuses” and concluded, “Racial composition, in itself, makes almost no difference.”

One random-selection study of reading and math scores of 13- and 17-year-olds on the 1992 NAEP tests, conducted by David J. Armor of George Mason University and Christine Rossell of Boston University, showed no difference.

“Whether African-American students attended schools that were 10 percent or 70 percent black, the racial gap remained roughly the same,” the Thernstroms concluded. “If every school precisely mirrored the demographic profile of the nation’s entire student population, the level of black and Hispanic achievement would not change.”

But they said results were different for one small group of 13-year-old blacks in the NAEP sample who attended schools that were more than 80 percent white. The black teenagers in that setting “did dramatically better” in reading. In those schools, the black-white gap in performance was cut by about two-thirds.

The pattern was similar, though less pronounced, for black 17-year-olds, and for Hispanics in both age groups. It did not, however, apply to math scores.

However, the sample of black and Hispanic students in overwhelmingly white schools was “too small to make the results statistically significant, and the difference might have been the result of self-selection or the inadequacy of the measures of socio-economic status — the crude definitions of who was poor and who was affluent,” they said.

The money battle

Liberal policy experts emphasize the comparative poverty of most inner-city families and the fact that local school funds mainly come from real-estate taxes, meaning that poor districts have less money and educational resources than wealthier suburban districts.

“I think that’s one of the problems, because there’s a lot of correlation between race and poverty, and schools tend to be funded from the local tax base,” Mr. Cose said.

Parents in Clarendon County, S.C., were plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliott, a 1952 segregation case folded in with three others to join the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education appeal.

“The saga of Clarendon County began with a simple request for a school bus,” said the Cose report.

“Clarendon County’s white schoolchildren already had 30 buses at their disposal. Though black children outnumbered whites by a margin of nearly three to one, they had not a single bus … which often meant walking miles through the mud.”

With the help of Mr. Marshall and the NAACP, the county’s black parents finally filed a lawsuit asking not only for a bus, but “equivalent facilities as the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ supposedly guaranteed,” the report said.

“And so you have a problem in places like Clarendon County or Jasper County, some of the counties I talk about in the report, where they may get the same amount of money from the state, but they get a lot less from the local districts because they don’t have as large a tax base to draw from, so they end up with significantly fewer resources, and I think that’s one of the reasons,” Mr. Cose said.

“The fact is, there is a complex array of reasons, it’s not just budget, but I think resources are certainly one of the reasons why there is a big achievement gap. Like some of the schools I went to don’t have labs or don’t have basic resources, don’t have up-to-date books and things of that nature. Clearly, you’re going to be behind.”

Currently, lawsuits are under way in 27 states that challenge school-financing arrangements.

“I don’t think that this is ultimately going to be solved by lawsuits, but I think they are raising a very important question, which is, what kind of resources do you really need to educate someone to be a competent, functioning citizen? I think we need to have a major national discussion about this and arrive at some consensus, and I think it’s happening to some extent from all these lawsuits.”

Last week, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a liberal nonprofit advocacy group, issued results of a survey of more than 3,300 teachers in California, New York and Wisconsin conducted by the Peter Harris Research Group, intended to show “a two-tiered education system” five decades after Brown. The report said:

• High-risk California schools serving students from poverty and minority families are 12 times more likely than low-risk schools to have 20 percent or more teachers uncredentialed.

• Twice as many California and New York teachers in high-risk schools see teacher turnover as a serious problem.

• 85 percent of teachers in New York state’s high-risk schools — 68 percent of teachers in all New York City schools — said children were “not prepared for school,” compared with 34 percent in lowest-risk schools statewide.

• 61 percent of Milwaukee teachers cited “weak incentives to teach in high-risk schools.”

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