July 6, 2007

Court Ruling on Race Not a Death Knell For School Excellence

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media

Civil rights organizations and the top Democratic presidential candidates lambasted the Supreme Court’s narrow ruling that jettisoned the racial balance plans in the Louisville and Seattle school districts. Their anger was predictable and justified, but it ignores two things. The first is that most big city school districts have been re-segregated for years. And according to Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, segregation in school districts has gotten worse in the past decade.

The students in these schools are poorer than students in predominantly, or exclusively white schools, and they do far worse in reading and math tests than non-black or black students at racially mixed schools. The black and Latino students who attend racially isolated schools are not in these schools because of Jim Crow segregationist laws, or failed school bussing policies. Two decades of pro-integration court decisions, limited bussing programs, civil rights legislation, and the election and the appointment of soaring numbers of blacks and Latinos to boards of education have racially remade public education. Black and Latino public school superintendents and top administrators are now fixtures in most urban school districts.

The blame for the chronic school re-segregation is the deep persistence of housing discrimination, poverty, and the near universal refusal of federal and state courts to get involved in any more school desegregation cases. Then there’s the continuing flight of white, as well as black and Latino middle-income persons, to the suburbs. This ensures that even more poor black and Latino students will be perpetually trapped in segregated schools.

The hodge-podge of panaceas Bush and educators ladle out to raise minority achievement levels include school vouchers, a wholesale dump of incompetent teachers and bureaucrats, magnet schools and annual testing. Some districts advocate scrapping race altogether and using income and other indicators as the means to achieve racially balanced schools.

The irony is that they may be overreacting to the court ruling. Though the court didn’t give civil rights advocates much to cheer about in its ruling. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who voted with the majority to scrap race mused that there might be some situations in which race could be used. He didn’t say what those situations might be, but at least it was an acknowledgement that education, as are most other things in American life, isn’t totally race neutral.

Even if the court had upheld the Louisville and Seattle integration plans, it wouldn’t have changed the racial picture for most urban school districts. The bitter truth is that while segregated public schools will never again be the law of the land, they remain a fact of the land, and the overwhelming majority of black and Latino students will be stuck in segregated schools. And in those schools that appear to be racially integrated there’s less than meets the eye. Studies show huge gaps in the treatment of black and Latino students by teachers and administrators. They are more likely to be piled in special education and vocation classes, and suspended or expelled at far higher rates than white students.

That points to the second problem that civil rights advocates and the Democratic presidential candidates refuse to acknowledge. It’s that even segregated schools don’t have to be inherently failing schools. There are countless examples where teachers and administrators have rolled up their sleeves and worked hard to transform racially segregated schools from permanent monuments to educational failure to models of success. They fight hard to upgrade the texts and facilities, to get administrators to purchase more computers, and to get the highest caliber teachers, counselors, and administrators possible at these schools. They demand that teacher unions actively work to enforce strict professional standards to hold teachers at failing inner city public schools accountable for the performance of their students.

Most important, they have buried the myth that black and Latino students can’t or won’t learn. During the nightmare years of legal segregation, polls showed that blacks prized education above everything else, and regarded it as their children’s passport out of poverty and segregation. Generations of black and Latino students attended de-facto segregated inner city schools and legally segregated schools in the South. Most graduated, went on to college, and became successful in business and the professions.

Teachers were dedicated and determined that their students attain excellence in their studies. The teachers expected and demanded that their students perform up to the same level as white students. They challenged the students to learn, set specific goals, and fully participate in classroom work, and gave them positive and continual direction and reinforcement.

The Supreme Court ruling is not the death knell for diversity efforts of school districts. They just have to be more creative in how they attain it. But that doesn’t mean giving up on the students that may never sit in an integrated classroom.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s book, “The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics” (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York), will be out in October. William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funds New America Media’s education coverage.

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