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Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, weighs in on efforts like San Diego Unified’s Vision 2020 plan that focus on keeping students in neighborhood schools.
Segregated schools have been a concern in San Diego since at least 1977, when a Superior Court judge found that 23 district schools were so racially isolated they deprived black and Latino students of their equal right to a quality education.
Unfortunately, only one school left on the original list, Morse High, has managed to create a school where black and Latino students – those most likely to come from disadvantaged families – don’t make up the dominant majority.
Forty years ago, when the district made its first integration efforts, black students were the major focus. Today, thanks to major demographic changes, Latinos make up the largest subgroup in the district and are most isolated. They often face triple segregation: isolated by ethnicity, class and language.
What’s also relatively new is San Diego Unified’s Vision 2020 plan, whose major goal is to create a quality school in every neighborhood so fewer students opt out of their local schools.
This idea, neighborhood schooling, is nothing novel. It harkens back to simpler times when kids would walk down the block to attend school. The problem is that San Diego neighborhoods are segregated by race and class. So, if the district keeps more kids in their neighborhoods schools, those schools will likely remain segregated.
That was my impression. But recently, school board member Richard Barrera argued that integration efforts and the district’s choice plan have actually made the district more segregated. That is, even when we provide options for kids to leave their neighborhood schools and opt into better ones, middle-class or engaged parents are those most likely to take advantage. The disparities for the students left behind create enormous barriers for them, he said.
It’s all very complex. I wanted to get an expert’s take on how neighborhood schooling could actually impact segregation. So I reached out to Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, who’s been studying segregation for about as long as school districts have been trying to integrate.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Based on your research, what impact does neighborhood schooling tend to have on school districts’ integration efforts?
When you have neighborhood schools in a city that has unequal and segregated neighborhoods, Latino and black kids end up in schools that are segregated by race and poverty and sometimes by language, and tend to perform much worse.
And white and Asian kids tend to end up in middle-class schools with a majority of middle-class kids, and more experienced teachers and stronger curriculum, higher level of competition. So it just perpetuates the inequality.
If we had fair neighborhoods, it would be OK. But we don’t. It’s why we did the desegregation efforts in the first place.
Now, if you have a choice plan that doesn’t have basic civil rights requirements attached to it, it can make segregation worse. We did a book called “Educational Delusions?” about choice plans that can make things worse, and how you can make them better.
Basically, a fair choice plan has a certain number of elements, and it expands opportunity and integration. And those include free transportation. They include good choices. They include fair parent information and a fair method of selecting the kids, and active recruitment of the kids from all parts of the community.
Free transportation is essential. Otherwise you’re just giving choice on the basis of social class.
The book included case studies of numerous places, including some places that have figured out modern ways to integrate, including Louisville and Berkeley.
(Note: Under the current system, if San Diego Unified parents want to send their kids to a school outside their neighborhood, they can submit a choice application. But offers are limited to available space, and in most cases transportation falls on parents.)
What city in the country do you think has figured it out the best?
Well, Berkeley’s worth looking at. Louisville. There are regional magnet schools in Connecticut that we’ve worked with quite a lot.
Nobody’s got the whole thing together because basically there has been no pressure to do anything about this since the Reagan years.
Why is that? What’s been the biggest stumbling blocks holding school districts back?
The biggest stumbling block, in many ways, was the United States Supreme Court, which has had an anti-civil rights majority now for over a quarter-century and has dismantled most of the desegregation plans in the country.
The former chief justice who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, William Rehnquist, was opposed the [Brown v. Board of Education] decision as a clerk in the Supreme Court during the Brown case. He never voted for a school desegregation case ever.
The Supreme Court has pushed us backward in this area. It’s no accident that we’re where we are now. California used to have requirements that went beyond the federal requirements. There was a prop passed, called Prop. 1 in the 1980s, that weakened California’s desegregation requirements.
The major funding source for desegregation was eliminated in Ronald Reagan’s first budget.
What was the funding source?
It was called the Emergency School Aid Act. It was the federal desegregation assistance money. It had hundreds of millions of dollars. It was all voluntary, and school districts loved it. It funded the creation of a lot of magnet schools in the country.
I’ve noticed that we all tend to say that we like and value diversity, but when it comes to actually integrating schools, it can sort of feel uncomfortable, right?
It is uncomfortable! There’s no comfortable way to get out of a racial catastrophe. But it works. And people appreciate it when it’s done well.
Desegregation done the right way is a win-win. It’s not taking something from somebody and giving it to somebody else. It’s expanding the opportunity and preparation of everybody. It’s not a miracle. It’s not a cure-all. It’s just a whole lot better than segregation.
We did surveys of the parents and students at Louisville that are in the book, and they’ve had desegregation in almost all their schools, city and suburb now for 45 years. And they voted to keep it. And when the Supreme Court knocked down their old plan, they came up with a new one to keep it.
I don’t know if you read our Resegregating California study, but California is the worst place in the country for Latino students in terms of isolation by ethnicity and they are in extremely impoverished schools on average.
That’s interesting, because now we have a problem with segregating Latinos, but it’s a new challenge because Latinos make up the largest subgroup in California. So how does that change the integration dynamic?
It means that we have a much more complex reality. Most of the black students in California are now in schools which on average have twice as many Latinos as blacks. So black students are actually isolated within the schools of another disadvantaged minority group – or a majority group – with Latinos becoming majority group. So it’s more complicated.
We have four major races in California. If you combine the African-Americans and Latinos and compare them with the whites and Asians, they are different worlds of educational opportunity. Whites and Asians are 10 times as likely to be in the top quintile of high schools in California.
In your mind, what’s the single strongest piece of evidence that we can point to to say that integration works?
For the Supreme Court Parents Involved decision, we did a summary of a half-century of research on school desegregation. And did a brief that was signed by 553 researchers from all over the United States, and basically what the research shows – and the research was checked by a group of about 120 of the leading scholars in the United States – basically that if you go to an integrated school, you get a better set of opportunities, you get connected with different networks, you have a better chance of graduating, you have a better chance of going to college, you have a better chance of completing college, you have a better chance of being employed in a diverse labor force as an adult, you’re more likely to live and work in a diverse setting.
The test scores results are significant, but they are not the major result. The major results are life chances.
Including – what nobody talks about – for the white students, who are now a small minority in Southern California. They learn how to function effectively in a diverse setting, which they badly need, because they’re going to be a smaller and smaller minority in the future of Southern California. They’re less than a quarter of the students between Los Angeles and the border.
You can’t really learn how to function very effectively in a diverse, multiracial culture in segregated neighborhoods, with segregated schools.
Again, desegregation is not a miracle. There are no miracles. You know educational research. Every time somebody claims one you have to dig into the data because it’s almost always funny.
And neighborhood schools, most school districts went that way 20 years ago, 25 years ago when the federal desegregation orders were eliminated. They went toward neighborhood schools and unfair choice plans.
Both of those produce self-perpetuating inequalities for black and Latino students.
You can’t get ready for UC in a school that doesn’t have good college preparation courses taught at the appropriate level, in classes with students who are ready to learn something.
What constitutes a good choice plan?
The basic argument is we knew how not to do choice a long time ago. Fifty years ago. And we learned lessons in the 1970s about how to do magnet schools the right way. And then when the courts stopped looking, we forgot all of those things. And the result of that is schools are becoming more and more unequal.
We just did a study in Buffalo, N.Y. in response to a civil rights complaint to the Office of Civil Rights about the unfairness of the choice plan there.
We found that in a place that used to have one of the best magnet school plans in the country and was highly integrated, has changed. The system has declined, the quality has declined, but the unfairness has just mushroomed. The very best schools get very few students from the segregated neighborhoods.
Right now there’s a major controversy between the Office of Civil Rights and the Buffalo school board, whether they’re going to implement all of the recommendations they made on how to correct this. If you look at the recommendations, you can see the kinds of things that need to be paid attention to.
So it doesn’t sound like you’re convinced about neighborhood schools …
I can’t tell you how many hundreds of places I’ve been to or that have sent to me a beautiful glossy plan that says, “We know how to make segregated schools equal.” It’s usually called “The Plan for Excellence,“ or “The Intense Focus Plan” or something. It’s a different name in every town.
Everybody says they know how to do it. Everybody says they know how to make segregated schools equal. No school district in the country has ever done it, to the best of my knowledge.
Now I’ve been asking for people to tell me one example, and nobody has been able to come up with that example. Even the people who testify against integration all over the county. Just tell me one place where segregation has worked.
You can’t find any. You can find individual schools where they score very well on certain standardized tests, but that’s rare and it often doesn’t last. But you can’t find schools that are truly equal in terms of preparing people for a good competitive college and things like that.
There are occasional geniuses who know how to do it in spite of everything, but nobody has ever done it on a systemic basis.
And what they can’t do, even if they get the test scores up, they can’t prepare people for life in a diverse college in a diverse society.