Two recent decisions by school boards in North Carolina are local signs of a troubling national trend towards resegregation in public schools. In New Hanover County, which includes Wilmington, parents and advocates spent much of last year debating a new middle school redistricting plan that would focus on “neighborhood schools,” essentially resegregating the schools by race and economic class because our neighborhoods look that way. School board member Elizabeth Redenbaugh was the only White and only Republican member to join two Black Democratic colleagues in opposing the new plan. In a letter sent to parents and fellow board members last fall, Redenbaugh described some of what she was seeing: “I have literally had parents…approach me and state, ‘The bottom line is this: I do not want my children in school with black children.’ I have had parents ask me why we do anything at all for the black children in our county. They look me in the eye and say, ‘we have spent so much money on black children . . . Nothing helps. I don’t know why we even try anymore’…Such statements literally grieve my heart and beg the question: Who is my neighbor?” But despite the concerns Redenbaugh and her colleagues shared, they were ultimately overruled by the other members early this year in a 4-3 vote.
Meanwhile, in Wake County, North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, schools may be moving backwards in a similar direction. Wake County has been lauded for its student assignment policy to balance schools using socioeconomic status augmented by a comprehensive program of magnet schools. But on March 24, the Wake County School Board voted to begin studying a new districting plan that would change the current busing system and reassign students based on “neighborhood attendance zones”—a return to potentially more segregated schools because of the neighborhood demographics. Advocates for Wake County’s current socially and economically integrated school system are fighting to prevent this change. But these significant decisions represent a very disturbing trend across the country. The sad truth is that the dream Dr. King rightly considered one of the greatest victories of the Civil Rights Movement—the desegregation of our nation’s schools—is unraveling before our eyes.
Desegregated schools grew in the years directly following the Civil Rights Movement, but since 1988, racial resegregation in public schools has been rising slowly and systematically. In June 2007, both the spirit and intent of the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision were assaulted when the Supreme Court acknowledged in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education the benefits of racially diverse schools for all students who attend them, but ruled that desegregation plans that assign students to schools on the basis of race are unconstitutional. At a time when the number of poor and minority children in America is growing and the number of White middle-class children is decreasing, our schools are once again becoming isolated by race and class. Plans like the diversity policy and magnet school program that have been in place in Wake County, which focused primarily on socioeconomic status instead of race, helped produce integrated schools with broad appeal and academic achievement gains; this two-pronged approach was lauded as another method of achieving diversity without concentrating children in racially isolated, high-poverty schools. But as the recent school board decision there shows, even those successful measures are now under attack.
The problem, as leading expert Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles and others have argued, is that segregated schools are not good for any of our children. We already know they are disastrous for poor and minority students, for whom there is a strong connection between school segregation, failing schools, and high dropout rates. Almost half of America’s Black students and nearly two-fifths of Latino students attend high schools that have been labeled “dropout factories” by Johns Hopkins University researchers and the U.S. Department of Education, where less than 60 percent of the freshman class will graduate in four years. But studies of the outcomes of inter-district transfer programs also show that while programs designed to improve integration significantly improve the life chances of children who are transferred in, they do not have a negative effect on the academic progress of students in the receiving district—one of the apparent fears of many parents. In fact, as Orfield and others note, integration has been shown to benefit children on both sides.
As our society becomes more and more diverse, it is critically important that children from all backgrounds learn to interact with one another productively. When parents are allowed to hold on to the outdated beliefs that sending their children to a “diverse” school means sending them to an inferior school, it does their own children a disservice. In a rapidly globalizing world, returning to segregated schools would be another missed opportunity for all of America’s children. We have so far left to go. We can’t afford to take any more steps backwards.