Affirmative Action in Education
After the monumental Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 to desegregate schools, the country has seen a radical shift in the racial make-up of the educational system. The days of the Little Rock 9 may not seem prevalent in our discussion of the demographics in public education. However, as a generational shift has begun to occur in housing patterns, the racial breakdown of schools has reflected the migration. The outflow of whites from older suburbs to either newer suburbs or back into urban settings has caused minority students in some states to be relegated to neighborhood schools that are within percentage points of being as segregated as they were in the 50’s. Districts and states have found ways to compensate now that desegregation policies are out of vogue.
To compensate for racially divided neighborhoods, states have long strived to provide a method of alleviating imbalances. For years, enforced bussing served as a method to institute diversity in schools. The controversial practice forced many kids to attend schools across town even though their preferred school may have been the one in the local area. The busing regulations have been tampered down over time, starting with the Milliken v. Bradley ruling that allowed for busing only within the same school district. A partial outcome of the enforced integration of schools, especially after the monumental Coleman Report, was that many white families left the cities and school districts to avoid it. The “white flight” that ensued essentially negated the positive impact of busing, and during the Reagan administration such polices fell to the wayside. By 1991, the Supreme Court ruled that schools are no longer obligated to desegregate and can accept kids based on residency without any obligations to diversity.
As a result, current diversity levels have fallen to a rate resembling those of the 1960’s. Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, said that “It’s getting to the point of almost absolute segregation in the worst of the segregated cities – within one or two percentage points of what the Old South used to be like. The biggest metro areas are the epicenters of segregation. It’s getting worse for both blacks and Latinos, and nothing is being done about it.” The reasons for the lack of progress in diversification are multi-faceted but it is interesting to point out that of the top ten most segregated cities, St. Louis is the southern-most of the list. Instead, what are left are large metropolitan areas with an established industrial history. In the make-up of these cities, there are large cases of suburban sprawl that has taken many of the white students away from the city.
Overall, there is an overwhelming shift in public school enrollment. The number of black and Latino students in the nation’s public schools is up 5.8 million, while the number of white students has declined by 5.6 million in 30 years. The schools reflect the transformation of the U.S population in an era of low birth rates and massive immigration. Latino students, a group that was just 2 million in 1968 has grown to 6.9 million in just 30 years. By 1999, in the Western region of the United States, white students barely made up a majority of public school enrollment with 51.9%.
The method by which states and districts work to combat the problem of segregation has also come under scrutiny. In the last decade, there have been several cases that revolved around variations of race and education. Of course, affirmative action for higher education differs drastically as compared to grade level public schooling; they still delve into the overlying premise of the merits of a racially diverse education setting. Three states have attempted to avoid litigation altogether by adopting a policy that at the surface appears to be race-neutral, but inherently is not.
California, Florida, and Texas all have similar policies into how they can help ensure diversity at the university level without blatantly mandating any quotas. In California, the top 9% of students at their high school are guaranteed admission to the University of California system. As the New York Times reports “officials acknowledge that the aim is race-conscious but that the mechanism is race-neutral.” The link between these three states and their educational policies is that they have high-density Latino populations. With a flat acceptance policy, state schools have taken into account the mitigating conditions of lower performing schools for the acceptance of students.
Affirmative action policies have not been altogether successful in avoiding litigation. Within the last few years several landmark cases have made been heard by the Supreme Court involving preferential enrollment policies for minority students. Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Fisher v. University of Texas about preferential enrollment policies. Experts sound ominous about the legal future of such policies after this case. Lee Bollinger, former president of the University of Michigan who was a defendant in the case surrounding admissions to the university’s law school, said “it threatens to undo several decades of effort within higher education to build a more integrated and just and educationally enriched environment.”
The U.S Department of Education has taken an interest in promoting racial diversity that is still in compliance with the Supreme Court Decisions. They have published a guide to help dictate admission practices in higher education. Based on the reasoning that
“Ensuring that our nation’s students are provided with learning environments comprised of students of diverse backgrounds is not just a lofty ideal. As the Supreme Court has recognized, the benefits of participating in diverse learning environments flow to an individual, his or her classmates, and the community as a whole. These benefits greatly contribute to the educational, economic, and civic life of this nation.”
A difference in the case of public grade schools is that it is more complicated because it involves more than just the student, and predicates itself on trends in society that have existed for decades. Comfort v. Lynn was another striking blow to the future of mandatory desegregation. In the LSC’s “neighborhood-school-centered paradigm,” students may “attend their local schools as a matter of right.” Students are initially assigned to schools in their neighborhoods, and race becomes a factor only when they (or their parents) request a transfer from the students’ area school. All students are allowed to transfer as they like between racially balanced schools, and they can transfer to and from racially imbalanced or isolated schools when the transfer will have a “desegregative” effect. However, a transfer is not permitted if it would further segregate the racially imbalanced or isolated schools. Through this method, 6,000 Lynn students are assigned to non-neighborhood schools each year, and the roughly 100 annual appeals that ensue have about a 50% success rate. Since its implementation, race relations improved, Lynn’s schools performed better academically, and the school district received a significant increase in funding under the state’s Racial Imbalance Act.
The Supreme Court did not agree with the methods by which the results were obtained and went on to restrict the feasibility of changing schools for both minority and white students. The court used strong language in saying “Government action dividing people by race is inherently suspect because such classifications promote notions of racial inferiority and lead to a politics of racial hostility. Much like the previous case of Grutter v Bollinger, in cases surrounding affirmative action in education, the court has taken a more nuanced approach to carving out its position on discriminative selection policies. The court came to the conclusion that “[a]bsent searching judicial inquiry into the justification for such race-based measures, there is simply no way of determining what classifications are in fact motivated by illegitimate notions of racial inferiority or simple racial politics.” We therefore apply strict scrutiny to all racial classifications to smoke out illegitimate uses of race by assuring that [government] is pursuing a goal important enough to warrant use of a highly suspect tool.
These decisions leave states in highly precarious positions where they lack the enforcement capabilities or political will to ensure a policy of gentrification in neighborhoods. Even with swift maneuvering to renovate the older and disenfranchised parts of the city, the problems that have affected minorities settling in racially balanced neighborhoods continue to accumulate. In Ben Austen’s Harpers piece about the harrowing conditions of Chicago’s infamous housing projects, the cyclical nature of problems in some of the nation’s most segregated neighborhoods appear to be insurmountable. The city of Chicago had a “Plan for Transformation, a $1.5 billion, ten-year venture that would leave the city with just 15,000 new or renovated public-housing family units, plus an additional 10,000 for senior citizens.” Yet, before any significant improvements in conditions were made, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city would have to recalibrate its program.
Regardless, efforts are being made with current legislation to alleviate gross discrepancies in education based on race and location. California has a proposal to mandate that out of the 10 members of the state’s school board, the members altogether must “represent and reside in different geographical regions of the state and (2) Reflect the ethnic and gender diversity of the state’s population.” Massachusetts is taking a different approach to the endemic segregation of neighborhoods. The legislature approved a bill to look at the public health effects of different poorer parts of the state and will assess “the progress of the commonwealth toward eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities, using, where possible, quantifiable measures and comparative benchmarks. The report card shall report on progress on a regional basis, based on regions designated by the office. “
Ohio has attempted to further the elimination of prejudices for admission into public school. A bill proposed by four Democratic State Senators would mandate that “that there will be no discrimination in the admission of students to the school on the basis of race, creed, color, disability, or sex.” However, this legislation was introduced in May of 2011 and has still not made it out of the education committee; perhaps serving as an indication of the growing sentiment toward less regulations regarding diversity.
As the Brown V. Board decision approaches its 60th anniversary, the country has assuredly undergone a drastic shake-up in its values, but there remains a prevalence of injustice. The data suggests that even though federal legislation already exists to prevent prejudice in housing and hiring practices, there is still a correlation between race and housing patterns. Until the fundamental predispositions of current conditions are altered, it will remain a challenge to ensure a truly race-neutral educational system.
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