Running of equal rights and often the

When Separate is Not Equal:
Issues in 21st century school segregation
Mary Lugo
BIL 641
Nazareth College of Rochester
When Separate is Not Equal: Issues in 21st century school segregation
The education system within the United States has long been a consequence
of social class, cultural background, socioeconomic status and racism. The United
States since its inception has been founded on roots of slave labor, inequality, and
injustice for anyone who was not a white, land-owning male. These attitudes
permeated every aspect of daily life from segregated movie theatres, water
fountains, and even schools. Although America may be known as “Land of the
Free”, this did not apply to everyone.
Schools have been a battleground of equal rights and often the only way to
achieve a better life, but are often the byproduct of unjust laws. Landmark
supreme court cases shape American attitudes and, more importantly, American
laws. Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) and Parents Involved in Community
Schools (PICS) vs. Seattle School District No. 1 (2006) and Meredith vs. Jefferson
County Board of Education (2006) are no exception to this rule and have had a
profound impact on how American schools look and operate.
Literature Review
Brown vs. the Board of Education
Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) represented the pinnacle of the Civil
Rights Movement during the mid-1950s. It was a major win for those seeking not
only equality, but justice, and its effects went well beyond the school setting. The
supreme court defined segregation as “inherently unequal” and no matter what
resources were given or how well they mirrored each other, separate could never
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be equal (Stuart Wells , Fox, & Cordova-Cobo, 2016). This decision had sweeping
effects across the country as school integration was no longer a choice and
separate facilities like movie theatres, restaurants, water fountains, bathrooms, etc.
were no longer acceptable. Although in the eyes of the law, segregation was not
legal, the way this law has been interpreted by state and local governments
continues to place minorities at the bottom. Additionally, suburban districts, in
comparison to urban districts, represent a de facto segregation where urban
schools are filled with economically disadvantaged minority children in subpar
Seattle & Kentucky Cases
In an effort to create more diverse schools, districts in Seattle and Kentucky
voluntarily adopted student assignment methods based on race to ensure a certain
ratio of white to non-white students. Most districts throughout the country place
students based on their address, whereas these districts assigned students to
schools in order to maintain a specific percentage of minority students and used
race as a “tie breaker” to determine where a student would attend.
The Seattle school district allowed families to choose schools for their
children. For schools with too many applicants, a tiered tie breaker system was
utilized and one tie breaker was race to maintain a 40% white and 60% non-white
student body (PICS, n.d.). This worked in both directions, if there were too many
applicants but the school did not meet their 40% white enrollment, they would
select a white student over a non-white student or vise versa if they were not at a
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60% non-white enrollment (PICS, n.d.). Some families were not satisfied with this
tie breaker system and joined to form a non-profit, Parents Involved in Community
Schools, to begin legal action on the basis of this system violating the Equal
Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil RIghts Act. The Equal
Protection Clause prohibits “states from denying any person within its territory
the equal protection of the laws.” (Legal Information Institute, n.d.). In this
case, that was denying students based on race when attempting to maintain
a ratio of racial diversity. This supreme court decision on behalf of PICS was
a huge blow to the school desegregation movement and served as guiding
point for future cases and school districts across the country.
The Meredith vs. Jefferson County Board of Education (2006) almost exactly
mirrors the Seattle case. Meredith and other parents joined together to advocate
that school placement based on race was a violation of the Fourteenth
Amendment. This Kentucky school district used a similar tie breaker to maintain a
percentage of at least 15%, not to exceed 50%, non-white student enrollment.
Local district courts initially decided that the tiebreaker was constitutional in 2003
but Meredith and others continued to appeal until it landed at the Supreme Court.
In tandem with the PICS case, the Supreme Court decided on behalf of Meredith
and deemed the racially based enrollment process to be a violation of the
constitution (Meredith, n.d.).
Based On this supreme court decisions, these districts were now responsible
for constructing a different system for school assignment that did not consider
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racial enrollment proportions as entry requirements. Richard Kahlenberg, reporter
for The American Prospect, highlights that school integration based on race
functions under the premise that children who are non-white are disadvantaged. In
reality, the children who are disadvantaged are those, white or non-white, living in
poverty. By placing students based on their race, you are not necessarily bridging
achievement gaps because there is no guarantee non-white students will come
from disadvantaged backgrounds (Kahlenberg, 2008). In 1993, schools in Jefferson
county varied between 9 and 99 percent of students receiving free and reduced
lunch, highlighting the socioeconomic disparities (Kahlenberg, 2008). Jefferson
county is currently utilizing a diversity plan that takes into account socioeconomic
status over race as a method for diversifying their schools.
Consequences of Integrated Schools
Thanks to the wonders of technology the global community is more
integrated than ever before. Hundreds of countries, dozens of languages, and
infinite backgrounds come together to create a multicultural and multilingual global
market. The United States is in a position of educating the next generation to be
active players in this market to stay relevant and competitive. In order to do this, a
familiarity of other cultures and languages is paramount (Stuart Wells , Fox, &
Cordova-Cobo, 2016). Even for those that may not speak another language, an
attitude of acceptance towards new and different groups and cultures sets the next
generation up to be successful. It becomes increasingly difficult to create global
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citizens if students attend schools that are homogeneous in race, culture, language,
or socioeconomic status.
The benefits of school integration have been well documented by research
and personal stories. The Century Foundation (2016), a nonpartisan progressive
think tank with a focus on reducing inequality describes the academic, cognitive,
social-emotional, civic and economic benefits of integration for all students.
Academically and cognitively, as measured on standardized testing, students in
integrated schools (SIS) have higher average test scores, are more likely to enroll in
college, less likely to drop out, reduce racial achievement gaps, and encourage
critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Civically and socio-emotionally, SIS
can help reduce racial bias and counter stereotypes, these students are more likely
to seek out integrated settings in the future, can improve intellectual
self-confidence, and enhance student leadership skills. Economically, integrated
schools return on their investment by preparing more students to effectively enter
the workforce, they also promote more equitable access to resources, and prepare
students to succeed in a global economy (The Century Fund, 2016).
If we know school integration is so great, why are so many people against it?
Matt Barnum, journalist for an organization covering education
news in America, lists arguments against school integration. These arguments
include a parental fear that resources and opportunities will be taken from their
child due to a disadvantaged student absorbing them. Concerns related to the
impact of additional busing time and the negative factors related to children who
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live in “dangerous” urban areas. Anti-integrationists also highlight successful
charter schools with low white student enrollment as exampars that integration is
not necessary. Lobbyists and politicians also claim that pushes for integration take
attention away from arguments for additional school funding and may hurt urban
schools (Barnum, 2016). Many of these claims are simply anecdotal and are not
supported by, nor based on, research.
As a student, I was a product of a school integration program and have lived
to witness the benefit and experience of providing students access to an education
they could not achieve based on their zip code. For the six years between sixth and
12th grade, I attended Brockport High School through the Urban-Suburban
Program which describes itself as “the first and oldest voluntary desegregation
program in the United States”. This program is offered through Monroe One
BOCES and transports academically strong cally students from the city of Rochester
to suburban schools. Attending Brockport for six years exposed to many
experiences, extracurriculars, and a quality education that encouraged me to seek
higher education. I don’t believe my education would be the same if I graduated
from a city school. After graduating early, I went on to obtain a Bachelor’s and
Master’s degree to become a speech pathologist. As a student who attended city
schools for the first part of my life, I wanted to use my education to support the
community I grew up in.
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As an educator working in the same school district I eventually left, I see the
impact of students and families living in poverty, the struggle of families that are
not proficient English, and I see the impact of classes of students that cannot
connect to educators because they don’t share the same experiences. The rates of
city school district students who dropout of school, don’t graduate, or end up
incarcerated highlights the need for a different system. Integrated school systems
will surely not solve all educational problems but it is a good start to begin closing
the achievement gap between minorities and their white peers.
Implication for Today’s Students
The United States is experiencing a shift in demographics with spikes if
immigrants, refugees, and those fleeing their home countries due to natural
disasters. This changing demographic is changing what our schools are and calling
for solutions to acknowledge racial and linguistic diversity.
“Broken” is an understatement when describing the current educational
system in the United States. Too many children are being robbed of the
opportunity to access quality education due to failures at all levels of the
governmental, social, and economic hierarchies. The current political climate in the
United States transmits divisive rhetoric shifting the views of uneducated and
xenophobic voters. Diversity makes us smarter and was the foundation of the
United States. Now we need to work on transforming what diversity looks like in
our schools to create a 21st century solution.
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Works Cited
Barnum, M. (2016). 12 Things to Know About **School Segregation** – and How
Integration Helps Students. Retrieved from
Kahlenberg, R. (2008, June 2). The New Look of School Integration. Retrieved from
Legal Information Institute Staff. (2016, June 13). Equal Protection. Retrieved from
Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved July 30,
2018, from
Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS) v. Seattle School District No. 1. (n.d.).
Oyez. Retrieved July 30, 2018, from
Stuart Wells, A., Fox, L., & Cordova-Cobo, D. (2016, February 09). How Racially
Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students. Retrieved from
The Century Foundation. (2016, February 10). The Benefits of Socioeconomically
and Racially Integrated Schools and Classrooms. Retrieved from
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