American School Board Journal June 2014 : Page 22

Pittsburgh Superintendent Linda Lane 22 • JUNE 2014

Separate and Unequal

Del Stover

Six decades after the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, are demographics and economics resegregating our schools?

The pace is energetic in the early-morning civics class at Milliones University Preparatory School in Pittsburgh. Teacher Lisa Fevola encourages her ninth-grade students to plan individual service projects with a real-life, practical impact on their school or community. The teens toss out ideas: Pick up neighborhood trash. Lobby the city to combat speeding on local streets. Discourage bullying in the school.

“What can you do to make a difference?” Fevola asks. “How do you plan on making a difference?”

It’s a scene that belies the ceaseless criticism leveled at public education these days. In this inner-city classroom, students are learning. They are demonstrating higher-level thinking skills. This classroom could be viewed as an example of the culmination of the promise of Brown v. Board of Education—the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned state-sanctioned school segregation and mandated equality and equity in the education of all American schoolchildren.

Yet, one glaring fact undermines this uplifting premise: Every student in the classroom is black.

No serious integration exists at Milliones, and Pittsburgh school officials can’t do anything about it. The city’s demographics conspire against them. The school draws its students from the highly segregated Hill District, a predominately black neighborhood, where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty level.

As a result, nearly 95 percent of the students are black. Despite a small magnet program on campus, only a handful of white students are enrolled. Brown may have launched the nation’s effort to integrate the public schools, but on the court ruling’s 60th anniversary, the legacy of “separate but equal” still has a foothold at this campus.

“Because of segregated residential patterns ... we have some schools that are nearly 100 percent African-American,” says Superintendent Linda Lane. “But I feel that it is very important that schools, no matter what their demographic makeup, are strong schools. They have to be strong schools, and so we’re focused on [that].”


Strong schools, but not integrated schools: It’s a goal that many school leaders have little choice but to accept, particularly in parts of their district where neighborhood lines are sharply divided by race and income.

Yet it is a perilous path for school policymakers to walk. As research has consistently made clear—and as the Supreme Court acknowledged in its Brown ruling—segregation can have a negative impact on children’s educational attainment, regardless of the level of equity in buildings, teachers, and resources. “Separate educational facilities,” the high court said in 1954, “are inherently unequal.”

Few would argue against the notion that a diverse student population in a school that offers a world-class education is the ideal. For many school leaders, however, the question is how to achieve it. The federal courts have put severe limits on policies seeking to promote racial diversity in classrooms. Student busing is a relic of another era. Magnet programs don’t encourage large groups of students to change schools.

What’s more, communities strongly support neighborhood schools, even if enrollments mirror the racial segregation of the district as a whole. Even the growth of charter schools is alleged to be exacerbating the division of students along racial lines.

It doesn’t help matters that the public shows little interest in promoting classroom diversity. Parents want good schools nearby for their children. No one likes the idea of racially isolated classrooms, but no one sees easy solutions, either. So “separate but equal” is tolerated, even if it is somewhat discomforting. “Even within the African-American community, we’re in conflict on this,” Lane says. “I admit that I’m conflicted on it.”


Sometimes it seems as if only urban school boards are taking any real interest in the issue. In Louisville, Ky., the Jefferson County school board continues its policy of drawing school attendance boundaries with an idea to improve school diversity.

After a 2007 federal court ruling overturned its use of race in school integration policy decisions, the school board stood firm in its commitment to promote diversity in its schools. It broadened its definition of diversity to include family income, family education level, and the level of poverty in neighborhoods. It offers incentives through its magnet school program for parents to choose schools beyond their neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the Omaha, Neb., metropolitan area can boast of its Learning Community initiative. It’s a partnership of city and suburban school systems that funnels extra money to high-needs schools, seeks to close the achievement gap in racially segregated schools, and creates school choice options that offer opportunities to promote more school diversity.

Yet, while a number of school boards do what they can, the demographic, political, and cultural tides are running against them, particularly in urban areas. At one time, North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was a national model of school desegregation. But a 1997 lawsuit challenged the school board’s use of race in student assignments. A later court ruling lifted the district’s federal desegregation order that included mandatory student busing.

Eventually, the demand for neighborhood schools eroded the options of school officials, and the number of schools with a minority enrollment above 90 percent has climbed precipitously over the years.

Demographics also have worked against the school system in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, just outside Washington, D.C., where the number of white students has declined from 28 percent to under 5 percent over the past two decades. By 2004, court-ordered busing came to an end, and the district dismantled many of its magnet programs because of their cost and the recognition that their use in promoting diversity was a hopeless cause.

Indeed, demographics are working against integration across the nation. White student enrollment nationally fell 9 percentage points between 2000 and 2010, and before the end of this decade, the majority of school-aged children will be racial minorities.

In a growing number of states, Hispanic students increasingly are segregated in schools with a largely Hispanic enrollment, reports the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles. As for blacks: “In spite of declining residential segregation for black families and a large-scale movement to the suburbs in most parts of the country, school segregation remains very high for black students.”


Some educators question whether any energy should be put into seeking diverse schools. Many are rethinking the meaning of diversity. Why talk about integrating schools in Detroit, where less than 3 percent of students are white? And what if a school has a rich mix of black, Hispanic, and Asian students? Isn’t that racially diverse? Wasn’t the real goal of Brown to ensure that all students get a good education—and achieve equality and equity of outcomes, with integration simply a tool to achieve that?

On another side of the argument: Are equal educational outcomes attainable without integration? Decades of research have shown that, where minorities are highly segregated, schools are more likely to receive less financial support, hire less-qualified teachers, and achieve lower academic outcomes.

Such inequities even occur within school districts, where schools serving middle-class students have been known to draw more funding than high-needs schools. Urban school boards have long fought against this historic tendency. In Baltimore, Boston, New York City, and San Francisco, among others, school boards have established weighted funding formulas to direct additional resources to high-needs students in high-poverty schools.

In Charlotte, the school board created a Strategic Staffing Initiative that has garnered national recognition for placing teams of high-performing principals, teachers, and staff in schools that are in particular trouble.

Such efforts make a difference in closing the achievement gap. But it may not be enough. Some research suggests that segregation, in and of itself, pulls down student achievement. A study by the Century Foundation, for example, found that low-income students who were enrolled in affluent elementary schools did much better than similarly low-income students attending high-poverty schools.

Some suggest that low-income students are influenced by the higher aspirations of affluent students who are thinking ahead to college, and by the higher expectations that teachers hold for these students. A strong link exists between family income and race in the nation, which may explain why highly segregated students—often from low-income families—gain subtle advantages from more integrated settings.

To Barbara Seals Nevergold, president of the Buffalo, N.Y., school board, school leaders need to think hard about how diversity should be defined—and its role in education policymaking.

“Diversity should mean more than cultural or ethnic diversity. It has to do with levels of achievement,” she says. “Having students in classes where you have different levels of achievement, where you see individuals who achieve and who essentially provide some example or incentive or influence on their peers to achieve. We never talk about that. But I think that’s an important issue about diversity that needs discussion.”

Yet the same obstacles to integrating schools by race will hamper efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity. What’s more, the growth of charter schools may be adding a new wrinkle. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, the number of white-majority charter schools rose from 11 to 37 between 2000 and 2010, raising concerns that charters may be the 21st century venue for white flight, reports the New York Times .

A more disturbing trend may be how charters harden the segregation of black students, in part because so many charters have been established in urban areas. “Charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area,” observes a 2012 report by the Civil Rights Project.

What’s more, because charters often are located in urban areas, “black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings.”


In the end, no one is suggesting that racially segregated schools—even those with high levels of poverty—cannot provide a high-quality education to their students. “Poverty is a challenge, but it’s not an excuse,” says John Marshall, assistant superintendent of diversity, equity, and poverty programs for Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools.

Yet high concentrations of poverty are a huge obstacle. Despite billions of dollars provided in federal Title I funds and state categorical aid, urban schools have yet to find the magic formula that pulls high-poverty schools to high levels of academic attainment. New Jersey’s Camden Public Schools, for example, now spends snearly $24,000 per student, yet only half of all students achieve even basic levels of proficiency in reading and writing. The district’s graduation rate was 37 percentage points below the state average in 2012.

School board member Barbara Coscarello, who also serves on NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) Steering Committee, has her own theory for the struggles of Camden—and other urban school districts nationwide. Students in high-poverty neighborhoods grapple with social, medical, and mental health issues that will prevent successful learning, at least until their school boards accept that a much greater investment is needed in wraparound services.

“We don’t take a holistic approach to the needs of our students,” she says. “We should have in our schools all the resources that a child and family need in order for the child to do well in school. Some say that’s not the role of education, but I can’t see how it can’t be our role in this day and age. Too many of our kids aren’t learning.”

Whatever strategies are pursued, all school leaders can do is push harder to make a difference.

“A lot has changed since Brown ,” Marshall says. “But we’ve not gotten all the way there, and things aren’t as good as they should be. But what we have in Jefferson County is a clear movement forward. We’re building upon Brown . But we can’t be complacent that some of our schools are integrated. We can’t be complacent when there are not a lot of [minority] students in Advanced Placement courses, but they are in special education classes. We have to be culturally responsible … we need to set expectations that all children can achieve.”

Del Stover ( is a senior editor of American School Board Journal. A verison of this article first appeared in Urban Advocate.

Camden, N.J.

Charters put a twist on segregation

Despite concerns that charter school admissions policies will further divide students by race or family income, that outcome isn’t likely in Camden, N.J., where minorities comprise 80 percent of the population and most families are poor or working class.

The danger is that charters are proving to be increasingly popular among those families who have a keen interest in their children’s education, says school board member Barbara Coscarello. Her concern is that charters may siphon away the most academically motivated students—those who serve as an inspiration for their peers.

“Who will be left for the public schools to serve are the most disaffected youth,” she says. “What do we do with these remaining children, if those who end up in our traditional schools are only the students with the greatest needs?”

Los Angeles

Easing the isolation of ELLs

It’s ironic that school officials in Los Angeles came under fire last winter for a plan that, to some, appeared to segregate English learners (ELLs).

The intent was quite the opposite.

Where ELLs are struggling, a new pullout program seeks to accelerate English acquisition and boost their academic success, says Hilda Maldonado, director of multilingual and multicultural education. Students still attend core classes with their peers.

This specialized instruction, she adds, actually should ease the isolation of ELLs by improving their ability to communicate and socialize with their peers and improve their access to more advanced coursework. “We want our kids to have a chance at the idea of Brown—where kids have an equal shot at college and career readiness.”


A regional strategy for diversity

In 2007, the Nebraska legislature created the Learning Community, a partnership of the Omaha Public Schools and 10 surrounding districts designed to reduce disparities in local funding and promote more socioeconomic diversity in schools.

One of the most important roles of the program is putting additional funds and improved preschool services into high-poverty, highly segregated schools in the city of Omaha. It also has allowed more than 2,200 students annually to attend other schools across the region, creating new educational opportunities for students and providing for a small improvement in diversity in some schools.

The program is not without its critics, many of whom appear to be unhappy with the diversion of additional money into the city schools. Last year, a group of state lawmakers introduced a bill to dismantle the partnership, and even the governor has questioned whether the program is needed.


A powerful focus on teachers

Although Pittsburgh is among the most heavily segregated cities in the nation in terms of residential housing, the overall city population retains a sizable white population.

That demographic fact has given the school system the raw material to promote racial diversity in a number of schools, although very segregated schools like Milliones University Preparatory School continue to serve their similarly segregated neighborhoods.

To ensure that such racially isolated schools offer an equitable education to their students, “one of our strategic priorities is getting high-quality teachers for the kids that need them the most,” says Superintendent Linda Lane.

Strong supports for teachers are a major strategy in meeting that goal, she adds. “What we hear from teachers is that there has to be a school leader [at the school} that they feel confident is going to have their backs ... and there must be a strong teaching and learning environment.”



Plessy ruling

U.S. Supreme Court embraces “separate but equal” policy, offering legal protection for school segregation.


Gong Lum v. Rice

Chinese student can be defined as non-white for segregation purposes.


Public opinion

Almost one-third of all Americans express support for integrated schools. In Southern states, however, integration has the support of 2 percent of the populace.


Westminster School Dist. v. Mendez

A federal appeals court strikes down segregated schools for Mexican Americans.


Brown v. Board of Education

U.S. Supreme Court bans school segregation, declaring separate schools “inherently unequal” and pushing the nation into a tumultuous policy debate over integration.


Brown II

High court calls for school desegregation “with all deliberate speed.”


Public opinion

Nearly half of Americans express support for integrated schools. In the South, 15 percent now agree that blacks and whites should sit in the same classrooms.

National Guard called

The governor of Tennessee calls out the National Guard after white protestors seek to block desegregation of a high school.


Little Rock protests

The 101st Airborne Division and National Guard are called to the Arkansas capital to provide protection for nine black students integrating Central High School.


Washington, D.C., march

A crowd of 25,000 marches in the nation’s capital in support of school desegregation.


Public opinion

Nearly three-quarters of Americans—including 31 percent of Southerners—voice support for integration.


Civil Rights Act

Title IV of this act authorizes the federal government to file school desegregation cases.


Green v. School Board of New Kent County

U.S. Supreme Court orders segregated schools to be dismantled “root and branch.” The court identifies criteria to gauge compliance with desegregation orders.


Swann v. Charlotte- Mecklenburg

High court approves strategies—busing, magnet schools, etc.—to promote integrated schools.


Special education protections

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits schools from discriminating against students with mental or physical impairments.


Milliken v. Bradley

By rejecting metropolitan-wide desegregation plans, the high court seriously undermines hope of urban school integration. Chinese students sue High court rules that San Francisco schools must provide instruction to students with limited English proficiency.

Chinese students sue

High court rules that San Francisco schools must provide instruction to students with limited English proficiency.


‘Soiling of Old Glory’

During protests against Boston school desegregation, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a flag-wielding protestor highlights the divisions over school desegregation.


Integration peaks

Almost 45 percent of black students attend majority-white schools. In later years, the nation sees public schools reverse course and become increasingly segregated by race.


Board of Ed. of Oklahoma City v. Dowell

New rules allow school systems to free themselves from court desegregation orders. In Oklahoma City, schools undermine desegregation efforts with a focus on neighborhood schools.


Race-based policies barred: Charlotte, N.C.

White parents seek an end to the desegregation plan in the city-county school system, and a federal court judge bars the use of race in future student assignments.


Parents Involved

U.S. Supreme Court rules against voluntary school integration plans, leading to an escalation in the resegregation of the nation’s schools.


Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

By upholding a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans the use of racial preferences in college admissions, the high court raises new legal obstacles that could limit school diversity policies.

VIDEO EXTRA: Go to to view a video accompanying this article to deepen your understanding of resegregation after Brown.

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