July 09, 2007

What Can Brown Do For Us Now?

After the U.S. Supreme Court's recent rejection of school assignment plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle that were aimed at maintaining racial integration in schools, a variety of pundits and scholars trashed the court for sticking a fork in the most revered decision of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education. However, the ideals of Brown -- providing students with equal educational opportunities regardless of race or background -- are far from dead. What has been missing from much of the criticism of the June 28 decision is an analysis of what exactly makes integrated schooling so beneficial, and what advocates for equity in education can do within this new legal landscape to recapture those benefits.

The court's decision is potentially calamitous because it handcuffs districts that are working to achieve racial diversity, thus threatening to eliminate the proven benefits of integrated classrooms. Numerous studies have shown that students who attended racially integrated schools -- such as the students in Louisville and Seattle -- show higher levels of tolerance toward individuals of different ethnic backgrounds and an increased sense of civic engagement, when compared with peers who attended more racially isolated schools. Academically, the benefits for African-American students are immense, with studies showing higher graduation rates, larger enrollments in advanced courses, and even higher post-schooling salaries for African-American students who learned in racially integrated schools. Preliminary studies show similar benefits for Latino students. Meanwhile, the racial composition of schools has proven to have no effect on the academic achievement of white students.

Recognizing these benefits, school officials in Louisville and Seattle enacted plans aimed at maintaining racial diversity, in certain circumstances considering a student's race in making school assignments. It was this minimal use of race to achieve the districts' goals that troubled the court (or at least its majority in the 5-4 decision). In a line from the ruling that is already famous, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Brown itself actually ended discrimination on the basis of race in making school assignments. Something more than just ending discrimination has been needed to achieve Brown's ideal of providing equal educational opportunities to students of all races. Now that the court has ruled that the "something more" can no longer include consideration of race to ensure integrated schools, the question education advocates must confront is how to recapture the benefits of integrated education within the new limits of the law. One avenue that offers a particularly hopeful outlook is a shift in focus away from racial integration and toward socioeconomic integration.

The disadvantages that characterize many racially isolated schools -- inequitable resources, higher teacher turnover, fewer advanced classes -- and the lower average outcomes for students attending those schools -- higher dropout rates, lower graduation rates -- are even more pronounced in schools with high concentrations of poor students. The same educational benefits that flow to African-American and Latino students in racially integrated schools will flow to poor students of all races in schools integrated by socioeconomics.

One district that already uses this model is Wake County (Raleigh), N.C. In Wake County, where socioeconomic integration has been in practice since 2000, low-income students perform better than similarly situated students in other North Carolina districts. In addition, Wake County's minority students outperform the minority students in similar districts throughout the state. And the improved outcomes are not limited to low-income and minority students. In 2003, Wake County had the second highest graduation rate among the nation's 50 largest school districts. In addition, the cultural benefits of racially integrated schools, such as higher levels of tolerance among students, can also be captured by socioeconomically integrated schools. Unfortunately, there is a high correlation between income and race, such that creating schools with children from differing income levels is likely to have the effect of also creating schools with children from different races. Wake County, for example, has maintained much of its previous racial integration since switching from a racial to a socioeconomic integration plan in 2000. Income-based assignment plans also have the legal benefit of not triggering the strict judicial scrutiny that follows whenever a decision is made based on a student's race, making them less vulnerable to challenge.

With all due respect to Chief Justice Roberts, the way to end discrimination on the basis of race is to create a world where the playing field for individuals of all backgrounds is as level as possible. That leveling begins in our schools. Although the Supreme Court removed a critical tool in achieving opportunities that are equal for students of all races, other tools remain. It is now up to advocates of equity in education to find new ways to pursue Brown's ideals with the tools we have left. They are ideals -- with proven cultural and academic benefits -- worth fighting for.