December 5, 2006

The final death of race-conscious desegregation

Given the news stories after yesterday's oral argument in the Seattle and Louisville cases, it seems clear that the Supreme Court is going to strike down desegregation plans that are

  • not court-ordered
  • cognizant of race in any formulaic sense

Affirmative action in the individualized way that Sandra Day O'Connor accepted in the Michigan law school case a few years ago may survive, but you can't do that in K-12 school systems except in districts so small that the practice won't affect more than a tiny proportion of students.

The court may change with a different president, reversing whatever opinions are written here, but I suspect some school districts will go the Raleigh route and try to rewrite desegregation plans to focus on social class. I don't think those will be any less divisive, but my guess is that they'll withstand court scrutiny: in the Rodriguez case many years ago, the court said that social class was not the suspect classification basis that race was.

However, I expect that most of the (few) remaining desegregation plans will simply be dismantled. That doesn't mean we're returning entirely to the days of separate-and-unequal: wealthy parents will be able to buy access to desegregated schooling. And parents who are willing to bus their kids across town will sometimes have access to desegegated schooling. (Both of my children attended a magnet middle school where the student population was more diverse than their zoned middle school.) And without desegregation plans, there will be some low-level exposure to children of other races in the majority of schools.

But our society has missed a tremendous opportunity that opened up for it, first in the late 1950s when massive resistance blocked the first efforts to desegregate schools and again in the 1970s when school districts could have responded to busing orders with efforts to change the housing market.* As many others have written, residential segregation limits the extent of school desegregation.

Where do we go from here? I wish I knew. I am not sanguine about the claims that accountability and choice will solve the multiple problems of schools that are entirely segregated and serve students in poor neighborhoods. Nor am I claiming that desegregation was any cure-all. But there is something immensely sad about knowing that a moment has passed and that the country has irrevocably lost an opportunity.

* In my fantasy, Southern school systems would have made two policy choices to reshape housing markets: Telling developers that they would reward new mixed-income housing with truly neighborhood, walkable schools; and asking judges to exempt from busing orders any neighborhood that became and remained stably desegregated.

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Posted in Education policy on December 5, 2006 8:46 PM |