Decades later, segregation reappearing in public schools


At this year's middle school and high school graduations, you may notice something: Our public schools are getting more segregated.

Educator and author Jonathan Kozol writes about the troubling trend in his recent book, Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. He notes that in Chicago, by the 2000-2001 academic year, 87 percent of public school enrollment was black or Hispanic; less than 10 percent of children in the schools were white.

In Philadelphia and Cleveland, 78 percent was black or Hispanic.

In Los Angeles, 84 percent.

In Baltimore, 88 percent.

In New York City, nearly 75 percent.

According to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, the Midwest now has the largest concentration of black students in extremely segregated schools, followed by schools in the Northeast.

In Omaha, Neb., the process of resegregation was exposed recently when the state legislature passed a law that will create three separate school districts in that city by 2008 - one predominantly white, one predominantly Latino and one predominantly black.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954 with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, stating that separate cannot be equal. Defending that principle, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed suit May 15 challenging the Nebraska law.

The law's backers say it will give Omaha's new districts more autonomy while also pooling their tax base with adjacent suburban districts. State Sen. Ernie Chambers, the lone black senator, supports the district splitting, arguing that black students are already segregated in their schools and that black parents can now have more control over their kids' education.

But the new law undermines the success of integration in Omaha.

From 1976 to 1999, Omaha had court-ordered busing to integrate its schools. And the plan worked. In 1970, black students attended schools that were only 33 percent white. By 1980, after four years of busing, that changed to 66 percent white students. But by 2003, four years after busing was ended, the schools that black kids attended were only 49 percent white.

Nebraska's mushrooming Latino population - which grew by 155 percent from 1990 to 2000 - has accentuated the trend of resegregation in Omaha.

The flight of white students to surrounding suburban districts - and the accompanying loss of resources - prompted the Omaha public school system to declare in June 2005 that it would annex 25 schools from three districts that lay within Omaha city limits.

The school district aimed to reverse the growing segregation of poor, black and Latino students in their schools and to increase their tax base. The new law would make official the kind of segregation that Omaha schools wanted to fix.

The city's conundrum is playing out across the nation, especially in the decade since federal courts overturned busing programs that helped integrate public schools.

Those who say consciously promoting integration is no longer necessary also like to talk about parental choice and school accountability. But segregated schools can never be dressed up to be acceptable, educationally or legally.

Only when children of all economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds can learn together will we as a country learn to accept our neighbors, whatever language they speak, whatever color their skin.

Annette Fuentes is an adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia University graduate school of journalism. Her e-mail is

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