Sixty years ago, Brown v. Board of Education ended formal school segregation. Focusing attention on black subjugation, the ruling also sparked “freedom rides,” sit-ins, voter registration efforts, and other actions leading to civil rights legislation in the late 1950s and 1960s. But Brown was unsuccessful in its own mission—ensuring equal educational outcomes for blacks and whites.
There were initial integration gains following Brown, especially in the South, but these stalled after courts stopped enforcing desegregation in the 1980s. Low-income black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated now than then. Segregation persists as a central feature of American schooling.
Certainly, African American student achievement has improved dramatically in recent decades, although politically popular and conventional commentary ignores this. We don’t have reliable achievement measures from 1954, but have good recent data from the federal sampled test of math and reading, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It shows, for example, that on average, black fourth-graders now do math as well as or better than whites did only a generation ago. Yet because white achievement has also improved, the black-white gap remains, making the Brown litigants’ hopes for equal employment qualification a distant goal. Average black students still perform better than only about 25 percent of whites.
Schools for black children had enormous resource shortages in 1954, especially in the South. Inequalities still exist, there and nationwide, but are relatively small overall. We now understand, however, that equality is itself insufficient; disadvantaged students require many more resources than middle class whites to prepare for school success.
Children with less literate parents are read to less frequently. Compensation requires high-quality early childhood programs, from birth. Public discussion has barely acknowledged this, mostly supporting prekindergarten classes beginning only at ages 3 or 4. Early childhood programs, as well as nurse home-visiting services that support more effective maternal caregiving, are necessary, but expensive.
The most important predictor of later academic success is young children’s general background knowledge. Having visited a zoo predicts reading ability better than knowing how to sound-out letters that spell animal names. For older youth, participation is necessary in after-school and summer programs that don’t stop at academic remediation and homework help, but include organized athletics, field trips, club activity and music, art, and dance, comparable to what middle-class children take for granted. This, too, is costly.
For young minority children from lower-social-class backgrounds, smaller classes can boost achievement, because in them, children get more adult attention. Class size reduction is also costly. So is ensuring that disadvantaged children have teachers more skilled (and with different skills) than typical, well-qualified teachers of middle-class children.
Racially isolated communities typically have fewer primary care physicians, so children receive less routine and preventive health care (even with Medicaid or private health insurance), contributing to greater absenteeism. They also have unique health problems contributing to lower achievement—for example, iron-deficiency anemia and lead poisoning, or asthma from living in less healthy environments. They tend not to get corrective lenses for vision problems. Putting full-service health clinics, with pediatric nurse practitioners, optometrists, dentists and dental hygienists, in schools serving disadvantaged students is an added component of narrowed achievement gaps.
All these added resources – early childhood care and education, after school and summer programs, smaller classes, better teachers, full service clinics – are expensive, yet even in the unlikely event we were prepared to make these investments, students will rarely be successful in racially and economically isolated schools where learning is disrupted because families’ unstable housing leads to frequent moves, disrupting learning; where involvement of more-educated parents is absent; and where students lack adult and peer models of educational success. When a few children in a classroom come from homes with less literacy, a skilled teacher can give those children special attention. But when most children have these disadvantages, the average instructional level must decline. When most or even many children are sorely stressed, having endured life in a violent neighborhood, teachers must devote more time to discipline, less to learning.
Schools remain segregated today because neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. Raising achievement of low-income black children requires residential integration, from which school integration can follow.
What few, even among sophisticated policymakers, realize is that the segregation of our major metropolitan areas was the product of explicit public policy. These housing policies were as unconstitutional as separate-but-equal education, yet have never been remedied. Congress adopted the 1949 Housing Act, subsidizing public housing construction nationwide, only after voting to permit racial segregation of the projects. As a result, projects for African Americans were placed only in neighborhoods where the black population could be concentrated, while projects for middle class whites were placed outside the ghetto. With the black population increasingly encircled in central cities, federal policy complemented public housing for blacks with suburban single family homes for whites. This was also explicit policy. When the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration guaranteed construction loans for mass production suburban builders, an explicit condition was attached that no homes be sold to black families. Iconic developments like the Levittowns on the East Coast, Daly City south of San Francisco, and Lakewood south of Los Angeles received federal guarantees on condition that they be white-only. Similar racially homogenous suburbs were created by federal policy in many, perhaps most other metropolitan areas between the two coasts.
This history is not easily undone. White working class families that moved to these suburbs in the late 1940s and 1950s subsequently benefited from equity appreciation and used that equity to send children to college and to secure their places in the middle class. Working class African Americans not only lost the opportunity to gain housing wealth in the postwar boom, but were also excluded from job opportunities as industry moved to the suburbs in this period.
It will require public policy as aggressive to integrate suburbs as it was aggressive to segregate them. But Federal requirements that communities pursue residential integration have been unenforced, and federal programs to subsidize movement of low-income families to middle-class communities have been weak and ineffective. In most states, landlords are permitted to refuse rentals to families with housing vouchers, ensuring that those families typically remain in high poverty neighborhoods. Many suburbs have zoning ordinances that prohibit apartment or moderate income housing, effectively barring all but the most affluent families. Inadequate transportation infrastructure reinforces racial isolation because low income families who could move to middle class communities would then be without access to jobs.
Education policy is housing policy. In some small cities, or in some racial borderline areas where mostly black and mostly white neighborhoods touch, school integration can be accomplished with attendance zone modifications, magnet schools, or controlled choice programs. But most disadvantaged black children now live too far from middle class suburbs for such programs to do the job on their own. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to substantially narrow the black-white achievement gap without mobility programs that permit disadvantaged families locked in urban ghettos to integrate with the broader suburban population.