by Max Brantley
Integration matters, just as plaintiffs proved conclusively in the underpinnings of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Today's Supreme Court finds considered desegregation discriminatory and has hurried the march back to separate and unequal forms of education.
Good op-ed on the subject in today's New York Times by David Kirp, a California professor who's written a book about ways to transform today's children. If you read it all, you'll see he's not making the case that all past desegregation plans, particularly by-the-numbers busing, were necessarily carried out well. But he makes a good point, for example, about the worth of magnet schools that produce integrated school settings in urban school districts. Arkansas "reformers" want to kill those in Little Rock that haven't already been killed. But a "hostile" Supreme Court makes such new efforts in this direction unlikely, he concludes. Too bad.
To the current reformers, integration is at best an irrelevance and at worst an excuse to shift attention away from shoddy teaching. But a spate of research says otherwise. The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.
Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.
Kirp explains that "race mixing" didn't improve results, but a shared interest in all children helped, plus the proven advantage of mixing children of different economic strata.
Despite its flaws, integration is as successful an educational strategy as we’ve hit upon. As the U.C.L.A. political scientist Gary Orfield points out, “On some measures the racial achievement gaps reached their low point around the same time as the peak of black-white desegregation in the late 1980s.”