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Apartheid in Our Schools

When President Obama took office in January 2009, the UCLA’s Civil Rights Project reported that segregation patterns in public schools “were far worse in 2006 than in 1988.’’ Eighteen months later, a new study has shown how much worse the patterns are. Diversitydata.org, supported by the Kellogg Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, has published figures compiled by Northeastern University researchers that found “gross levels of disparity.’’

Mocking any rhetoric about democracy and equal opportunity, the new study says children of color “continue to attend very different schools than white children.’’ That is a polite way of saying we are reverting to what the Kerner Commission Report on urban unrest found: “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.’’

In Chicago, the average black student goes to a public school that is 74 percent black while the average white student goes to a school that is 6 percent black. Boston was among the 10 worst major metropolitan areas in its ratios of segregation for African-American and Latino students, and third for white students having the lowest exposure to fellow students in poverty.

Diversitydata.org found that 43 percent of both Latino and African-American students attend schools where the poverty rate is more than 80 percent. Only 4 percent of white students do. The report said, “issues of persistent high racial/ethnic segregation and high exposure of minority children to economic disadvantage at the school level remain largely unaddressed.’’

There is no surprise in these results. The drumbeat of resegregation data has played to an indifferent nation since the 1990s. The world’s richest nation remains arrogantly comfortable with a system hurtling backward toward a modern apartheid. Nothing need be done as long as families of means, who are disproportionately white, can secure K-12 educations in the suburbs and private schools, or commandeer elite public schools such as Boston Latin (which killed affirmative action years ago under the threat of lawsuits).

The most curious thing about the interval between the UCLA report and the new one is the silence from the White House. This has led to growing disenchantment from education experts. Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, said, “There are school districts out there that haven’t given up figuring out legal ways to integrate their schools, but they’re not getting any support from Washington.’’

Civil Rights Project director Gary Orfield said, “Obama has hired good people, but they’re not getting the job done. They’re not coming up with imaginative proposals.’’ Diversitydata.org research analyst Nancy McArdle said, “We’re not seeing the mobility strategies at either the national, state, or local levels that could break these patterns. Proven programs in Massachusetts, like Metco, keep getting cut or level funded.’’

It does not take long to realize why there is no leadership yet from Washington. Three years ago, the Supreme Court, in a bitterly divided 5-4 decision, threw out voluntary school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. The Bush administration, which actively sought to kill affirmative action in education, jumped on the ruling and had the Education Department issue a memorandum saying it “strongly encourages the use of race-neutral methods for assigning students.’’

The memorandum made no mention of the opinion in that case of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted with the majority. But he also said “the problem of de facto resegregation in schooling’’ may allow districts to make a case for “avoiding racial isolation’’ with narrowly-tailored plans that include race as one component.

Education advocates hoped the Obama administration would have by now offered its own, more helpful guidance on voluntary integration programs. In an administration that feels that some racial issues are a third rail for an African-American president, this has not happened. Obama’s big education speech this summer to the Urban League made no mention of school resegregation. He talked plenty about his Race to the Top contest to fight the achievement gap, but racial desegregation is not part of that fight. Children of color continue to be exposed to disproportionate disadvantages that make the gap almost impossible to close. Until Obama publically connects the two, consider the issue “unaddressed.’’

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