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Why some states can and others can't desegregate schools
Despite more than a half century court rulings and federal laws mandating integrated schools, American schools remain racially segregated. - photo by Omar Etman
Despite more than a half century court rulings and federal laws mandating integrated schools, American schools remain racially segregated.

"The percentage of African American students attending majority white schools has been in decline since 1988, and it is now at its lowest point in almost half a century, Think Progress recently reported.

The article keyed off a two-part series that aired earlier this month on the radio program, "This American Life."

The problem is more complex than white flight from formerly diverse neighborhoods. The realities of the school funding system, according to education non-profit EdBuild, doom schools in poor neighborhoods to inescapable poverty.

Most children are enrolled in district schools that receive, on average, nearly half of their funding through local property taxes," reports the EdBuild website. "This system incentivizes boundaries between upper- and lower-income communities. Intentional or not, these invisible walls often concentrate education dollars within affluent school districts, and ensure that low-income students are kept on the outside.

Schools with heavy concentrations of students living in extreme poverty, then, are likely to stay that way unless the mix of students changes.

In part one of the broadcast, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones explored the Missouri high school from which Michael Brown graduated before he was killed by a police officer last year. After losing accreditation, the school was disbanded. Students were sent to neighboring districts, most of which were majority white, which meant better student test scores and school resources.

After a year, Test scores for 8th and 10th grade transfer students rose. The transfer students were more likely to graduate and go onto college. In surveys, white students overwhelmingly said they'd benefited from the opportunity to be educated alongside black students, Hannah-Jones reported.

In part two, Chana Joffe-Walt looks into the successful integration efforts in Hartford, Connecticut. Instead of busing black students to majority white schools, educators and activists encouraged the parents of white students that it was in their children's best interest to enroll them in a diverse school, one located in a "bad" neighborhood but with resources even the homogenous suburban schools lacked thanks to heavy investment from the state.

"The results have been impressive," Joffe-Walt reported. "It used to be that 11 percent of Hartford students were in integrated schools. Now it's nearly half."

New York City is currently experimenting with desegregation tactics of its own. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the School Diversity Accountability Act into law. The new law requires schools to provide detailed demographics data. Its a first step, for sure, but the new policy doesnt do much beyond establish support for diverse schools in principle, Matt Collette wrote in Slate. The citys charter schools are diverse by design, something most ordinary public schools are not.

Toward the end of part one, Hannah-Jones interviewed the new superintendent of the Missouri school district after the state had allowed it to reopen. He told her that the school intends to reinvest in its teachers and resources customary reform tactics. As historian and teacher John Thompson explained in The Huffington Post, Rather than continue with the desegregation policies that have worked, they will use policies that are doomed to fail once again.
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