Friday, July 6, 2007

What Will We Tell Our Children?

By: Amy Stuart Wells

Amid the lawyers, policymakers and pundits debating the implications of Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the Louisville and Seattle voluntary school integration plans, came the soulful plea of an African-American mother. Interviewed on National Public Radio, Mary Myers of Louisville explained how the ruling against her local officials’ efforts to racially balance their schools may well jeopardize her two children’s school assignments and educational opportunities.

Ms. Myer’s children, ages 13 and 16, had benefited from the defeated desegregation plan because it had allowed them to attend racially diverse public schools outside of their community. Had they and their peers attended neighborhood schools, Ms. Myers noted, they would not have been exposed to people of different racial and cultural backgrounds and they would not be prepared for the incredibly diverse and global society they will soon inherit. When asked about her response to the decision, this 49-year-old mother sounded fed up: “Leave these children alone. Let them go to school together…. They have to go into the workforce and work together.”

What made the plea of this one mother so poignant in the midst of many legal arguments about what school districts can and cannot do in light of this complicated decision is that it came from her heart, it echoed the sentiments of millions of Americans, and it put the children and their experiences at the center of this controversy. Ms. Myers, who attended mostly segregated schools, could see the benefits of school desegregation first hand, and she knew the potential costs of such a ruling. “This country is on a bad road with this; This is a bad decision,” she said.

The decision clearly states that school districts cannot take individual students’ racial classifications into account when assigning them to schools. School officials can use other, generally less effective, measures to integrate their schools, however, including locating new school sites between racially distinct neighborhoods, redrawing school attendance zones (not an easy thing to do politically), or racially targeting recruitment of students or faculty to schools of choice. What the ruling means for Ms. Myers children or any of the other students in the estimated 1,000 school districts that use race-conscious policies to integrate their schools will be decided in the coming months. Some of them will be grandfathered and allowed to remain in their racially diverse schools until they graduate, but it seems likely that our schools will become more racially segregated, which goes against what millions of parents like Ms. Myers want.

In fact, Ms. Myer’s sentiment echoes that of the vast majority of parents in this country; 66% of whites and 80% of black parents say that educating their children in a racially diverse setting is either somewhat or very important. Their sentiments are backed by reams of social science research -- documented in more than 50 amicus briefs filed in these cases -- demonstrating the innumerable benefits of racial integration in public schools for students of all races.

In particular, research my colleagues and I have conducted on the long-term effects of school desegregation on the adults speaks to Ms. Myer’s central point. Since 2000, we have studied more than 300 graduates of 12 racially diverse public high schools across the country, including six schools in Louisville and Seattle. We interviewed black, white, Latino and Asian adults who graduated from these schools in the early to mid-1980s.

Now middle aged with work experience and children of their own, these graduates were not shy about sharing their stories with us. There were hardships – some long bus rides, some racial tension, some re-segregation within diverse schools in both the classrooms and lunchrooms, and some misunderstandings that were not resolved by educators who were often trying to be “colorblind” while teaching students for whom race and inequality were very salient. But despite these hardships, all but two of the graduates we interviewed said that attending a racially diverse school was worth any headaches or inconveniences and that if they could do it over again, they definitely would. In fact, the majority of these graduates said that attending these diverse public schools was one of the most valuable experiences of their lives.

When asked why their school integration experiences were so valuable, these graduates said first and foremost that it made them far more comfortable around people who are different in terms of race or ethnicity – a skill they find infinitely helpful as adults. As a white woman who graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle and now works as a social worker explained, “I definitely think that being at Garfield, in a very racially diverse school, impacted my whole sort of worldview, and it’s something I look back at all the time, and I feel like it gave me lots of benefits that people I know who were in… racially less diverse schools don’t have.”

A white male graduate of Franklin High School in Seattle explained that in his job with a global corporation he manages workers in 60 different countries. He travels to these different countries and supervises and trains this workforce. Even though his high school, with its mix of Asians, blacks and whites, was not as diverse as the mix of people now works with, he said his schooling experience provided a “step down that path of being comfortable with people of a variety of races.”

Unfortunately, fewer children will have the opportunities that these graduates had. We know from our history and from research on white flight and resegregation that the more limited measures that districts can now use to diversify their schools will likely accomplish less than Louisville and Seattle’s more pro-active choice-based assignment plans, which assured all students had choice and no school was too distinct from the demographics of the districts as a whole. Such plans help to integrate all schools across a district and thus create greater equality and stability. But they are now outlawed, and we need to think of what we will tell our children – Ms. Myer’s, mine, yours – when they ask, as my 8-year-old did on June 28th, what this decision means for them and their diverse public schools. Perhaps Justice Roberts has an answer for them. I am speechless.

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