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Education Reporter

The Legacy of Brown: Many Blacks Now
Resist Burdens of Integration
School Choice May Offer Way to Succeed Where Busing Has Failed
The 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in May occasioned much reflection in the media on the impact of the ban on racial segregation in schools. The most interesting example was a New York Times article on the trend toward legal challenges of desegregation orders by minority families that were supposed to be the beneficiaries of integration through busing.

"For many families, the benefits of mandatory integration have simply not been worth the burden it may bring," the article stated. "Critics of mandatory integration contend that there is nothing wrong with having predominantly black schools . . . . [T]he fatigue of busing their children for hours each day, only to see them do poorly at predominantly white schools, has led some black parents to almost yearn for the type of tight-knit network of black educators that integration disbanded." (5-06-04)

"Black folks were saying: Were tired of being bused. Why cant we have schools here?" said Vernon Dixon, president of the Nashville branch of the NAACP, which helped advise black parents in Nashville who agreed to dissolve a busing order.

"I find enormous nostalgia for the world pre-Brown," Harvard law professor Lani Guinier told the Times. "People feel like what was lost was a sense of community."

While hundreds of school districts are still under court desegregation decrees that have been in place for decades, since 1990 more than 100 districts have been released. In Louisville, KY, it was black families who successfully sued to dismantle the court order there.

Besides the inconvenience of long hours on buses, minority families resent being denied access to the public school of their choice in the name of racial balance.

Racial balance has become progressively harder for school districts to achieve as white flight has drained inner cities of white students. Nationwide, 70% of black students now attend schools in which racial minorities are the majority.

A 1998 poll by the research group Public Agenda found that 82% of whites and 62% of blacks opposed making children leave their neighborhoods to create racially balanced schools.

Vouchers as the new civil right?
Milton Friedman
Milton Friedman

Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who has advocated school vouchers since 1955, believesthat only school choice will provide the equal educational opportunity to minorities that Brown envisioned but could not deliver.

"What Brown ordered was an end to separate but equal. But you cant end separate but equal without ending compulsory assignment to a public school," he told the Wall Street Journal, which editorialized that "From the vantage point of Brown we can now see that vouchers have become the cornerstone for a fundamental civil right." (5-17-04)

Milwaukee, Cleveland, San Antonio and Washington, DC have led the way with city school-choice programs, and there are now at least 13 state school-choice programs in place.

New evidence competition helps

Voucher programs have proven beneficial to public as well as private schools, because competition forces improvement. A newly published peer-reviewed study by Manhattan Institute researchers found that vouchers improve public schools in Florida. Schools forced to compete with vouchers made extraordinary gains on the states standardized tests compared with other public schools. (educationnext.org/20043/66.html)

This study by Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters corroborates a similar conclusion reached by Harvard economist Carolyn Hoxby after an examination of well-established voucher programs around the country. (See Education Reporter, May 2004.)

Even the limited choice provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act open another route for students trapped in poor public schools to obtain a better education. An analysis by the Chicago Board of Education found that Chicago public school students who transferred to new schools under NCLB improved their academic performance. NCLB allows students at schools that do not meet state standards for reading and math for two consecutive years to transfer to better-performing schools, although in practice there may be few available slots for such transfers. (School Reform News, June 2004)

Clearly, many urban school districts are in a state of crisis and any competition would be better than none. For example, a new report by a national urban education group found that the St. Louis Public Schools lack focus, have little sense of urgency and hold no one accountable when students fail to learn.

Taking aim at a "culture of lethargy," the report by the Council of the Great City Schools criticized nearly everyone involved in the education of students in the city of St. Louis, from administrators who let $5.3 million in textbooks sit unused in a warehouse to parents who push schools to label their children mentally retarded so they can obtain government benefits. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5-6-04)

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