The Supreme Court and School Desegregation

Panel debates new report by Doug Harris that shows desegregated learning environments are better for minority students.

The Supreme Court will hear two landmark school desegregation cases today to decide the constitutionality of “controlled choice” programs in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky that allow parents a variety of school choices while still ensuring some degree of racial integration.

The Center for American Progress hosted an event last week to discuss a new exhaustive analysis on the academic benefits of desegregated schooling. Professor Doug Harris, Affiliated Scholar for the Center for American Progress, surveyed over 22,000 schools representing 18 million students across the country and concluded that controlled choice and other forms of desegregation create better educational environments, especially for minority students.

The panel included Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Professor of Law and History at the University of Virginia School of Law; Douglas N. Harris, Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Florida State University and Affiliated Scholar at the Center for American Progress; Francisco M. Negrón, Associate Executive Director and General Counsel at the National School Boards Association; John Payton, Partner at Wilmer Hale; and Terence J. Pell, President of the Center for Individual Rights

The event kicked off with discussion of the upcoming Supreme Court cases. Groups in Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington are questioning the constitutionality of local “controlled choice” programs, which allow parents a variety of school choices while still ensuring some degree of racial integration.

The present system is overwhelmingly popular among families of all races. The court-ordered guidelines have been a great success in Jefferson County, Kentucky, for example, which is now one of the most desegregated school districts in the United States.

This illustrated the central finding of Harris’ report, which shows that racial integration improves the quality of learning outcomes for minority students. The report uses data gathered by the Bush administration for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and finds that minority students have lower achievement levels in segregated schools.

These findings raise serious questions about the Bush administration’s opposition to the controlled choice plans, given the administration’s emphasis on raising achievement in minority schools. Racial integration is a rare case where an educational policy appears to improve educational equity at little financial cost.

Diversity, in the words of panelist John Payton, “has real benefits for the kids” because it promotes tolerance and social cohesion. Tamiko Brown-Nagin agreed, saying that “Americans are overwhelmingly accepting of the principle of desegregated schooling.” These changing attitudes, she said, represent a shift from those of the 1970s, when bussing and desegregation were unpopular beliefs, especially as a matter of federal public policy.

The panelists did, however, express disagreement over the best way to confront school segregation. Terence J. Pell said the guidelines practiced in Jefferson County and Seattle do not address the root cause of segregation—academic underachievement. Segregation results from the reluctance of white parents to send their children to underperforming African American schools; specifically, he argues that “if there was no achievement gap, schools would be much more integrated.”

John Payton, coming from another angle, blamed segregation with invoking a poisonous gesture of racism. Segregation, in his opinion, is unrelated to academic underperformance in minority schools.

Report author Professor Harris cited his findings in Lost Learning, Forgotten Promises A National Analysis of School Racial Segregation, Student Achievement, and “Controlled Choice” Plans and argued that desegregation is a key prerequisite for improved academic achievement.

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