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Should Anything Be Done To Integrate Schools?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As another school years begins, nearly 60 years after the Brown v. Board Education decision by the Supreme Court, segregation in public schools remains contentious. As court-ordered integration lapsed, public schools in many places resegregated, not under local or state laws but by choice, as racial, ethnic and economic groups formed separate communities.

Everyone agrees that desegregation presented many problems, including white flight and bussing, and that integrating the classroom and the cafeteria pose persistent difficulties as well. but many argue that integration also proved to be the best way to close the achievement gap and wonder how we can reverse the trend towards resegregation.

Parents, teachers, administrators, how do we change? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, email us your most memorable moment from a political convention; is that address again. Political Junkie Ken Rudin will join us.

But first, David Karp joins us from a studio at the U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism, where he's professor of public policy on the campus. His op-ed, "Making Schools Work," ran in the New York Times in May, and it's good of you to be with us today.

DAVID KIRP: It's a pleasure to be here

CONAN: And in that op-ed you argued desegregation is effectively dead. Tell us why we should care.

KIRP: Well, we should care because we now know, without doubt, the long-term positive benefits of desegregation, not just on the kids who went to desegregated schools. Their lives changed enormously. They stayed in school longer, they've earned more money, they've been happier, led better lives. Their kids too really escaped from poverty and into the middle class.

So desegregation proved to be a game-changer for thousands and thousands of kids.

CONAN: And as you look at the trends, though, it seemed that there was 20 years, from basically 1970 to 1990, where there was more and more integration of schools, and it's gone the other way since.

KIRP: That's right. You really began to see a decline of the integration movement in the mid-1970s with the Supreme Court's decision saying that you couldn't have metropolitan area desegregation, that desegregation had to be confined to the city. And it was tough. The cities became more and more one race. It was very hard to integrate if there weren't any white students to integrate with.

And it's also - what white parents were there became more and more frightened to send their kids to school.

It's true. That's a complicated story because white families were moving to the suburbs anyway. Suburbanization was a phenomenon that was that proceeding apace during that time. It's fair to say that desegregation accelerated that process, and it's also fair to say that it's not just the presence of blacks, but it was the presence of rapacious realtors and others that pushed the process along.

CONAN: But there are also situations where those more prosperous African-Americans moved to communities and chose to live amongst their own kind.

KIRP: There are. I think that people make very different choices. Some communities like Shaker Heights prided themselves on being integrated communities. In other cases - I mean Martha - there are enclaves in Martha's Vineyard, for example, that for years have been peopled by predominately well-off African-Americans.

So people make different - whites and blacks make different choices, have different preferences. We've done nothing in this society for a very long time to encourage integration. We've made it harder in many ways.

CONAN: And given the reality, how do you reverse it?

KIRP: I think that's very difficult to imagine because at least in terms of the schools, which is the focus of the work that I've done, the Supreme Court has effectively foreclosed any serious opportunities to reintegrate the schools. When Seattle and Louisville had very, very modest desegregation plans - they had a choice system in place; parents could pick and were guaranteed one of their top three choices.

And only in cases of - where there were ties did race play a factor. The Supreme Court by a one vote majority, five-four, overturned that. So it's very hard to imagine how it is that a school district, even one that wanted to integrate, like Seattle and Louisville, could do that.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Sheryll Cashin is the professor of law at Georgetown University, author of "The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream." It's nice to have you back on the program.

SHERYLL CASHIN: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: She's with us here in Studio 3A. And as you wrote, some parents are apprehensive about integration as communities stay racially, ethnically and economically separated.

CASHIN: Well, you know, segregation persists for a number of reasons. Some of it is choice. And I'll be the first to admit, once a school becomes racially identifiable, particularly if it's racially identifiable as black, that sends up alarm bells, you know, even among affluent African-Americans like myself.

I live in a stably integrated neighborhood, but the school that I could walk to is racially identifiable, and the number of kids on free and reduced lunch keeps jumping every year. And, you know, I'm the mother of twins, and I want to raise my future Barack Obamas, and so I'm risk-averse, and - like many other parents.

But I want to disagree with David on one point. Yes, the Supreme Court has made it very, very hard to pursue racial integration in schools, but it did not entirely close the door. You can still use economic status as a way of integrating. You can pursue economic integration, and looking at the number of kids on free and reduced lunch - and there are, you know, about two dozen school districts in the country that have economic integration programs.

So it's not that it's completely impossible. What's really going on here is that there's not an organized constituency for integration. There's a lot - there is a constituency out there, a lot of people who say, myself included, that they want integration for their child, they want to live in stably integrated neighborhoods and would love to send their kid to a stably integrated school, assuming it's high-quality.

And there's more demand for integrated neighborhoods than there are people to fill that demand. But that constituency is not organized. Meanwhile, whenever there's some proposal to further integrate schools, often the people who are - don't like concept or are fearful of that concept, they're more apt to be organized against it.

CONAN: Why, if David Karp is correct and the benefits of integration are demonstrable, why isn't it a priority? Why isn't that the policy?

CASHIN: Well, these are the hardest issues in American society today, I think. I mean let's be frank. We've had a lot of improvement in racial attitudes. Most Americans say they believe no one should be discriminated against based on race, that discrimination is un-American. But a lot of us still harbor a lot of stereotypes about the other in our head.

And he stereotype that people most fear, if you look at the studies, is black people, particularly poor black people. And so if you have a proposal, for example, to provide more affordable housing in an area, you're immediately going to get some NIMBY-ism. If you have a proposal - I've been looking at examples of efforts to integrate schools(ph) and you know, an example that comes to mind is a community in the Twin Cities area, a suburb, Eden Prairie, where a very thoughtful school supervisor, school superintendent, proposed to change the school assignment boundaries, which is something Justice Kennedy in his concurrence in the parents-involved Seattle schools case said, you can still think about race in terms of how you draw the lines.

And she proposed to change the school assignment boundaries so one particular elementary school would not be as isolated with Spanish-speaking and African immigrant children, and you'd have thought she was proposing to kill puppies, you know?

I mean, so - and I think a lot of it has to do with the stereotypes and fear of the other that people - a lot of people still harbor. I'm not saying people are racist, but I'm saying that you have to have an organized, thoughtful effort to build multiracial coalitions, to propose, you know, to propose and fight for policies of integration.

CONAN: And David Karp, I wanted to follow up on a couple of words that Sheryll Cashin used, and that was Spanish-speaking, African immigrants. Of course the Asian population in many parts of the country is burgeoning as well. Are we operating under an old paradigm where we looked at black-white primarily?

KIRP: Well, it depends on what part of the country you're in. If you've in California, it's very hard to operate under that paradigm since it's very much a population that's much more polyglot. I do think that, as Sheryll is saying, the black-white issues are the toughest.

I don't think it's an accident that Barack Obama has had less to say about race than any president in recent years, Republican or Democrat. And we have a hard time talking about that set of issues. We have a particularly hard time when it's schools, because as Sheryll was saying, talking about her own kids - whatever parents' political views are, they're very conservative, they're very risk-averse when it comes to their own children.

And we don't tell the stories of successful predominately black schools or successful predominately Latino schools, let alone the stories of successful integration, integrated schools.

She's right as well. I think it's a very important point to say that they - advocates for desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s, and I definitely count myself in that camp, thought about going to the court as an end-run around politics. And it is sometimes an end-run around politics, but that's a mistake because at the end of the day, if there isn't a political coalition behind a powerful social idea like integration, it's not going to happen.

CONAN: That's an interesting point because you've looked back at the battles over bussing in places like Boston, well, years ago now, and those left scars.

KIRP: They did indeed, and I think that the advocates - and again, I want to put myself in this camp, sometimes lost sight of the fact that we weren't just fighting about constitutional rights, we weren't just fighting about ethical issues. We were also fighting to get better education for black and white children.

And we paid less attention to what was going on inside the schools and inside the classrooms and too much attention to the numbers of blacks and whites who were sitting in those schools. We've paid for that, because the educational rationale came. The educational opportunities came, whether it's choice or magnet schools or what have you, but they came too late.

People had in their heads the notion of bussing kids across town, and Boston indeed is a - you know, Boston's one of the toughest cases because if ever there was a racially and ethnically identifiable set of communities in the country, it's going to be in Boston. So you'd expect trouble.

But I don't think, again, we did as good a job as we can of preparing both sides for the kinds of encounters that would be involved. It's a very difficult process. Again, I want to echo what Sheryll had to say. It's not get the numbers right. It's get the classrooms right. It's get the teachers' attitudes right. It's get parents understanding what the issue are.

CONAN: We're talking about the trend toward resegregated schools and how to change it. Parents, teachers, administrators, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about school segregation, still a major issue in many places, Still contentious. Our guests are David Karp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, author of "Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future"; and Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown University, author of "The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream."

A couple of years ago, Stuart Buck, author of "Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation," was interviewed by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He argued that desegregation forced many black students into schools where they were often not wanted and were rarely supported.

Segregation is like a cancer that we had to get rid of, he said, but the treatment that saved our lives had unintended side effects. In segregated schools, black children had consistently seen other blacks succeeding. In the academic world, the authority figures and role models, teachers and principals were all black. And the best students in the schools were black as well.

In that interview with Maureen Downey(ph), Buck pointed to research that shows that black students continue to be less likely than their white peers to take advanced classes and said that many black parents had to watch as their children were sent off to white schools and tracked into lower-level classes. David Karp, does he have a point?

KIRP: He does indeed have a point. He's really echoing a lot of what it is that I had to say. But I think it's important to note that during the years of integration, those were also the years in which the achievement gap between black and white is narrowing. And as integration comes to an end in the 1990s, that gap does not close further.

It would be really helpful to look inside a district like Montgomery County, which has done brilliantly both in improving achievement and in closing the gap. So if you look at...

CONAN: I think there's a Montgomery County in every state in the union.


KIRP: Sorry, Montgomery County, Maryland.


KIRP: Right next door to you. And they've done fabulously, whether it's AP courses or SAT exams or algebra in eighth grade. The gap isn't gone, but it's been narrowed hugely in the last 10 years. It isn't brain science to figure out how it is that you actually improve the lot of kids, black and white. But it does take a lot of sensitivity, and indeed I think that, you know, that concern about what happens when you have insufficient attention to race questions, unawareness of different cultural styles, of different social backgrounds, you just dump kids together, you expect teachers to cope, it's a very naive view of how it is that a potentially volatile new situation is going to get effectively addressed.

CONAN: And we'll get callers in on the conversation in a moment, but Sheryll Cashin...

CASHIN: Well, I want to add some more explanation about why I think Montgomery County, Maryland is so successful, and this is an example I often point to. Montgomery County, Maryland, yes, has - is better than many places, if not most places, in the country with narrowing the achievement gap, but it also has a phalanx of public policies on the books that promote integration in neighborhoods.

Part of the reasons why schools are so segregated today is they tend to track residential housing patterns. Well, Montgomery County, Maryland, has had on the books for five decades now, I believe, an inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires that any new development above a certain size has a certain percentage of low-income housing.

So that extraordinarily diverse county doesn't have any pockets of intense poverty, no ghetto census tracks, and that's part of the reason why you get people who are willing to be consumers of public education.

CONAN: And for those unfamiliar with it, Montgomery County is also one of the wealthier counties in the country, and its education system has been lavishly funded, and no problem was seen as too big to throw money at.

CASHIN: Well, it's not just about money. There's a constituency there for good public policies that bring all people along. And I could give you a laundry list of policies that create more integration in schools, but until we deal with the issue of consciously building interracial, preferably faith-based coalitions where people will show up at hearings and say, yes, I support this zoning ordinance, or yes, I suppose this integration plan, we're not going to get more Montgomery Counties.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email Jerry's(ph) with us from St. Louis.

JERRY: Good afternoon. I am a - I graduated in the early '90s, and I'm now a parent. My experience was that the inner city students were, as it was explained to me, in their schools, as they grew up, they - you know, any perceived insult or slight had to be answered with violence. And so then after a number of years they'd be brought into a county school and with that sort of an attitude, and the counties, the suburban students didn't live and didn't walk that way.

And it caused a huge culture clash. And so I would - my recommendation, first of all, is if you're going to do bussing, if they were to do bussing again, to start a child in a young an age, and if an older child was to be moved into deseg, some sort of cultural awareness education or something for them and for their peers to smooth that and not have that culture clash going on.

We had some huge race divisions in my education.

CONAN: And the culture, Sheryll Cashin, that's a real issue.

CASHIN: Well, I want to thank the caller for stepping into a fraught conversation. And I will acknowledge to him and all the listeners that culture matters. You take any kid that comes from a high-poverty culture, and I don't care if it's a kid in Western - you know, in Appalachia or a kid in an inner-city ghetto, there tend to be alternative norms that are not mainstream norms, some of which are necessary to personal survival but don't - are completely antithetical to middle-class values.

And it just so happens that black and Latino kids are more apt to go to a school in a high-poverty context. Only one-third of black and Latino kids in this country have the luxury of living in a middle-class neighborhood. Where do you think somebody's going to learn middle-class values if they're not exposed to them?

So the caller is right. You have to be sensitive to culture. But culture, a new culture can be learned, and there's reams of studies that show that low-income kids do better, much better, in middle-class settings. But can you just plop a kid who's growing up in a different context in a different one and not have any kind of sensitivity to that, any kind of cultural training? No.

KIRP: Let me chime in for a second.

CONAN: David Karp, go ahead.

KIRP: I spent the better part of a year in a poor, almost entirely Latino school district called Union City, New Jersey, just outside of New York. It's a fabulous place, and I think one of the things that makes it fabulous is there a culture of what they refer to as a culture of respeto, a culture of respect that exists.

And you wouldn't find the kind of violence, or for that matter the kind of backtalk, I know it all, I'm on the cell phone all the time, look at my newest iPad culture that you're going to find in those suburban schools.

I think it would be a mistake to say that you need to acculturate the inner-city kids so that they can do fine in the suburbs. I just want to make sure we're not saying that. There are values that those - the kids from places like Union City would bring that would benefit any suburban community.

CASHIN: I don't disagree with that, but I also - I'm not afraid to be honest about alternative ways of being that do exist in high-poverty ghetto neighborhoods, and I'm not afraid of talking about that. That's part of the stereotype that, yes, we have to debunk, but there is a grain of truth to every stereotype, and I'm not afraid to talk about that.

CONAN: Well, let's talk about a political reality. Do you see any political will to start bussing students again?

CASHIN: Well, I think there's a danger in suggesting that integration automatically means us reverting back to 1970s-style bussing.

CONAN: I'll take that as a no.


CASHIN: If you lead with let's go back to bussing, you're going to lose, but if you - the first place to start, I think, is with cultivating relationships. For those callers who care about this issue, you would be amazed. In every major multi - every major - I'm forgetting the word - metropolitan region in this country, there are on the ground today multiracial coalitions that are working on things, some of them surprisingly bipartisan: the Gamaliel Foundation, Industrial Areas Foundation, Building One America, churches.

And you need to get started working and building relationships where people work for the common good and work on public policies that make things better. School integration is one of those policies.

CONAN: Let's go next to Alan(ph), Allen with us from West Bloomfield in Michigan.

ALAN: Yes. I grew up in Oak Park, Michigan. When I was growing up, Oak Park, the school system was really white. And I believe it was in 1962 or '63, Royal Oak Township, which was predominantly a black school district, failed. So half the kids came to Oak Park, and half the kids came to Ferndale.

And that really created a big change in my life because I was very athletic. I played on sports teams. And I suddenly had black teammates, and it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, you know? We were friends. We went out together. We went to basketball games and football games. Sometimes my white friends would say, why are you sitting with them on the bus? I'd say, well, they're my friends, you know?

And I had the most touching thing happen at a reunion, where one of my teammates came up to me, and he said, boy, I'm really glad you came here. If there was one person I wanted to see, it would be you. And he started to cry, OK? And I said, why are you crying? And he said, because you treated us like we should be treated, OK?


ALAN: I'm not patting myself on the back. It's just, you know, what happened. And I taught school in Detroit 36 years, and we need to build schools in the inner city. We need to actually train teachers, because I'm just going to - I'm going to leave you with this comment: Teachers don't get enough credit in this country. It's really like a joke now.

When I walk into a classroom, I would see 30 sets of eyes, and I deal with 30 sets of problems, and I was never trained to deal with these problems. It's the same thing for a teacher in the suburbs, but in the inner city it's a little different, and I was never trained. You know, I have two masters, but I was never trained in graduate school to help kids that had these problems.

CONAN: Thank you very much for that call. It's...

ALAN: Thank you.

CONAN: ...interesting. And, David Kirp, I wanted to point out, an important part of your op-ed, I thought, was the research that shows that while the achievement gap was closed, it was not closed at the expense of white students during those 20 years where integration was proceeding.

KIRP: Now that's true. It's black kids that were doing better. White kids did as well as they - in integrated schools - as they'd done before when they were in all-white schools.

But I want to thank the caller and pick up on a point that Sheryll was making before. We don't spend much time focusing on examples of success, models of success, whether it's stories, like the one we just heard, or whether it's the kinds of coalition building that Sheryll was talking about. There just isn't much media attention to this. I really appreciate your doing this show in good part because it's such a rarity.

CONAN: We're talking with David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and Sheryll Cashin, a professor of law at Georgetown University. Resegregation. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Terry's(ph) on the line with us from Oklahoma City.

TERRY: Hello, Neal. I'm thrilled you're doing this, addressing this topic because I was a student during the integration and, here in Oklahoma City, the quote, "forced busing." I'm a white individual - half Hispanic, but white - and went to one of the predominantly black schools. And it really was - and I'm 58 now - one of the best things that ever happened to me.

But as you can tell, it's very close to my heart because they - I still live in Oklahoma City, and day to day I see the remnants of the return or the resistance to integration. Our private schools here are thriving. They have so much money. And the public schools are routinely bashed and denigrated. And it just hurts to see.

CONAN: And, Sheryll Cashin, that's a fiscal reality that is evident in many places across the country.

CASHIN: Yes. I mean - so if you can't achieve integration - I mean, most people will say that they think all kids, every child in America deserves a high-quality education. And the research shows that the number one predictor of school success is the socioeconomic backgrounds of the kids. So desegregating, deconcentrating poverty - high-poverty schools, it's extremely expensive to get - it's extremely difficult to get excellent education.

But if you're not willing to desegregate and give low-income kids an opportunity to learn in middle-class settings, then you need to put in extra resources. Research shows that smaller class size and sensitive teachers who've been trained to view these kids as assets and have high expectations for them can make a difference.

But in the context of, you know, a bad economy and fiscal limitations, that's almost as hard as well. And so you need political constituency building for either strategy.

CONAN: But even the state of Florida, which passed the constitutional amendment, saying you can't have class sizes over 25, and it doesn't happen.

CASHIN: Right. Because, you know - actually, frankly, integration is cheaper than trying to educate schools well in high-poverty schools, not to mention the other costs associated with high poverty.

CONAN: David Kirp, do you see this trend reversing in any form anytime soon?

KIRP: No, to be very clear. When I wrote the op-ed piece, I got so many notes from people who sounded like the last couple of callers, who are remembering the past and looking at the present and not seeing a way out. I'd like to think that you can build a coalition around class and not race because it's a less volatile issue. I'd like to think that we could go back to the days when parents made choices based on the educational value of the option.

KIRP: I think about Buffalo, New York, a very tough town which opened a Montessori school in the inner city. There was a waiting list of white families a mile long. The same is true in Washington, D.C., of the Rosemont preschool, which combines a Head Start program with a middle-class full tuition program. So I think that in the particular, it's possible.

CONAN: A quick word from Sheryll Cashin.

CASHIN: In the particular, it's possible. Callers, if you care, get involved to help make it happen.

CONAN: Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown University, and David Karp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. We thank you both for your time. Up next, the most memorable moments from the political conventions.


CONAN: What's your most memorable convention moment? Give us a call. 800-989-8255, or send us an email: Political Junkie Ken Rudin will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.