Gary Orfield co-founded the Harvard Civil Rights Project and is currently Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. In this edited transcript of remarks at the High Tech High GSE Speaker Series, Gary describes his work in education and civil rights over several decades. He discusses the impact of the courts and public policy on efforts to desegregate the schools, offers his views on schools of choice and No Child Left Behind, and assesses the prospects for integrated schooling in America. The interviewer is Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High.
A video of the event is available at www.hightechhigh.org.
How did you get started working in civil rights and education?
I was always interested in reading about desegregation and civil rights when I was a kid. I grew up in Minneapolis, which at the time was the whitest metropolitan area in the United States. So I was fascinated. At the University of Minnesota, I organized a kind of student volunteer project where we went up to Indian reservations in northern Minnesota and lived there. It was a very formative experience. We’d see first and second graders, and they were as excited and happy as kids you’d see anyplace, but by the time they got to be 11 or 12, they were sullen and negative and hostile and detached from school. They would go into these little border towns along the reservation where they were treated very badly, and they reacted in kind. That whole experience made me realize how deep racism was and how devastating.
In graduate school in Chicago I decided to write my dissertation about the desegregation and equalization of the South under the Johnson administration. After a while, people began using my work in cases around the country, and then they began inviting me to come into the cases. A judge in Los Angeles called me and said, “Both sides are using your writing. What do they mean? Can you come out and help me figure out what to do here?” And if you know how careers unfold, one thing leads to another. This issue is so fundamental to equality in the country and to the whole civil rights movement that no matter how many new things I start, it always comes back in one way or another to this issue of equalization of access to educational opportunity.
We’ve gone from Plessy v. Ferguson in the 1890s to Brown vs. Board of Education in the 1950s to the present resegregation of American schools. How did we get here?
In 1896 the Supreme Court was asked whether segregation violated the 14th amendment of the Constitution regarding equal protection under the law. They decided that separate could be equal. Following that decision, local and state authorities all over the South enacted laws segregating everything from the hospitals to the libraries to the movie theaters. People don’t realize that the really intense structure of segregation didn’t come until after the Supreme Court authorized it. When the Court was asked shortly after the Plessy decision whether it was fair for a Georgia community to abolish high school altogether for black kids, whether that was equal enough, they decided unanimously that it was. Under “separate but equal” the inequalities grew to be incredibly large—500 to 600 per cent inequalities in per student expenditure, different kinds of school years, different qualifications for teachers, almost everything you could imagine.
When the NAACP was created at the beginning of the 20th century, it seemed impossible to overturn the Plessy decision. But the NAACP fought for over a half century to create the record, to develop precedents, and ultimately in 1954 to pose the question to the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education whether separate could possibly be equal given the realities of American society and the history. The Court said, among other things, that in the situation of legally imposed segregation, separate is inherently unequal because the different social groups are themselves unequal in very profound ways, and you cannot create equality without breaking down the color line.
The problem with the Brown decision is that it created this wonderful Constitutional principle that segregation is inherently unequal, and then did almost nothing to implement it. Nothing really happened about segregation in the South until Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and said federal money would be taken away from school districts that did not desegregate. And then the federal government began to spell out standards for desegregation, and the Court adopted them. By the end of the 1960s the standard was, you have to desegregate totally, you have to reassign the teachers, you have to equalize the educational opportunity, you have to do whatever is necessary to create integrated schools to the maximum feasible extent. Under that standard the South became more integrated than any other part of the United States had ever been, and it remained the most integrated region until 2004. Desegregation grew dramatically from the middle 60’s to the early 70’s and then it grew gradually up until the late 1980s.
That was a period of tremendous increase in black educational achievement. There was a substantial decline in the achievement gap between blacks and whites, and a huge increase in college going. To what extent that’s due to Brown and the Civil Rights Acts and the desegregation process, or to other things that were happening at the same time, we don’t know exactly. But it was a period of large social and educational progress.
Then in 1991, in Oklahoma City vs. Dowell, the Supreme Court decided that school districts could end their desegregation plans and go back to segregated neighborhood schools. So we still had desegregation in place, but in 1991 that began to be dismantled pretty rapidly. In a 1995 case in Kansas City, where a federal judge had tried to desegregate through magnet schools and wanted to take further steps, the Court said, no, you can’t do anything to bring suburbanites into the city schools, and you can’t get money from the state to do anything more. In another step enabling resegregation, the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that many forms of voluntary integration are illegal, even if communities want to practice them.
So we’ve gone from a situation where the court was really pressing hard for desegregation to a situation where the Court was pressing for resegregation and denying equity. And that’s where we are now.
You worked on the desegregation case in St. Louis. What if the significant sums that St. Louis spent on school desegregation had been spent on well-placed mixed-income housing? Would the schools be more integrated today?
St. Louis had one of the most rapidly declining central cities in the country when it was told to desegregate in 1980. It had a history of extreme discrimination. If you go back far enough, it was illegal to educate black people in Missouri, and blacks used to cross the Mississippi River to get trained secretly to read on islands in the Mississippi. Well into the 20th century, if blacks in a suburb of St. Louis wanted to go to high school, they had to commute on their own into the city 20 or 30 miles away. There were just numerous, massive violations of civil rights in a city like St. Louis.
I was a witness for the Justice Department in this case, and then I was appointed to oversee the process. For over 20 years, St. Louis transferred one-quarter of the black children to suburban school systems, where their graduation rates doubled. But they didn’t do anything about the housing. A considerable part of the segregation of St. Louis and most of our other cities is due to the resegregation of poor black people in public housing projects in ghettos. If we could have developed mixed-income, mixed-race housing in places that had good schools, we could have solved a lot of the problems. It isn’t that people didn’t know that at the time. I proposed it in St. Louis, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and there was actually a period when the Carter administration was seeking to get federal courts to do that in coordinated cases that they brought in Houston and Yonkers and other places. But as soon as Ronald Reagan was elected all of that was shut down completely. The school and housing divisions of the Justice Department had been combined, for example, and the new administration split them apart.
I was working in Phoenix at the time, and we actually had developed a plan with the leaders of Phoenix under the direction of the Human Rights Commission there to desegregate the housing instead of the schools, so that we would have naturally integrated schools. We had the business leadership of Phoenix behind us, the religious leadership, all kinds of people. But after the 1980 election, it was stopped. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development did studies of Denver that showed that you could eliminate almost all of the segregation of Denver schools by placing the public housing or subsidized housing in different places than the metro. You can see a report about it on our web site,
www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu. So, yes, we could have done a lot with housing. People move every six years. You can do a lot by changing the flows of housing, and we have done almost nothing.
Who’s looking at the issue of segregation within schools?
In integrated schools on average, blacks or Latinos are leaving very concentrated poverty schools and coming into schools with lots more middle class contacts and resources, but the benefits of that don’t flow through walls. If you resegregate the kids inside of a desegregated school, you lose most of the benefits. It’s very important that you don’t set up kids in a multiracial school where you have black boys down in the basement in a special ed class and the white kids in honors and AP classes.
This is an important issue. We held a conference at Harvard Law School a few years ago and published a book from it called Lessons in Integration about things that can be done, including ways to train teachers to deal with interracial classrooms. Helping the teachers deal with interracial classrooms and helping make more classrooms interracial inside of multiracial schools are very important goals. It’s not simple, but there’s a lot known that can be applied about how to make race relations better.
Deborah Meier asks, “How can we close the achievement gap when we’re not closing the employment gap and the health gap and the economic gap?” Others say that position is an abdication on the part of educators. What is your view?
We’ve treated school as an all-powerful remedy for inequality since the 1980s. In both federal and state policy, the dogma has been, don’t do anything about race, poverty, or urban segregation, just require the schools to do it and punish them if they don’t. We’re the only country that tries to deal with poverty simply through education, and does it in a way that puts the poor kids in school with a lot of other poor kids, so they don’t get positive peer group effects, and with the least experienced teachers, and the most limited curriculum, and the most arduous test-driven processes. It can’t work. We have to think about this more broadly than just the schools. We’ve got to figure out a reasonable way to determine if the schools are doing their part, and then to think about challenging the other parts of the society to do their part.
The debate continues about whether choice and diversity are irreconcilable differences. Where do you see the experiments of magnet schools and charter schools in this discussion?
We never had much choice in American public schools until desegregation came along, and then thousands of southern school districts adopted a program called freedom of choice. The idea was that they would allow students to choose to transfer between the black schools and the white schools. Hardly anybody chose to transfer—no white that I ever heard of chose to transfer into a black school, so they remained entirely segregated, and for the black students, not very many of them wanted to go as an outsider into a white school. So it wasn’t until we got beyond the choice process, which was found by the courts to be inequitable and unsuccessful, and went toward mandated desegregation, that the South really changed dramatically.
Choice came back later in a different form in magnet schools. Central cities were supposed to desegregate, but were told they couldn’t go to the suburbs, so they invented magnet schools on a big scale in the 1970s to try to get people to come to desegregated schools voluntarily, by offering special programs. Now the problem with choice plans is that people who have more knowledge and information are more likely to get into the good places. Unrestricted choice without any racial controls tends to produce segregation and social class stratification.
What choice does do is provide new educational opportunities that are really important. It provides things that can’t be done in individual schools but can be done in a special school, and in the case of a big city it provides some diversity in a district that doesn’t have any. It provides some schools that function as a path to college in places where there are almost no paths to college for poor and minority kids. So it’s a trade-off that has costs and benefits. The decision whether to go with more choice depends on what the conditions are—whether there’s a lot of information given to the parents, whether there’s a fair selection mechanism, whether there’s an intentional process of integrating those schools, whether those schools receive, rather than exclude, handicapped and language minority children, and so forth. Under the right conditions, choice can be a very useful thing, especially in an extremely segregated district with very few options.
What are your views on No Child Left Behind?
We should keep the good parts of No Child Left Behind: the idea of accountability, the idea of collecting and publishing information about all the racial and ethnic groups in a school, the idea that we would try to get good teachers in every school. But we should try to get rid of the crazy parts: the idea that all of the students are going to be above average by 2013; and that schools that are teaching kids that don’t speak English and are several grades behind when they come to school are going to have the exact same achievement levels as schools in the suburbs; or that we can assess kids in a language they don’t understand; or that we can expect really disadvantaged, impoverished schools and cities on the verge of bankruptcy to make more progress than suburban schools, or else be sanctioned very heavily and threatened with dissolution and removal of their faculty. We’re not evaluating schools on whether they graduate their students, only on their test scores. And we’re rewarding schools that get rid of their low-achieving students. A lot of things in No Child Left Behind create very negative incentives for teachers and schools. After eight years we’re in a position to say some of these things work, some of them don’t, and some of them have turned out to be extremely counterproductive. We should clean NCLB up or repeal it.
Given the last several decades of racial isolation in housing and schooling and the consequent failure to appreciate the benefits of cultural pluralism that come with integration, where might the public will come from to reverse the trend toward resegregation?
This is a question of many dimensions. There’s almost no city in the United States that ever desegregated because the voters asked for it. They were found guilty of violating a constitutional right, and they were forced to integrate. And many of the cities that were forced to integrate decided it was a good thing and wanted to continue it, and some of them fought very hard to continue it and were told they couldn’t by the courts. We need leadership on this issue.
The largest public support for integration is in places that have already done it. The voters of Louisville voted for school boards that wanted to continue metropolitan-wide, city-suburban desegregation. The voters in Charlotte voted for that kind of thing. In a study of teachers across the country, we found that teachers in stably integrated schools stay there and really like them, while teachers in resegregating schools, that are becoming predominately non-white, tend to leave. Similarly, our surveys of children in school districts around the country showed that students who have actually been in interracial schools approve of that as a positive experience by huge majorities—85 to 90%. The kids in the generation that’s in high school now are in a generation of 44% non-white people. They’ve figured out that it’s a good idea to know how to function across racial lines. Their parents don’t understand that, and their grandparents have no idea about it because they’ve lived in a different society. We need to get the message from the kids who’ve actually experienced integration to the adults who are making decisions that make it impossible.