Segregation is creeping back into America's schools, Harvard study finds

December 14, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- American public schools are becoming more racially segregated now than at any time since the late 1960s, a Harvard University study reported yesterday.

Blacks and Latinos, especially in major metropolitan areas, are increasingly isolated in predominantly nonwhite schools with a high ratio of children from poor families, the study found.

Even in the suburbs, the Harvard figures showed, school segregation has persisted for most black and Latino students who have moved away from central cities, despite hopes that suburbia would provide integrated schools.

The study also said that racial divisions were strongest in the Northeast, Midwest and California than in most of the Southern and border states, where segregation existed as a matter of policy before a landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling declared the practice unconstitutional.

While blacks comprise less than 20 percent of the population, the study found that two of every three black children in 1991-1992 attended schools in which more than half the student body was black or Latino. The ratio was the highest since 1968, when 77 percent of black students went to predominantly black schools.

The proportion of Latinos in minority-dominated schools rose from 54 percent in 1968 to 73 percent in the academic year ending in 1992.

In part, the change reflected housing discrimination and a sharp increase in Latino birth rates, the study said, along with a tendency of federal courts to steer away from desegregation orders. The report also reflected an exodus from big-city schools, where violence has increased and academic achievement has declined.

"The civil rights impulse from the 1960s is dead in the water and the ship is floating backward toward the shoals of segregation," said Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation and chief author of the study.

His report was issued by the National School Boards Association and Johnathan Wilson, past president of the group's Council on Urban Boards of Education, who said the results showed the nation was returning to "a uniquely Americanized form of apartheid."

The study provided new data on the relationship of school separation and poverty.

"It shows that both African-American and Latino students are much more likely than white students to find themselves in schools of concentrated poverty," Mr. Orfield said. "Segregation by race is strongly related to segregation by poverty."

Racial integration of schools was most likely to occur in small towns, rural areas, smaller metropolitan areas and suburbs of medium-size cities, the study found. In contrast, the level of school segregation remains highest in big cities and middle-size central cities.

"The major changes in desegregation occurred for black students in the 1966 to 1972 period," the study noted. "They were very large and they lasted with very little overall erosion for about two decades.

But the study said, "the changes were concentrated in the South, which was the only region to face a serious federal enforcement effort, and [today's] segregation is greatest where desegregation was never accomplished."

Mr. Orfield noted, for example, that the highest degree of school segregation was in the Northeast, where 76 percent of black children and 78 percent of Latino children attend a school made up mostly of members of their race. In the Midwest, the ratios were 70 percent for blacks and 53 percent for Latinos, compared to 61 percent of blacks in the South who go to schools that are more than half black.

New York has the lowest percentage of whites in schools with blacks, followed by Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey, the study showed.

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