Integration Slips Away in Many School Systems; Some Blame a Concerted Effort to Resegregate Schools; Others Blame Neighborhoods

Article excerpt

Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE, The Times-Union

ATLANTA -- Betsy Bockman knows her school is rare.

Bockman is principal of Inman Middle School in Atlanta, a campus that likely would have made the authors of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education proud. The student body at Inman is around 50 percent black, 45 percent white and 5 percent students from some other ethnic background.

"While we're a very integrated school, it's not typical of the Atlanta Public School system," Bockman said.

It's not typical of many places, according to several studies. Across the nation, experts say, schools are "resegregating" at an alarming rate, driven by demographic trends, the rise of private schools and the end of court-ordered desegregation plans.

"For more than a decade, we have been headed backward toward greater segregation for black students," two Harvard researchers wrote in January. "For Latinos, who have recently become the largest group of minority students, segregation has been steadily increasing ever since the first national data were collected in the late 1960s. . . . Both groups tend to be segregated in high-poverty schools that are deeply unequal in measurable ways."

By one measure, the report said, Georgia's schools are the 10th most segregated in the nation. The report, Brown at 50: King's Dream or Plessy's Nightmare? by Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee, found that only 27.2 percent of the state's black students were in majority-white schools in the 2001-02 school year.

In Kentucky, credited as the most integrated state in the nation, 80.9 percent of black students attended majority-white schools. In Georgia's neighboring South Carolina, the 12th-most integrated state, that number was 36.2 percent.

"We cannot celebrate Dr. King and the birthday of Brown's promise without thinking about what happens if the dream becomes a nightmare," Orfield and Lee wrote.

The roots of resegregation

The greatest slide toward resegregation seems to be taking place in metropolitan areas, many of which have discontinued their integration plans in recent years.

For example, in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system in North Carolina, one of the first systems to use court-ordered busing to integrate schools, the average black student attended a school that was 52 percent white in 1991. A decade later, after the schools were declared "unitary" and allowed to end the program, the average black student attended a school that was 35 percent white, according to the Harvard study.

Similar numbers can be found in Georgia. In Savannah-Chatham County schools, the average black student attended a school that was 34 percent white in 1993-94. In 2001, the number stood at 24 percent.

A number of factors contribute to the rising tide of resegregation, according to those who study the issue. One factor often cited is residential housing patterns.

Most school districts have a policy of "neighborhood schools," meaning students attend the schools closest to their homes, said F. Erik Brooks, a political science professor at Georgia Southern University.

"Since most neighborhoods are segregated now, still, and most school districts have a neighborhood school policy, [desegregation] really hasn't done much," Brooks said.

The Harvard study dismissed housing segregation as a cause of the rise in resegregation, and instead pointed a finger at the end of court-ordered integration.

"Nor is school segregation growing for blacks because housing segregation has increased," the study said. "Housing actually became modestly less segregated for blacks during the 1980s and 1990s. …