A report of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation issued last Spring found that racial segregation in the nation's public schools has increased steadily over the last 15 years to a level greater than at any time since the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board/ of Education, which authorized "forced busing" to achieve racial balance. This development has alarmed many in the civil rights community who worry that this increasing racial isolation portends disaster for the black community. I believe those concerns are misplaced.
This is not to say that all is well with the education of African American youngsters. For example, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a comprehensive effort to test the knows ledge of a representative national sample of primary and secondary school students, has revealed a widening gap between the educational achievements of white and black students over the past decade. But while great disparities do exist in the quality of public education - black and Latino students in central cities are especially poorly served - a renewed emphasis on racial integration is the wrong response. Achieving true equality of opportunity for the poorest public school students means securing for them better teachers, smaller class sizes, longer school hours and greater support services in the schools they attend. If these things can be achieved, our youngsters will do well, whatever the racial composition of their schools.
In any event, both the Supreme Court and the American people have shown little enthusiasm for openended judicial intervention aimed at securing racial balance. The Court's opinion in the 1995 case Missouri v. Jenkins, for example, reversed a lower court's order that Kansas City undertake an expensive plan to attract suburban whites to an increasingly black, inner-city district through specialized "magnet schools." Indeed, Federal courts around the country - especially in the South - have relaxed earlier decrees ordering school districts to promote integration, even though those districts have been moving toward resegregation.
I am not arguing that these cases were rightly decided in every instance. What is clear, however, is that it would be unwise to expect a revival of 1970s-style judicial activism on behalf of the cause of integration. Moreover, the flight of white middle-class families from urban districts subject to desegregation decrees has made it all but impossible to achieve anything beyond token integration in many places.
Thus, in 1972, before courtordered busing began, 60 percent of Boston's public school students were white. Although the courts have been more flexible about integration efforts in recent years, only 18 percent of the students in this struggling school system now are white. Denver, Norfolk, Va., and Savannah, Ga., which were subject to mandatory busing, have also seen white enrollment decline, reflecting the decisions of white parents to live in suburban communities or to send their children to private schools. …