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What Can We Learn From the Failures of Desegregation?

Sarah Garland is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report. She has written about education, crime and immigration for the New York Times, Newsweek, the Atlantic, and the American Prospect, among others. Her first book, Gangs in Garden City, was a runner up for an Investigative Reporters and Editor award. Her second book, Divided We Fail, will be published by Beacon Press in 2013. This post originally appeared at the Hechinger Report blog.

Bigstock-New-bus-wide-276017In a New York Times editorial over the weekend, University of California, Berkeley professor David Kirp asks why we’ve turned away from school integration, an education reform that has quite extensive evidence showing it worked:

“Economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did.” 

Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s—the time when desegregation was in full force—the achievement gap closed faster than it ever has before or since. Why did we abandon such a successful intervention? Kirp writes that “desegregation was too often implemented in ham-handed fashion, undermining its effectiveness,” but doesn’t go into detail.

In fact, the “ham-handed” way that busing was done in many cities is part of the reason for its downfall. Black students may have benefited, but there were many sacrifices that came along with busing—and not just long bus rides for black kids. Kirp doesn’t mention how black families viewed desegregation, and the flaws many saw in the way it was framed and then implemented. In reporting I’m doing for a book due out next January, Divided We Fail, I have spent the past few years talking to a group of black families about their views of busing, and why they led a charge against desegregation in their city of Louisville, KY.

The other piece of the puzzle of why desegregation disappeared is the rise of the school choice movement. Others have argued before that the two don’t mix well, and school choice won out.

None of this is to say that desegregation should be considered irrelevant. Quite the opposite. Both its successes and failures have a lot to teach those seeking to reform the public education system today.

Bus photo from Bigstock.