SUPREME COURT decisions on two school desegregation cases are expected before the court adjourns. The rulings in both cases — in which white parents in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle challenged districts' desegregation plans — will determine whether school districts can continue to assign students to schools based on their race for purposes of integration.
While people in Louisville and Seattle are waiting on pins and needles, here in Los Angeles, we are hardly aware that this Friday, the Los Angeles Unified School District faces a similar legal challenge to its own desegregation plan.
In American Civil Rights Foundation vs. LAUSD, Ward Connerly's anti-affirmative action group will go up against the district in Los Angeles Superior Court. Connerly is the former University of California regent who authored Proposition 209, the voter initiative passed in 1996 that banned the use of racial preferences in state government, including school districts. In a 2005 lawsuit, he teamed with Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest law firm, to charge that LAUSD's magnet schools and Permits with Transportation program violate Proposition 209.
Magnet schools and the PWT program (which buses minority students out of their neighborhoods to more racially balanced schools) were created in 1977, in response to a 1976 order from the California Supreme Court that the district take "reasonable and feasible steps" to alleviate the harms of segregation. The district responded by crafting a voluntary student integration plan — voluntary in the sense that students participate on a voluntary basis — and has been under a court order to implement it since 1981, according to Peter W. James, the lawyer representing the LAUSD.
Connerly's group will argue that the district improperly and illegally uses race to determine which students get admitted to the magnets and PWT programs. James will argue that the LAUSD is still under a court order to desegregate. If the judge rules in Connerly's favor, the magnet program will be forced to reconfigure, perhaps using a race-neutral admissions policy, and the PWT program may cease to exist.
Desegregation may seem like an increasingly irrelevant aspect of the conversation on LAUSD reform; we are currently focused on standards and accountability rather than equality or access. In Los Angeles, we have as much diversity in our K-12 schools as we can handle, or so we imagine. Today, the LAUSD is 73% Latino, 11% black, 4% Asian, 3% Filipino and 9% white.
Yet issues of equal access have not gone away. Although the magnet program maintains a flexible racial balance, our neighborhood schools — following housing patterns and socioeconomic trends over the last 15 years — have become increasingly segregated. Watt's troubled Locke High School, where 85% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, is almost 100% black and Latino. This year only 41% of Locke's senior class graduated.
At the other end of the spectrum is Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet, east of downtown. It has similar numbers of students on free or reduced-price lunches but it is one of the district's most successful high schools. It's also one of the most diverse — 63% Latino, 17% white, 12% Asian, 7% Filipino. Bravo graduated 91% of its seniors this spring.
Do integrated classrooms make a difference to academic achievement? Do segregated classrooms cause students to fail?
These questions have no simple answers. Gary Orfield, who founded the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and now teaches at UCLA, explored the effect of lingering school segregation in a 2004 report he coauthored, "Brown at 50: King's Dream or Plessy's Nightmare?" His research showed that across the U.S., 88% of intensely segregated minority schools "face conditions of concentrated poverty, which are powerfully related to unequal educational opportunities."
The point of Brown vs. Board of Education was to close that gap. Yet for minority students stuck in pockets of poverty, underfunded urban schools don't provide the pathways to college or meaningful work that are indicators of "equal educational opportunity."
Racial diversity and equality are still crucial issues. The U.S. Supreme Court returned to Brown vs. Board of Education in 2003 when it upheld affirmative action admissions at the University of Michigan Law School. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, speaking for the majority, wrote: "Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized. The skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints."
We want students to meet academic standards. And we want to hold schools accountable. To achieve both, we need to move the education conversation back to equality and access.
All students must have the opportunity to go to college, or to gain the skills needed for meaningful work.
In the LAUSD, it's those in the diverse magnet schools and PWT program who will be better prepared to live and work in a global economy and fast-changing world. We need to offer all students more choice, more connections, rather than fewer, as Connerly suggests. Integrated classrooms in Louisville and Los Angeles are the first places to begin.