Still a dream, Dr. King

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For years now, all we’ve heard about closing the achievement gap in schools has been more testing, higher standards, charters and vouchers. I happen to know none of it will make much difference. That’s because, with my journalist hat on, I heard it all from the experts. And I put the question to those politicians and business types promoting these reforms. What I heard back were slogans. Not evidence. But what happened to racial integration to close the gap? I’ve wondered if anybody cared any more. Turns out, I was wrong.

In a recent New York Times article a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has broken the silence. David Kirp argues that amid all the discussion about school reform, we’ve turned away from desegregation, the one strategy we know works. He goes on to cite evidence I often mentioned in editorials for The Journal Gazette, back when I was championing the cause of desegregation for the city schools in Fort Wayne. What a nice surprise. Here’s somebody keeping the flame alive.

Reading Kirp’s piece, I was transported back to my newsroom office, more than a decade ago, pounding away at the keyboard, producing scores of pieces in hopes school board members and community leaders would see the light. Please, I implored, end the disgrace of isolating our black children in half dozen inner-city elementary schools. Fellow editorial writers at the Journal, Barb Morrow and Dave Beery, chimed in with their writing talents. One year the paper was a Pulitzer finalist for our desegregation editorials.

The case for desegregation is powerful. Kirp showed that during a 20-year period, from 1970 to 1990, black kids in newly integrated school districts were closing the achievement gap. And this without any evidence white children suffered.

Kirp reminded readers that black children who attend racially integrated schools are more likely to graduate, more likely to attend and finish college, more likely to get well-paying jobs, marry and stay married. Better in school and a better future.

What’s not to like? In recent years, however, school districts with large minority populations have re-segregated. It’s as if the U.S. Supreme Court never declared unanimously that segregated schools are inherently unequal. In the early days, that landmark decision provoked open defiance throughout the South and resistance, sometimes violent as in Boston, in large northern cities. But black parents and civil rights advocates fought valiantly and won a number of battles.

Unfortunately, the mid-1970’s brought the first Detroit desegregation decision. Then, the high court declined to endorse an inter-district plan that would have integrated white suburban schools and black city schools. Despite such court rulings, Seattle, Louisville, St. Louis and Indianapolis still managed to break down some district barriers. Cambridge and Little Rock introduced controlled choice, which desegregated many schools. Then came changes in the makeup of the Supreme Court. Sadly, just a few years ago, a more conservative court undercut the Seattle and Louisville plans as race-conscious. I can’t imagine how else you assign kids from different parts of town to integrated schools without being race-concious. Well, facts rarely trump ideology.

I’ve kept pondering all this. I can’t imagine the housing patterns that created all black and all white neighborhoods was if it wasn’t race-conscious. The practice often has been blatant, enforced by covenants and transparent discrimination by real estate agencies. Now here’s something unconstitutional for you. Somehow, my city school district continues to operate desegregated schools. So school officials here, though no longer under a court order, still honor the agreement with a parents’ group struck in 1989. Parents get a lot of choice. Kids, black and white, win the blessings of justice.

This is very personal with me. Not only because of my editorial writing. Not only because of the many friends I made in the battles. But in schools I attended, I made good black friends. I hated to see them mistreated or in any way discriminated against. I came to their defense when white kids called them names. During my years teaching high school, in the 1960s and early 1970s, I was proud to be an advocate for my black students.

Then, when I retired from the paper in 2000, and my wife Toni was still a principal at an integrated elementary school in the city, I tutored two black children, Kendra and Reggie. In that role, I could see first hand how much benefit they got from desegregation. In all-black schools, they would have been just two more underachieving kids with teachers expecting little of them. By contrast, at integrated Forest Park Elementary, teachers expected more of them and they expected more of themselves. They had become comfortable with white peers. They were able to envision great things for their lives. Yes, I know. That can happen in a segregated school. But as much research has demonstrated, it’s more likely to happen in a racially integrated school.

It’s hard to imagine what it will take to reverse the trends now leaving minorities even more isolated in schools. Hispanics as well as black children. Meantime, the country is divided over so many issues. Even some blacks seem to have given up on Dr. King’s dream and turned to predominately black charter schools or private academies

Meantime, the racism so manifest in the many attacks on President Obama represent a hidden wound in white society, as author Wendell Berry so aptly called it. Electing a black president couldn’t heal that wound. Yet more than anything else, breaking down racial barriers remains some of the nation’s most urgent unfinished business. But like so many advocates such as Kirp, I won’t give up. I suppose I’ll be writing about it the rest of my life. That’s OK. I can’t imagine a better cause.

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