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Sweet Victory: Desegregation Works

This column was written by Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Sam Graham-Felsen.

As Jonathan Kozol points out in his new book "Shame of the Nation," the promise of Brown v. Board of Education remains unfulfilled.

Thanks largely to a spate of Rehnquist Court decisions throughout the 1990s that limited the constitutionality of desegregation plans, policymakers across the country have abandoned efforts to integrate schools. As a result, schools have become rapidly re-segregated: today, black and Latino students are more isolated from their white counterparts than at any other period since 1968.

Yet several school districts nationwide are tackling the problem of school segregation with socioeconomic integration plans. And the results, particularly in Wake County, N.C., have been profoundly positive. Wake County — which includes Raleigh and surrounding suburbs — made headlines last week when the New York Times reported that the performance of black and Latino students has dramatically improved since the implementation of a comprehensive socioeconomic desegregation program. According to the Times, the number of black and Latino students achieving at grade level has doubled in the last decade since the program has been put in place.

The tragic events in New Orleans once again illustrated that the fault lines of race and class are intimately connected in America. Consequently, class-based desegregation plans often have the dual effect of creating both racial and economic diversity in schools. And, as Wake County demonstrates, desegregation plans do more than simply mix students; they are a recipe for results.

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"The implementation of these voluntary plans, either by socioeconomic status or race, by school boards is a recognition of many of the gains we achieved in desegregating our schools over a generation ago," says Erica Frankenberg of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Right now, the Plessy doctrine of "separate but equal" reigns in American public school policy — of course, the reality is that schools are separate and unequal. Yet, with positive trends emerging from districts implementing desegregation plans, we hope to see a day when integrated schools are not the exception, but the rule.

By Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Sam Graham-Felsen
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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