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Here's an answer to Rhode Island's education problems: desegregation

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has built a robust reputation as a reformer, making Time magazine's 100 most influential list a couple of years back

The Ocean State's reform brand is neatly aligned with a national, free market-inspired approach - favored by the Obama White House on down - that focuses on building a better teacher and encouraging charter schools.

A central goal: closing the achievement gap separating white students from blacks and Latinos. Thus far, that gap has proven stubborn. But the alternative offered up by teachers unions - essentially more of the same - isn't terribly satisfying.

This weekend, though, in a fascinating piece in the New York Times, David Kirp suggested another, almost forgotten technique: integration.

Amid the ceaseless and cacophonous debates about how to close the achievement gap, we’ve turned away from one tool that has been shown to work: school desegregation. That strategy, ushered in by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, has been unceremoniously ushered out, an artifact in the museum of failed social experiments. The Supreme Court’s ruling that racially segregated schools were “inherently unequal” shook up the nation like no other decision of the 20th century. Civil rights advocates, who for years had been patiently laying the constitutional groundwork, cheered to the rafters, while segregationists mourned “Black Monday” and vowed "massive resistance." But as the anniversary was observed this past week on May 17, it was hard not to notice that desegregation is effectively dead. In fact, we have been giving up on desegregation for a long time. In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected a metropolitan integration plan, leaving the increasingly black cities to fend for themselves.

A generation later, public schools that had been ordered to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s became segregated once again, this time with the blessing of a new generation of justices. And five years ago, a splintered court delivered the coup de grâce when it decreed that a school district couldn’t voluntarily opt for the most modest kind of integration — giving parents a choice of which school their children would attend and treating race as a tiebreaker in deciding which children would go to the most popular schools. In the perverse logic of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., this amounted to “discriminating among individual students based on race.” That’s bad history, which, as Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in an impassioned dissent, “threaten[s] the promise of Brown.”

The data is there:

A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.  

Why? For these youngsters, the advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. School systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on  African-American students’ education after the schools became integrated. Their classes were smaller and better equipped. They included children from better-off families, a factor that the landmark 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study had shown to make a significant difference in academic success. What’s more, their teachers and parents held them to higher expectations. That’s what shifted the arc of their lives.

Professor Johnson takes this story one big step further by showing that the impact of integration reaches to the next generation. These youngsters — the grandchildren of Brown — are faring better in school than those whose parents attended racially isolated schools.

The data also shows that white students in integrated schools did not see their performance dip, either. And as a product of integrated schools in Boston, I can attest to something intangible: a real social value for white kids in this setting; a value that would surely be more pronounced today in an increasingly diverse nation.

As Kirp concludes, there is hardly a great constituency for putting kids on buses, sending them across municipal lines, and reintegrating our public schools. But if Rhode Island is as committed to improving our lagging schools as it claims to be, perhaps it is a fight worth fighting.

Consider the composition of the Providence schools today: 62 percent Latino, 19 percent black, 9 percent white, and 5 percent Asian. That demography serves no one.

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