Schools Are More Segregated Today Than During the Late 1960s

Housing patterns, not laws, are causing today's crisis. But John F. Kennedy's critique of American education still rings dismally true. 

jfk-grad speech-body.jpgPresident John Kennedy addresses graduating class at San Diego State College in California on June 6, 1963. (AP)

In his commencement speech at San Diego State College, the President of the United States covered unsurprising territory in describing the challenges facing the nation's public schools -- inequities for minority students, a high dropout rate, and the need for better teacher training.

What might be surprising is that the president was John F. Kennedy, and he was addressing the class of 1963.

"Our current education programs, much as they represent a burden upon the taxpayers of this country, do not meet the responsibility," Kennedy said on June 6, 1963 at what is now San Diego State University. "The fact of the matter is that this is a problem which faces us all, no matter where we live, no matter what our political views must be."

Five days after that graduation speech -- and 49 years ago today -- Kennedy delivered his historic speech on civil rights from the Oval Office. His commencement address "was a recognition of what needed to be done," said Gary Orfield, an education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. "The last time the three branches of government worked together to do something about segregation started with that period."

The familiarity of Kennedy's remarks from a vantage point of nearly half a century "speaks both to the aspirations we all have for education and how tough these issues are," said Andrew Rotherham, who co-founded Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C., focusing on improving opportunities for low-income students. "He's talking about exactly the same problems we're talking about now."

Indeed, Kennedy made reference in his remarks to the segregated schools of the South and the "de facto" segregation in the North. Many of the underlying problems of segregation haven't been solved, even if it's no longer legal, Rotherham said.

"Laws that sentenced blacks to third-class educations -- those were the easy targets," said Rotherham, who was a special assistant for domestic policy during the Clinton administration. "What's driving segregation now is housing patterns, and that's much more difficult to solve. It's also not necessarily a problem you can solve with education."

There are public policy initiatives that can "nudge things along," Rotherham said, "but no one runs for school board on a platform for changing the school boundaries. There's a reason for that."

Researchers like Orfield note that the nation's public schools are more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s. According to Orfield, part of that backslide is due to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court over the past two decades. That includes a landmark 2007 decision invalidating Seattle Public Schools' voluntary desegregation plan which used race as a factor in school zoning decisions.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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