The hope behind desegregation was that it would bring together white and black children to learn with, and from, each other, and end the disparities that blacks suffered under legal segregation -hand-me-down textbooks, decrepit buildings, lower-paid teachers, and, of course, lagging achievement. In the three decades following Brown v. Board of Education, courts ordered districts to create elaborate student assignment plans--often dependent on forced busing--to mix black, Hispanic, and white students together in the same schools. Most school boards complied reluctantly, and parents in places like Boston reacted violently.
A few educators and parents began to see substantial benefits that changed their minds. "It was really hard to do, but we all came together and over the years it has paid off," said Carol Haddad, a long-time school board member in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the few districts that has maintained desegregated schools voluntarily despite the lifting of its court order. "We can give equal opportunities to all kids."
Indeed, during the height of desegregation in the 1970s and 80s, the achievement gap between black and white students narrowed at the most rapid rate ever recorded in the history of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the most reliable, long-term measure of student achievement in the U.S. Black graduation rates also rose at desegregated schools, research has found. War on Poverty programs and other efforts to improve life for black families were one factor. "There was a lot going on," said Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist and the study's lead author. "But clearly desegregation improved outcomes for blacks, and didn't harm them for whites."
Nevertheless, in most communities forced to try desegregation, the sacrifices weren't worth the benefits. Parents of all races complained about the hassle of busing and the loss of neighborhood schools, but for black families the burdens were often heavier: Their children tended to spend more time commuting, their own schools were closed to make desegregation more convenient for whites (and prevent their flight to the suburbs or private schools), and their teachers were fired when white and black schools were merged.
In the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court decisions made it much easier for school districts to get out from under court supervision. During that decade, school districts and groups of parents both went to court to fight desegregation orders. In a few cases, including in Louisville, the main parties fighting busing were black. "It's not surprising," said Michael Petrilli, author of The Diverse Schools Dilemma and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that advocates for school choice. "These court orders are by and large unpopular with parents, both white and black."