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Cook County has the ingredients for rich racial diversity in its schools. In the 2010-2011 school year, the county's combined enrollment in elementary and high schools was 33 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black, and 30 percent white, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. Subtract the private schools and the enrollment was still tri-ethnic: 36 percent Hispanic, 31 percent black, 26 percent white.
But the white kids are clustered in suburban schools, and most of the minority kids in Chicago.
Pronounced racial segregation isn't limited to Cook County. School segregation has long plagued much of the nation, and newly released research shows it's been worsening.
A study published last month by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found "persistent and serious increases in segregation by race and poverty" in schools throughout the country over the last two decades. In most of the 25 largest metro areas, black students are concentrated in predominantly minority schools. In 11 of these metro areas, most black students are attending schools that are "intensely segregated" (90-100 percent minority); in metro Chicago and Detroit, nearly half of the black students are in schools with "apartheid conditions"—they're at least 99 percent minority.
The study's lead author, Gary Orfield, observed in the report that the nation seems to be returning "to the 'separate but equal' philosophy that so clearly failed the country" before the Supreme Court declared racially separate schools inherently unequal in 1954.
Segregated black and Hispanic schools offer students "profoundly unequal opportunities," wrote Orfield, who's been researching school segregation for 40 years. "Millions of black and Latino students, but only a tiny fraction of white and Asian children, go to schools where almost everyone is poor," he wrote. "More educated and powerful communities almost always win the competition for the most critical limited resources, such as the best teachers and administrators."
In metro Chicago and Detroit, nearly half of the black students are in schools with "apartheid conditions"—they're at least 99 percent minority.
Segregation also hurts white students. Orfield pointed to census data showing that minorities now constitute a majority of U.S. births. Success as a multiracial nation will entail "learning to work together across lines of race and ethnicity," he wrote. "Figuring out how to have successful multiracial schools and communities is not a minor concern."
The lack of exposure of white and minority children to each other is especially stark in Chicago. The enrollment of the Chicago Public Schools last year was 91 percent minority, according to CPS figures—and 87 percent low-income. According to our analysis of those figures, 56 percent of the city's black students attended schools that were at least 99 percent minority. Almost a third of the city's schools—214 out of 683—were without a single non-Hispanic white student. Chicago, Orfield observed, "is noteworthy for its extremely unequal schools and virtually no effort to offset the problems."
Last month, as soon as the Chicago teachers' strike ended, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaimed that the settlement brought "a new day and new direction" for the city's schools. But as long as low-income and minority students are overwhelmingly segregated in Chicago, the new day probably will be like the old day (although a little longer).
Emanuel said that new specialty schools and charters will give Chicago's parents more choices. But parents still won't be able to choose for their children an education in an economically and racially integrated environment.
Research in the 1970s blamed the inferior performance of low-income minority students on their poverty and family background—not their schools. But a meticulous reanalysis of the evidence, published in 2010 in the journal Teachers College Record, strongly indicted segregation. The authors, University of Wisconsin professors Geoffrey D. Borman and Maritza Dowling, found that "going to a high-poverty school or a highly segregated African American school has a profound effect on a student's achievement outcomes, above and beyond the effect of his or her individual poverty or minority status." That effect was harmful enough to "deny African American children equality of educational opportunity," the authors concluded.