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Wells Argues on Behalf of Contested Voluntary School Integration Plans

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Amy Stuart Wells

Amy Stuart Wells

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The contested efforts of public school districts in Seattle, Washington and Jefferson County, Kentucky, to maintain racial balance in their schools are constitutionally valid and are supported by a half-century of both legal precedent and social science research, according to an amicus brief filed by TC's Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Sociology and Education.  

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review challenges to the two districts' methods of assigning students to schools, each of which seeks to allow for parental choice and still achieve racial balance. The Court's ultimate decision in the review, which will take place on December 4th, could profoundly alter the future ability of local school authorities to follow integration guidelines established by the Court in Brown v. Board of Education, its landmark 1954 ruling to desegregate U.S. schools.

Wells is one of the nation's leading experts on desegregation. Her brief, filed through the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), was co-signed by Jay Heubert and Michael Rebell, also of Teachers College;, Linda Darling-Hammond, of Stanford University; Jomills Braddock, of the University of Miami; and Jeannie Oakes of UCLA. and MichaelRebell (Teachers College). .

Of the more than 50 briefs filed through LDF, Wells' is the only one that focuses specifically on the long-term benefits of integration -- both for the individuals who have lived through it and society as a whole. According to Wells, the value of integrated schooling has become more apparent to its beneficiaries after graduation, with the passing of years. Most say that compared to peers who attended segregated schools, they are more open-minded, less prejudiced, and less fearful of other races. Because of these altered world views, many of the graduates say they find themselves far better prepared for life in a global society and more adept at reaching across cultures and nationalities to function in a global economy. 

More broadly, Wells writes, "the social science research since Brown has vindicated" the promise of that ruling, which "gave rise to a new hope: that exposure to integrated settings early in life would improve opportunities for all students, break the cycle of racial separation in the U.S. society as a whole, and yield generations of young Americans more apt to construct an equal open society."  Yet, she adds, Brown's purpose "will erode substantially if, as Petitioners contend, local school districts themselves cannot safeguard the integrated setting Brown rightly recognized as crucial."

Enacted in 2001, the Jefferson Country plan, which includes Louisville, stipulates that all schools -- including magnet schools -- must have a minimum black enrollment of 15 percent and a maximum of 50 percent. The Seattle "Open Choice" plan is designed to make high schools mirror, as closely as possible, the city's overall racial composition of 60 percent minority and 40 percent white. Previous challenges to both plans were shot down by federal appeals courts. Judge Alex Kozinkski, a Ninth Circuit Court judge, wrote that the Seattle plan "gives the American melting pot a healthy stir without benefiting or burdening any particular group," adding that "there is much to be said for returning primacy on matters of education policy to local officials."

In a sweeping review of 50 years of social science research, Wells details the long-term personal and societal benefits of integrated schools:

  • Black graduates of integrated secondary and elementary schools are more confident in their ability to navigate and succeed in racially diverse settings, and more likely, as adults, to move into more racially integrated setting and experience enhanced social mobility. These findings confirm the "contact hypothesis" advanced by Gordon Allport in the 1950s.
  • Graduates of racially segregated schools tend to avoid integration, overestimating the degree of hostility they will encounter in integrated settings or underestimating their skill at coping with strains in interracial relations. These findings illustrate the "perpetuation theory" of Jomills Braddock and James McPartland.  
  • Given the persistence of de facto segregation in housing, places of worship and other social venues, public schools "effectively are the first training ground for each generation's emergence in to democratic society," Wells writes.
  • The nation's college attendance rates and shifting demographics further underscore the importance of the K-12 years in developing future workers, leaders, parents and community members for our increasingly diverse democratic society.  "While less than 43 percent of all 18-24-year olds in the U.S. are enrolled in college classes or have earned a postsecondary degree, the American public education system serves almost 90 percent of the school-age population," Wells writes. She adds that in 2004-05, only 57 percent of U.S. public school students were white, down from 78 percent 30 years ago. During that period, the Hispanic student population grew from 6 to 19 percent.

Noting that the Brown decision was based in part on the "undeniable social science evidence of the profound, often lifelong effects of segregation on African American students," the Wells brief also chronicles repeated subsequent rulings of by the Court that support precisely the kinds of integration efforts undertaken by the Seattle and Jefferson County districts:

  • The Court has recognized that racially integrated environments promote 'the robust exchange of ideas' (Justice Powell in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 1978) and 'cross-racial understanding,' and 'better prepare students for an increasingly diverse workforce and...as professionals'" (Grutter v. Bollinger 2003).
  • More recently, the Court has emphasized the "pivotal" role of education in "preparing students for work and citizenship" and "maintaining participation in the fabric of society."

The brief also includes a review of two studies conducted by Wells and colleagues. The first study is of graduates of racially integrated schools in six cites across the country. The more recent study, and most relevant to these two court cases, is of graduates of integrated schools in Seattle and Jefferson County. Adult graduates of all racial and ethnic backgrounds were nearly unanimous in saying they benefited from learning in a racially diverse environment.

"If I didn't have [integrated schooling] coming up, I wouldn't have known how to handle... getting along with people, understanding them and their culture, their ways, their style of dress," commented one African American graduate from a Seattle school.

Yet despite such positive responses, schools have steadily re-segregated since the 1980s, as many standing Court orders to districts to integrate were lifted. Wells concludes, "In many districts, absent a concerted effort to safeguard integration, there is little chance that students of different races ever will occupy the same classroom and, as Justice Marshall observed, 'little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.'"

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