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Diverse schools are essential for the nation’s success

The face of America is changing. In 40 years, the United States will become a minority-majority nation – a remarkable milestone for a country that already boasts one of the most religiously, ethnically and racially diverse societies in the world.

The face of America is changing.

In 40 years, the United States will become a minority-majority nation – a remarkable milestone for a country that already boasts one of the most religiously, ethnically and racially diverse societies in the world.

But you wouldn’t know it looking at our nation’s schools. Census and school data tell a very different story:

  • The average white student goes to a school that is more than three-quarters white.
  • One in four children in poverty attends schools with few middle- and upper-middle class schoolmates.
  • One-third of black and Latino students attend schools with 90 to 100 percent minority populations. In the Northeast, over half of black students are in majority black schools.

This re-segregation of America’s schools has only been accelerated by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that marks its fifth anniversary this year – Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District.

That 2007 decision found that districts cannot use race as a factor in assigning children to schools – eliminating a powerful tool for integration. Sadly, some school districts aren’t using the few remaining tools. We’ve seen school districts – such as the Wake County, N.C., district – dismantle successful programs that use economic diversity to assign students to schools.

At a time when we should be preparing our children for a diverse nation, more communities are seeing their schools segregate. It’s not that people are suddenly rallying around an explicit call to return to Jim Crow-era school segregation, but that we have lost sight of the value of integration.

We’ve started viewing education as nothing more than another consumer choice. Across the country, you can find communities promoting plans marketed as “school choice” or “neighborhood schooling” – plans that supposedly give parents more options for their child’s education.

But we cannot treat public education as a consumer choice that’s no different than picking a calling plan for your smart phone. A public education isn’t a consumer choice that affects only the individual student; it affects all of us.

If we do not instill in today’s students an appreciation for diversity, it will be difficult if not impossible for our country to succeed in the 21st Century economy, where perhaps the most important job skill is the ability to collaborate with others. The benefits of instilling a respect for diversity cannot be overstated. But to do it, children must experience diversity in every school and every classroom. Unfortunately, those opportunities are evaporating.

They’re even disappearing outside the classroom. In 1970, 65 percent of U.S. neighborhoods could be considered mixed income; today, only 44 percent fit that description, according to Stanford University researchers. Of course, these statistics shouldn’t come as a surprise – it’s been 80 years since this country has seen so much income in the hands of so few, according to economist Emmanual Saez.

Also, several new studies, including one from the Brookings Institution, show a link between higher housing prices and strict zoning practices and access to high-quality schools. Quite simply, the socio-economically diverse neighborhood and school is disappearing from our nation.

Of course, skeptics dismiss the value of diversity and prefer to focus on raising student achievement. So, let’s focus on what has been found in diverse schools: Schools with policies that deliberately increase racial integration and mix low-income and middle-class students have documented benefits.

These schools are the best bet for African-American and Latino children to close the achievement gap in math and reading, according to data from the National Coalition for School Diversity. For these students, attending integrated schools increases the chances of going to college and graduating – and decreases the chances of being incarcerated. By virtually all measures, they outperform students in racially isolated minority schools.

Research also shows integrated schools have less violence, provide a better environment for students and ensure more stable teaching populations than high-poverty schools or racially isolated minority schools.

So far, the benefits might appear to accrue mainly to African-American and Latino children, but that’s reason enough to support deliberate integration policies. Currently, these students often attend poorly funded schools with inexperienced teachers. But they will soon be the majority of students in this country. They are the foundation for our nation’s future success.

And their classmates benefit, too. Research shows that students attending racially and socioeconomically diverse schools have higher academic achievement across the board. There is no evidence that integrated schools harm any group of students. We must renew our national commitment to diverse schools. The future demands it. And our children deserve it.

Maureen Costello is director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project.