May 15, 2024 - Technology

School desegregation, reframed

Illustration of a gavel sitting atop a vintage photo of school children and a report card

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Startup nonprofit Brown's Promise wants to reignite a national conversation about school desegregation, using litigation and other means to redraw district lines and bring about equitable school funding.

Why it matters: On the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling — this Friday — American schools are highly segregated and unequal.

Driving the news: Since its founding last June, Brown's Promise has been busy working to revive the school desegregation debate — and discussions about inequality in school resources.

  • It has filed an amicus brief in a Maryland case seeking to integrate Baltimore city schools.
  • It's planning at least one desegregation lawsuit against a state by the end of the year (but still figuring out which state to target).
  • And it just released a new document outlining the problem and potential remedies.

Backstory: The group's two founders — Ary Amerikaner, a policy expert, and Saba Bireda, a lawyer — worked together on equity issues at the Obama-era Department of Education.

  • They both saw a big need for people working on desegregation to join forces with people working on resources for underserved schools.
  • "We were never talking about integration at the same time as we were talking about equitable school funding," Bireda tells Axios.

Between the lines: Decades of post-Brown efforts to integrate schools through federal court action have come to naught, so Bireda and Amerikaner are focusing their attention on state courts.

  • "We are ambitiously hoping to be able to file one to three lawsuits [against states] as our first wave," Bireda says.
  • Other lawsuits seeking court-ordered integration are already underway in Minnesota and New Jersey.
  • Some desegregation advocates are even calling for the return of mandatory busing, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

Brown's Promise is also trying to encourage conversations about redrawing school district lines — even across municipal boundaries, an idea that's proven controversial and difficult.

  • The goal is that an urban district with a disproportionate number of students of color would be reconfigured to include surrounding areas with more white students (or vice versa).
  • That could be done through magnet schools, voluntary busing or other creative remedies, such as the pooling of property taxes, Amerikaner says.
  • But not through litigation: Milliken v. Bradley, a landmark 1974 Supreme Court ruling, determined that the Detroit suburbs couldn't be compelled to alleviate segregated conditions in the city's school system — a precedent that rules the land today.

What they're saying: "It's clear that our schools are highly segregated today and going in the wrong direction," Amerikaner tells Axios, citing a study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA that found major backsliding in post-Brown gains.

  • The group is "trying to make sure that we fully understand the landscape in our target states," Bireda says.
  • It's also "trying to build an infrastructure of advocates and community support" in those states, "to determine that this is something that communities want."
  • "Because it's more than just the litigation," Bireda says. "We need to make sure that this is a movement within a state that has support."

By the numbers: A poll conducted for Brown's Promise found that 71% of adults support reorganizing school districts for a more racially and economically diverse student body, with 12% opposed.

  • 62% favor school integration without redistricting, with 20% against.

Reality check: School desegregation is difficult — and complicated — to solve.

  • School choice, charter schools and racial segregation in homebuying all play an important role — one that the courts and other measures can't necessarily counteract.

The bottom line: "We are really hoping that we are shifting more toward action-oriented conversation," Amerikaner says.

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