In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that there was no fundamental right to education and that the courts could not guarantee poor students in a heavily Hispanic district — or anywhere — equally funded schools.
In 1974, the court narrowly overturned a district court judge’s intercounty busing plan in Milliken v. Bradley: The existence of largely white suburban school districts and “predominantly Negro school population in Detroit” were, according to Justice Potter Stewart's concurring opinion, “caused by unknown and perhaps unknowable factors such as in-migration, birth rates, economic changes or cumulative acts of private racial fears” — and thus not subject to corrective judicial action.
Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, went on to serve as the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice. He issued a sharp dissent in both cases, protesting in Milliken that it was “the duty of the State to eliminate root and branch all vestiges of racial discrimination and to achieve the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation.”
But in Milliken, the court espoused a sleight-of-hand philosophy: Race blindness replaced Brown’s principle of racial justice. That philosophy controls American politics and jurisprudence today. Chief Justice John Roberts adeptly summarized the idea in 2007, when the court struck down integration programs in schools in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” he wrote.
Today’s version of segregation is enforced not through “whites only” signage or a governor blocking the schoolhouse door, but through disparate property-tax bases. Wealthy homeowners fund their own affluent school districts while poor homeowners try, and fail, to fund schools for poor children with the greatest needs. That’s why advocates are now focused on addressing the divided neighborhoods at the root of the education divide, fighting to bring economic and racial diversity to affluent suburbs that fortify the walls of the ghetto by prohibiting affordable housing.
New Jersey has become a laboratory. In 1975, the state Supreme Court handed down the historic Mount Laurel decision that (along with later court decisions) mandated that affordable housing be built in the township of Mount Laurel and in municipalities statewide. Research conducted by Princeton sociologist Douglas S. Massey and colleagues found that the low-income tenants who live in Mount Laurel thanks to the ruling have had their lives and educations transformed for the better, while affluent locals have suffered no ill effect.
A self-described reform movement, which calls for expanded charter schools and evaluating teacher effectiveness based on test scores, now dominates American public-education policy debates. It has largely abandoned the civil rights movement’s dream of integrated schools and instead blames public management and teachers’ unions for poor students’ troubles. Notably, the Civil Rights Project study found that 73 percent of New York City charters are “apartheid schools,” with less than 1 percent white enrollment.
“Today, 95 percent of education reform is about trying to make high-poverty schools work,” Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg told The Washington Post in 2010, discussing a study finding that low-income students in Montgomery County, Maryland, benefited from attending high-income schools. “This research suggests there is a much more effective way to help close the achievement gap. And that is to give low-income students a chance to attend middle-class schools.”
Integration is a powerful tool for school reform, and it has the virtue of finally achieving social justice.