Peter Pringle's America: White flight knows no law

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IT IS a risky business observing anniversaries of ageing laws that resulted in great and good things. Invariably, something goes bad under the dust of time. So it is with the 40th anniversary of the desegregation ruling in Brown v the Board of Education.

The Supreme Court set the stage for the end of America's apartheid system. 'In the field of public education,' wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren, 'the doctrine of 'separate but equal' (which was deemed constitutional in 1896) has no place.' The ruling paved the way for an end to discrimination in education, employment, voting and housing. The law made a huge difference in the South, where it was aimed, but it took a long time. Six years after Oliver Brown filed his anti-segregation suit in Topeka, Kansas, there were no blacks in public schools or universities in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi or Virginia.

The country is a different one now, and a whole lot better. Between 1976 and 1993 black scores in the verbal section of the national college entrance exam rose 21 points, while white scores fell by seven. But black averages were still 91 points below whites'. While Brown permitted children of any colour to attend any school, it did not guarantee them a good education.

American schools are still far from integrated, and in some cases, due to 'white flight' to the suburbs, less so than 40 years ago. This is especially true in the northern cities of New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit. Public schools there are more racially segregated than many Southern urban schools. In New York, for example, where school segregation was abolished in 1938, there are no white students in Public School 72 in East Harlem. Each of the 760 pupils is either black or Latino. The children are poor, and the school has fewer funds than its counterparts in more affluent neighbourhoods.

In New York, the issue is no longer black-white, but black-white-Latino. A recent Harvard University study rated New York state public schools among the most segregated in the nation, followed by Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey. New York state was the most segregated for Latino children, and third for blacks. Adding to the problem is the growing number of Asian children, now about 9 per cent of the total. And the 'white flight' to the suburbs continues.

Whites made up 55 per cent of the city school system in 1955, 33 per cent in 1974, and 18 per cent today. Now, nearly 60 per cent of New York schools have more than 90 per cent minority students. Nor will whites return to inner cities until schools there give as good an education as can be found outside the city limits. A more aggressive school bus policy is not the answer. It lacks political support and is constantly challenged in the courts.

The result is a new inequality: the minority schools stay segregated not only by race but also by resources. Blacks cry out for more money for black schools - not quite what the Brown ruling had envisaged 40 years down the road. In New York, the average inner-city public school receives a third less funding than those in predominantly white counties.

What can be done? Spending public money on urban schools does not have enough public support. Texas and Michigan recently turned down such proposals. New Jersey threw out its governor, Jim Florio, who tried to order redistribution of education funds by law. So civil liberties groups are challenging funding through the courts as unconstitutional according to state laws. Similar cases are current in Alabama and New York.

Efforts are also under way to change school catchment areas that permit residential segregation to be reflected in the schools.

In some parts of the country, states have set up 'magnet schools' where suburban whites are lured into inner-city schools with the promise of better facilities - computers, sports rooms, swimming pools. Kansas City, Missouri, has 56 'magnet' schools, improved at a cost of more than dollars 1bn. Blacks have benefited, but the schools are less integrated than they were when the programme began. Understandably, black parents feel insulted: why should a few whites, bused in at huge cost, improve their children's education? Also, suburban blacks are excluded.

To counter this cultural slur, 62 per cent of blacks support the creation of all-male public schools for black youth - a move the courts still declare illegal. But the trend to black institutions won't go away. Black students are increasingly demanding - and being given - their own hostels, cultural centres and black studies departments.

Clearly the pursuit of forced integration under Brown has reached its limits. A handful of wise men can pass progressive laws, but people's needs change over time. All possibilities of raising the educational level of minority children should be pursued, but always with the aim of integration in mind. The first step is to improve teaching standards in inner-city schools, with a focus on the basics of reading, writing and maths, not on expensive frills - gyms, computers and engineering labs. If educational standards generally rise, integration should follow.