Education professor William Trent has done extensive research on the benefits and consequences of school desegregation, and he has been a consultant or expert witness in several related court cases. He recently served on a National Academy of Education committee that reviewed research on race-conscious policies for assigning students to schools. The committee report was released the day after the Supreme Court announced its decision striking down such policies in Seattle and Louisville schools. Trent was interviewed by News Bureau education editor Craig Chamberlain.
What do you believe will be the significance of the Supreme Court's June 28 decision regarding the Seattle and Louisville schools?
The immediate significance will be to leave many of the nation's students in highly segregated, racially identifiable schools for some indeterminate period of time while educators try to construct effective, allowable means for changing that. The effects of this will include severe limits on the access these children will have to the learning benefits that come in a diverse school setting. And for a substantial number of black and Latino children, it also will mean continued blocked access to a well-developed curriculum and high-quality teachers.
What does the research show regarding the benefits of greater racial diversity in schools?
Diverse learning settings provide children with the opportunity to develop stronger critical thinking skills by virtue of the rich variety of experiences that can be engaged. Similarly, research has shown the potential for improved race relations and its benefits, and the perpetuation of desegregated experiences across other contexts. Finally, the long-term benefits of diverse educational settings have been well demonstrated for their effects on later schooling and work opportunities.
Is there any evidence that the court considered this research in making its decision?
I am not clear on the extent to which the court relied upon the research presented by the school districts and in several amicus briefs. The court did affirm that educational diversity and combating segregation are compelling governmental interests. It also appears that the court does find some alternative "race-conscious" policies appropriate and legal in the pursuit of achieving educational diversity and combating segregation. The available research, however, does not suggest that these policies will achieve the level of desegregation that voluntary race-based school assignment policies have achieved.
What effect will this have on existing and future desegregation efforts?
Each district is different and the impact will be determined slowly for the most part. There will continue to be efforts made by well-organized, well-funded entities that will seek to challenge and intimidate any district that has a plan in place. Such attacks will have a very chilling effect on the will of local school districts to maintain their current efforts, despite what the research and their personal experiences have shown them about the benefits of desegregation. Despite this, some districts with strong leadership on this issue will fully exhaust the court-sanctioned policies for achieving desegregation.
School desegregation was never in and of itself an "educational treatment." It was promoted, rather, as an immediate way of ending the constitutional violation of the civil rights of blacks and other communities of color. Secondly, it was seen as an immediate way of increasing access to the quality of schools and school resources enjoyed by whites, which remains a substantial challenge.
The court's decision curtails the use of "race-based school assignment practices," but affirms the commitment to educational diversity and appears to support desegregation. The court also named alternative race-conscious policies. Once desegregated, schools then can begin the process of developing effectively "integrated" classrooms where equality of educational opportunity could become more a matter of practice. That task also remains.