WASHINGTON — Poor, black, and Hispanic children are becoming increasingly isolated from their white, affluent peers in the nation's public schools, according to new federal data released Tuesday, 62 years after the Supreme Court decided that segregated schools are "inherently unequal" and therefore unconstitutional.
That landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education began the dismantling of the dual school systems — one for white kids, one for black students — that characterized so many communities across the country. It also became a touchstone for the ideal of public education as a great equalizer, an American birthright meant to give every child a fair shot at success.
But that ideal appears to be unraveling, according to the report from the Government Accountability Office.
The number of high-poverty schools that serve primarily minority students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014, the GAO found. The proportion of such schools — where more than 75 percent of children receive free or reduced-price lunch, and more than 75 percent are black or Hispanic — climbed from 9 percent to 16 percent during the same period.
The problem is not just that students are more isolated, according to the GAO, but that minority students who are concentrated in high-poverty schools don't have the same access to opportunities as students in other schools.
High-poverty, majority-black and Hispanic schools were less likely to offer a full range of math and science courses than other schools, for example, and more likely to use expulsion and suspension as disciplinary tools, according to the GAO.
The GAO conducted its study during the past two years at the request of Democratic lawmakers including Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, and Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Scott said the GAO report provided evidence of an "overwhelming failure to fulfill the promise of Brown."
"Segregation in public K-12 schools isn't getting better; it's getting worse, and getting worse quickly, with more than 20 million students of color now attending racially and socioeconomically isolated public schools," he said in a statement Tuesday.
The resegregation of schools during the past two decades has for the most part happened quietly, in the shadows of loud battles over standardized testing, teacher evaluations, charter schools, and Common Core academic standards.
Segregation has returned to the forefront of education policy discussions only recently, amid broad public debates about race, racism, and widening inequality.
The persistence of racial divisions in the nation's public schools was underscored Friday when a federal judge ordered a Mississippi district to integrate its middle and high schools, capping a legal battle that had dragged on for five decades.
As the US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi put it, Cleveland, Miss. — a town of 12,000 bisected by railroad tracks that divided white families from black — has been running an illegal dual system for its children, failing year after year to reach the "greatest degree of desegregation possible."
Now Cleveland must consolidate its schools, integrating all its students into one middle school and one high school.
The Rev. Edward Duvall, an African-American parent of two children in Cleveland's public schools, said he favored consolidation because it would save money, leaving more funding for classrooms and programs. But that wasn't the only reason: "We can break down this wall of racism that divides us and keeps us separated," he said, according to court documents. "And we could create a new culture in our school system that's going to unite us and unite our whole city."
While schools in Cleveland have never fully desegregated, many other school districts did integrate following the decision in Brown v. Board. But since the 1990s, hundreds of school districts have been released from court-ordered desegregation plans, making way for renewed divisions by race and class.
In 1972, just 25 percent of black students in the South attended the most segregated schools, in which more than 90 percent of students were minorities, according to a 2014 ProPublica investigation. But in districts that emerged from court oversight between 1990 and 2011, more than half of students now attend such segregated schools, ProPublica found.
The investigation found fault with a Justice Department that, starting with the Reagan administration, pulled back from pressuring districts on desegregation and was "no longer committed to fighting for the civil rights aims it had once championed."