The principle that schools should not discriminate against minority students was a genuine accomplishment of the post-Brown era. However, desegregation failed to re-design American society not only because of its own unintended consequences, such as middle class flight, but also because the courts from the beginning did not embrace that hubristic goal. As early as the 1968 Green v County School Board of New Kent County Virginia decision, the Supreme Court explicitly stated that desegregation was to undo the damage of de jure segregation, not to remake society. The Green decision also stated that desegregation mandates must be limited in time and must have temporal endpoints. The Court reiterated these points over the course of the following decades, notably in Pasadena v Spangler in 1976 and in Oklahoma City v McDowell in 1991.
At the end of his essay, Kirp speculates that “[i]n theory it’s possible to achieve a fair amount fo integration by crossing city and suburban boundaries…” Anything that we would like to imagine is possible in theory, but, based on past history, I’d suggest that any amount of cross-boundary movement substantial enough to make a difference would result in new waves of flight out of suburban schools near large cities into private schools and more distant suburbs. However, Kirp and I are unlikely to have practical tests of our competing theories. As early as 1974, long before the Court supposedly turned its back on desegregation, the Supreme Court recognized in Miliken v Bradley that the courts cannot order desegregation strategies across district boundaries. Forcing school districts to accept students from families that do not vote for district school board representatives and who do not pay local taxes for schools was pretty clearly unconstitutional, even during what Dr. Kirp recalls as the golden age of desegregation.