Friday, November 21, 2014

Why Didn't School Desegregation Work? The Case of Los Angeles

I've been looking at the question of why school desegregation failed to end the racial isolation of minority students or create equality of academic achievement.  The evidence from the histories of school districts around the country strongly supports the argument that this failure was not the result of a reluctance on the part of policy makers to push hard enough. Instead, the school desegregation movement illustrated the hubris of social policy, the belief that social institutions can be redesigned at will. Today, I'll move to the West Coast and describe what happened in one of the nation's largest school districts.

Los Angeles, California
The desegregation fight in Los Angeles began with the case of Crawford v. Board of Education in 1963, when black parents filed a suit on behalf of black and Latino students to enable minority children to attend then all-white schools.[i] The California district’s first desegregation trial was held in 1967, when white students were a majority of 55%. On February 11, 1970, Superior Court Judge Alfred Gitelson found that the school board had operated a segregated system and he ordered it to take action to desegregate.

The school board appealed Judge Gitelson’s decision. In March 1975, the court of appeal found in favor of the board. In turn, though, this finding was appealed by the American Civil Liberties Union. At the end of June 1976, the California Supreme Court upheld the 1970 ruling by Judge Gitelson. While the state high court reversed a part of Judge Gitelson’s ruling that defined desegregation in terms of specific percentages of students, it ordered the school board to alleviate all of the effects of segregation, regardless of the cause of segregation, and show progress toward that end.

During 1977, the L.A. school board submitted a desegregation plan to the California Supreme Court and began hearings on the plan. In February 1978, Judge Paul Egly issued an order approving the board’s plan as a first step toward desegregation. The following year, Egly ordered that mandatory reassignments of students from current to new schools cover grades one through nine by September 1980, and then include all other grades by 1983.

Judge Egly’s order was complicated by many of the characteristics of Los Angeles. It is a huge district, covering 700 square miles, with minority students most heavily concentrated in South Central L.A. This meant that extremely long daily bus rides would be required to redistribute the city’s students. Many of the districts where the white students lived were surrounded by other suburban school districts, making white movement to less threatened school environments relatively easy.

Los Angeles was a harbinger of the future in many other metropolitan areas because its ethnic composition was far more complex than a simple division between black and white. Some of these other ethnic groups, such as Mexican Americans, felt that the desegregation program was not in their own interests.[ii]  The Los Angeles plan did not appear to take any of these complications into consideration. It was an abstract blueprint imposed from above by command and control planners.


Spurred largely by events in Los Angeles, California voters approved Proposition 1 in 1979, amending the state constitution to prohibit any more busing or school transfers than required under the U.S. Constitution. Although this ended mandatory busing in Los Angeles in 1981 after the Court of Appeals upheld the proposition, voluntary busing of students for school desegregation did continue under a plan approved by Judge Robert B. Lopez in September 1981.

In accordance with the voluntary plan, the school system bused 57,000 voluntary school transferees in 1985. The local NAACP criticized the program in that year, though, because almost all of those being bused were black students. The civil rights organization maintained that a serious attempt to desegregate Los Angeles schools would require busing white students into South Central L.A. Interestingly, Latino education leaders opposed busing, instead favoring greater spending on neighborhood schools within Latino areas.[iii]

Los Angeles also tried to desegregate through the common strategy of magnet schools, offering special educational programs in the hopes of appealing to members of all racial groups. The magnet schools tried to maintain enrollments that were 40% white and 60% nonwhite. By the early 1980s, though, they were already finding it difficult to meet the 40% target for white students.[iv]

In 1982, as many as 10 of the district’s 84 magnet schools contained no white students at all and 18 had fewer than 20% white students. Only 33 were at approximately the target enrollments.[v] Many of the magnet schools were also not providing students with the quality of education promised, and they provided educations that were expensive for taxpayers, but failed to achieve “either distinction or integration.”[vi]

Meanwhile, faced with declining social environments in low-income, majority black schools, many concerned black parents began behaving exactly like middle class whites and engaging in various forms of “black flight.” “Some ... are manipulating the school system to their children’s advantage [by using false addresses to enroll their children in other school districts]. Others are busing their children to schools in white neighborhoods, placing them in special programs, or leaving the public school system altogether.[vii]

Fight over judicial control of the schools continued, even after the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 1. In 1985, voters in West San Fernando Valley, the heart of opposition to busing, elected busing critic and academic David Armor to the Los Angeles School Board out of fear that the area would return to a mandatory program of transporting students around the area.[viii]
Trying to maintain elusive racial balances became increasingly difficult as the population of Los Angeles changed over the course of the 1980s. In 1987, with numbers of minority students in the district rapidly increasing, the school board voted to increase minority enrollments to 70% at 48 magnet schools, while still designating the schools as “integrated.”[ix] The changing of ratios was controversial.

Some critics accused the school board of intentionally creating segregated schools. Others, particularly in the Valley, were upset because bringing down the acceptable proportion of white students in magnet schools to 30% would lower the number of white students who could get into those schools. School board member Roberta Weintraub, speaking to white parents from the Valley, complained that “I’m really tired of our Valley schools getting shafted. My perception is that we will have a massive pullout of the middle class.”[x]

With decreasing opportunities for the white middle class families, many tried devious maneuvers to place their children in desirable school environments. School officials responded with intensified efforts at control. Child-care transfers became a common strategy. District policy permitted parents to transfer their children out of their designated schools if the schools did not provide before or after school childcare or if the parents had arranged for off-campus childcare near another school.

The board found that white parents were using fraudulent child care claims to transfer their children out of minority dominated schools to predominantly white schools. Thus, in the summer of 1988 the board began to refuse this type of exemption to white students transferring into schools that were 70% or more white.[xi] In the name of desegregation, which had originally meant allowing minority students to attend white schools, Los Angeles had begun officially approving schools that were mostly black or Latino, while energetically discouraging schools that were mostly white.

By June 1988, the pointlessness of the district’s long and expensive desegregation suit had become clear. Judge A. Wallace Tashima granted a conditional dismissal of the case that had begun in 1963, and directed the NAACP and the school district to resolve their differences. According to school district counsel Peter James, the dismissal came from the recognition that little could be done to desegregate a school system that was just 17% white.[xii] After bitter and difficult negotiations between the two parties, the judge finally dismissed the suit in March 1989, twenty-six years after its beginning.

The white proportion of public schools had dropped still further from the previous year, to less than 16%. The Los Angeles Times reported that there was a wide and persistent gap in academic achievement between the minority students and the small number of whites who were left. “More than 20 years after the Los Angeles Unified School District began its original busing program to integrate schools, the minority pupils in that program are doing little or no better than the students they leave behind in segregated schools and much worse than their white classmates.”[xiii]

In the years following the end of desegregation, the percentage of black students in the Los Angeles Unified School District did decline, as did numbers of black students. The district registered black enrollments of 82,423 in 2005-2006 (11.4% of all students), which declined to 69,143 in 2009-2010 (10.2%). This did not represent growing desegregation, in the traditional sense of greater contact between minority students and whites, though. Instead, it reflected the demographic changes we discussed above.

Los Angeles schools had become a concentration of Hispanics, who made up about three-fourths of the district's student body (73.4%) in 2009-2010. Within the district, schools were generally racially identifiable, mostly as Hispanic, but in some cases as black. In the 2011-2012 school year, for example, Douglass High School was 92.1% black and 7.4% Hispanic. It had no recorded white students. Camino Nuevo High School, on the other hand, was 96.6% Hispanic and only 0.2% black. Camino Nuevo had only four white students in that year.[xiv]

After all of the expense and all of the conflict over desegregation, Los Angeles still had schools that were almost all black or almost all Hispanic. White students had become a scarce commodity. This was not entirely a result of white flight from the schools. Demographic change from immigration also played a large part. But the fact remains that social planners' schemes to redistribute students by race had proved futile in the Los Angeles School District.





[i] Jim Mann, “18 Years En Route, LA Busing Arrives at the Highest Court,” Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1982, 1-2.
[ii] Robert Lindsey, “Anger in California” New York Times, March 5, 1978, E4.
[iii] David G. Savage, “School Integration, Crowding: Solutions in Conflict?” Los Angeles Times, October 27. 1985, sec. 2, p.1.
[iv] “14,000 Apply for ‘Magnet’ Schools,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1982, 25.
[v]Ibid.
[vi]William Trombley, “Major Problems Face Magnet Schools,” Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1982, 2.
[vii] Lee Harris and TendayiKumbula, “Many Parents Giving Up on Black Public Schools,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1982: 1+.
[viii] Pamela Moreland, “Armor Doesn’t Miss a Beat in Battle Against Busing,” Los Angeles Times, June 6. 1985, 3.
[ix]Pamela Moreland, “Board Raises Ratio of Minority Enrollments for 48 L.A. Schools,” Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1987, 1.
[x] Pamela Moreland, “Valley is ‘Getting Shafted,’ Weintraub Says of Magnet Proposal,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1987, 3.
[xi] Pamela Moreland, “L.A. Schools’ White Limits at 11 Schools is Reinforced,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1988, 1.
[xii] Elaine Woo, “Judge Tells NAACP to Settle Lawsuit,” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1988, 1.
[xiii]Sandy Banks, “Minority Gains Limited in L.A. Busing Program,” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1990, 1.
[xiv] Los Angeles Unified School District, District and School Profiles, accessed October 25, 2013, http://search.lausd.k12.ca.us/cgi-bin/fccgi.exe?w3exec=PROFILE0.

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