Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Didn't School Desegregation Work? The Case of Chicago

For the past few days, I've been looking at why attempts to desegregate American schools and equalize opportunities have not been successful.  Tracing the histories of individual school districts, I've argued that the evidence does not support the view that governmental efforts to redistribute educational advantages would work if only we would return to the coercive policies of the 1970s. Instead, if we look at what actually happened in school districts around the nation, mandates to redistribute students by race actually produced more intense segregation and the isolation of minority students.

Chicago, Illinois

Like so many other desegregation cases, the roots of Chicago’s lie in the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Several Chicago parents filed suit in 1961, claiming that the city’s schools were segregated by race. Two years later, attempting to avoid court action, the school board responded by appointing a panel of experts to study the situation, although the board did not act on the panel’s recommendations.
The situation turned more serious in 1965, when the U.S. Commission of Education froze federal funds to the city because of the continuing racial identification of the schools. Political connections temporarily rescued the city, though, because Mayor Richard J. Daley contacted President Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson rescinded the Commission’s cutoff. For the following decade, Chicago largely avoided student redistribution.

Chicago School Superintendent James F. Redmond made some efforts at desegregation, proposing the development of magnet schools and the use of busing in 1967. Still, these types of programs made little headway for the next decade. A new era of pressure from above began in March 1976, when the Illinois State Board of Education told the Chicago Board of Education that the city was not complying with the state’s desegregation rules, and that the state would shut off all funds.
The city board responded to the state’s complaint by initiating its “Access to Excellence” strategy. Chicago school officials pitched “Access to Excellence” as a way of relieving overcrowding in the primarily black schools in its central area. Overcrowding was indeed a problem in many of the central city schools. Clearly, though, much of the motivation for the strategy was the retention of state funds and avoidance of a federal lawsuit.

This 1977 plan aimed at the voluntary transfer of 6,573 black students in 15 overly crowded schools to 51 schools in Chicago’s nearly all-white sections. Some would be transported by school bus and some would be given tokens to ride public transportation to their new schools. By the beginning of the 1977 school year, though, only 1,000 black students had chosen to participate in the program, reportedly because of threats of white violence.[i]

The U.S. Supreme Court added to the complications of desegregation in Chicago, and elsewhere in the nation. The Court ruled at the beginning of 1977 that the affluent, all-white Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights could enact zoning restrictions that would prevent the building of racially integrated housing for people with moderate and low incomes. To be unconstitutional, the zoning would have had to be clearly racially discriminatory in intent, and not just consequence.[ii]
This had two important implications for desegregation. First, it raised the requirements for demonstrating discrimination, in both schools and neighborhoods. Second, it meant that high-income neighborhoods could legally keep out lower income people, making it more difficult to integrate schools by integrating neighborhoods. Exclusive neighborhoods conflicted with goals for achieving inclusive schools.

The voluntary busing may have been voluntary on the part of those riding the school buses and public transport out of central city locations. It was far from voluntary from the perspective of those in the suburbs who were receiving the transfers. The controversy turned violent on September 11, 1977, when whites from Chicago’s Southwest Side area held a candlelight vigil in protest, and an angry black counter-protestor drove a car into the crowd.[iii] White mothers picketed the schools that were receiving central city students, and as many as five hundred white students staged a walkout.[iv]

Just two years after the voluntary desegregation program began in Chicago, a report to the State Superintendent of Education concluded that the $35 million program had had virtually no impact on desegregating the city’s schools. According to the report, 90.3 percent of black students in Chicago would have to be re-assigned to white schools in order to accomplish desegregation.[v]Allowing choice would not achieve the desired goals, even if only the families of minority students could choose.
By October 1979, based on a two-year investigation by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Office of Civil Rights, the federal government accused Chicago of maintaining segregated schools. The federal government demanded that local school officials come up with a plan for redistributing the system’s 475,000 students, who were at that time 60% black, 22% white, 15% Hispanic, and 2% Asian. The Board of Education rejected the HEW conditions, laying itself open to the lawsuit it had tried to avoid.[vi]

For the next year, Chicago and the federal government negotiated. Finally, on September 24, 1980, the Chicago Board of Education, the U.S. Justice Department, and U.S. District Judge Milton I. Shadur came to an agreement on citywide desegregation. The agreement established a broad framework for action, but no specific quotas or numbers of students at particular schools. Acknowledging that demographics dictated that many students would remain in segregated schools, the agreement established that students in majority black or Hispanic schools would be given compensatory education programs.
While majority black or Hispanic schools were acceptable, though, majority white schools were another matter. According to Drew S. Days III, Assistant U.S. Attorney for Civil Rights, “the board would have a very heavy burden to justify majority white schools.”[vii] From the point of view of numbers, the reluctance to allow majority white schools made sense. Whites, after all, had gone down to under 19% of the school population by the beginning of the 1980 school year.

As white students dwindled in numbers, though, increasingly the options open to white families were to place their children in minority-dominated, often low-income schools, or escape from the Chicago system. Given the reluctance of white parents to place their children in schools in which their own racial group was in the minority, this essentially guaranteed that white flight, a fact of life in Chicago for decades, would take on an added speed and volume.

The Board of Education passed a new desegregation measure in the spring of 1981, delaying busing until 1983, and limiting white enrollment to 70% of any school. Under this measure, schools with too many white students would have to gradually cut down on their white enrollments. Those who did not succeed in getting rid of white students would have special programs imposed on them, such as receiving forced transfers.[viii]

Although white avoidance of majority black schools was certainly not the only reason for white movement out of Chicago, the unwillingness of white families to send their children into schools in which the children would be surrounded by economically disadvantaged minority group members helped to eliminate the remaining white neighborhoods in the city. By the time of the 1980 census, Chicago was “a highly segregated city in which an expanding black ghetto is displacing whites at its leading edge and leaving shattered, abandoned areas in its wake.”[ix]

The public received a glimpse of a small part of the on-going cost of desegregation in February 1981. At that time, Chicago Board of Education special counsel for school desegregation Robert Howard billed the school board $87,732 for about five months of legal work on the agreement with the federal government.[x] This was not, of course, the final bill, and it in fact represented only a miniscule portion of the total expense of this process.

Represented by Mr. Howard, in 1983, the school board asked Judge Shadur to force the federal government to provide funds for the desegregation agreement the board had made with the government in 1980. Over a two-year period, the Chicago school system had paid $93.6 million in its own money to implement the agreement, and it expected to pay another $67 million in 1983-84. Since the school board was facing a deficit of $200 million, the members did not know where they would come up with the money.[xi]

Chicago had difficulty getting money out of a federal government that had imposed an expensive line of action on the city. After Judge Shadur ordered Washington, D.C. to pay for part of Chicago’s school desegregation efforts, the U.S. Department of Education responded that it did not have the funds and the Justice Department appealed the order. Illinois Democratic Representative Sidney Yates tried to step in by introducing a bill in Congress to give Chicago $20 million.

After the bill passed, though, President Ronald Reagan vetoed it, saying that Judge Shadur had violated the principle of separation of the powers of the judiciary and legislature by freezing other forms of federal spending in Chicago until Washington supplied money for the Board of Education.[xii] After the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Judge Shadur’s order, in September 1983, Chicago did get its $20 million, but this was less than a fourth of what the Board of Education was by then actually spending on desegregation efforts.[xiii]

Eventually, even the federal judiciary came to recognize that it was not possible to redistribute white students a district does not have. U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras declared at the beginning of 2003 that the agreement between the federal government and the district of the 1980s was no longer workable. He ordered the district to come up with a new desegregation plan, which was approved by the court in the spring of 2004. The only integration possible in Chicago schools in 2004 involved mixing black and Hispanic students. By this time the city’s public school students were 51% black, 36% Hispanic, 9% white, and 3% Asian.[xiv]

After decades of expensive and contentious efforts to shift students around, the futility of desegregation had become evident. Judge Kocoras finally lifted Chicago’s consent decree in September 2009. Chicago Public school officials had urged this step, “…saying it would free up money spent on transportation and other services needed to comply with the decree. Further, they noted that, with just 9 percent white enrollment, more integration was impossible.”[xv]

At the hearing on the decree, “more than a dozen Chicago public school students testified … that a 28-year old desegregation decree has failed them,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times. “They begged for more diversity, more and better books, and better teachers in those schools CPS said it has been unable to desegregate – all of which the 1980 decree was supposed to address.”[xvi] The pleas for more and better books and perhaps also better teachers were understandable. But the school system obviously had no way of furnishing more diversity.

Following the end of the consent decree, the Hispanic proportion continued to increase, becoming a plurality of Chicago students (44.1%) by the 2011-2012 school year. Because of this growth in Hispanic representation, black students were no longer the majority, making up 41.6% of Chicago students in 2011-2012. Whites, however, were still a small minority, at only 8.8% of students, and were concentrated in the system’s magnet and selective schools. Nearly nine out of ten Chicago public school students were classified as low-income by 2012.[xvii]

The federal government forced Chicago to spend millions of dollars on programs that had no discernible positive impact. Although the white proportion of the student population probably would have declined even without desegregation, active efforts to make white students into a minority in any schools they would attend virtually guaranteed their departure. Most remarkable of all, the mostly black and Hispanic leaders of the school district still had to negotiate “desegregation plans” with the federal government until Judge Kocoras agreed to end oversight on the urging of the mostly minority administrators of Chicago’s schools.

Desegregation efforts did not accomplish any narrowing of racial differences in school performance. Journalist Steve Bogira, in June 2013, cited a University of Chicago study that found that between 1990 and 2009 (while Chicago was still under its consent decree) “…racial gaps in achievement steadily increased. White students made more progress than Latino students; African-American students fell further behind all other groups. White, Asian, and Latino students improved modestly in reading, but there were ‘virtually no improvements’ among African-American students, at the elementary or high school levels.”[xviii]

[i]Paul Delaney, “Chicago to Attempt to Integrate Schools After Success in Other Cities,” New York Times, September 4, 1977, A6.
[ii] Lesley Oeslner, “Court Backs Zoning that in Effect Bars Low Income Blacks,” New York Times, January 12, 1977, A1.
[iii] “3 Chicago Youths Injured at an Anti-Busing Rally,” New York Times, September 12, 1977, A18.
[iv] “500 Chicago Students Walk Out Over Busing,” New York Times, September 14, 1977, A16.
[v] Nathaniel Sheppard Jr., “Effort to Integrate Chicago Schools Has Had Little Effect, Study Finds,” New York Times, March 6, 1979, A14.
[vi] “Chicago Board Rejects School Desegregation Under U.S. Conditions,” New York Times, October 18, 1979, B24.
[vii] Casey Banas, “City Must Involve Most Schools in Integration Plan,” Chicago Tribune, September 28, 1980, sec. 1, p. 2.
[viii] Casey Banas, “School Board Oks New Bias Plan,” Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1981, sec. 1, p.1.
[ix] John McCarron and StanelyZiemba, “Still Highly Segregated, Data Show,” Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1981,sec. 1, p. 1.
[x] “School Bill $87,732 for Bias Pact,” Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1981, sec. 5., p.1.
[xi] Jean Latz Griffin, “Schools Sue US for Integration Aid,” Chicago Tribune, June 2, 1983, sec. 1, p. 1.
[xii] John Schmeltzer and John McCarron, “City School Aid Vetoed,” Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1983, sec. 1, p. 1+.
[xiii] Casey Banas, “379 Schools Vie for U.S. Funds,” Chicago Tribune, December 29, 1983, sec. 2, p. 1.
[xiv] Mary Ann Zehr, “Close to Home,” Education Week 23, no, 6 (10 March 2004): 30-34.
[xv]Chicago Catalyst, “Federal Judge Ends Chicago School Desegregation Decree,” accessed October 21, 2013,
[xvi] Rosalind Rossi, “Kids Beg for Better Schools – Students Say the Desegregation Decree Failed Them,” Chicago Sun-Times, January 23, 2009, 14.
[xvii]“Chicago Public Schools:  Stats and Facts,” Website of the Chicago Public School System, accessed October 21, 2013,
[xviii] Steve Bogira, “Trying to Make Separate Equal,” Chicago Reader, June 2013, accessed October 22, 2013,



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