October 1 — 2:09 pm, 2003

Harvard conference attendees envision alternative school districts

While the federal No Child Left Behind legislation gives students currently attending 196 low-performing Philadelphia public schools the right to transfer to higher-performing ones, transferring to a nearby suburban public school is not an option.

But some researchers and policymakers at Harvard University’s "Color Lines Conference" last month want to blur the lines between urban and suburban school districts, developing public school systems that bring all students in a metropolitan area together regardless of where they live. This, they argue, will improve public education and promote racial and socioeconomic integration at the same time.

Over Labor Day weekend the nearly 1,200 activists, policymakers, researchers, and students who attended this inaugural conference-entitled "Segregation and Integration in America’s Present and Future"- participated in a series of panel discussions about racial inequities in public education, health care, the environment, housing, immigration, and the criminal justice system.

The Civil Rights Project (CRP), a Harvard-based racial justice advocacy and research group, spearheaded the gathering, aiming to link theory and practice by bringing together academic researchers, students and policymakers to develop strategies to promote racial equality in the U.S.

With the approach of the fiftieth anniversary of the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which challenged the legality of "separate but equal" public schools, the legacy of Brown in today’s society surfaced repeatedly throughout the conference.

Despite the ongoing persistence of segregation, Brown was a great civil rights victory, said Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and CRP co-director Gary Orfield.

"Brown has made the South a better place," said Orfield, noting that the South is the most integrated part of America for Blacks and Whites today, largely because of the landmark court decision. "Where it was enforced, it made the society different."

But, according to Orfield, over the last two decades, the federal government has abandoned its commitment to promoting racial integration in other parts of the country, particularly in the Northeast, as seen in the racial divide between urban and suburban public school systems.

According to a January 2003 CRP report, between 1990 and 2002 school districts in at least 23 states have been declared "unitary," thereby releasing them from prior court-ordered desegregation rulings.

Given the current movement away from court-ordered school desegregation, Orfield said he believes school district lines need to be redrawn to create regionally based school districts which include both central cities and suburbs within the same school district.

CRP plans to build upon this year’s gathering by publishing the research presented at the event and by continuing to promote partnerships among researchers and policymakers, said Color Lines Conference Director Andrew Grant-Thomas.

CRP’s next Color Lines Conference will take place in the summer of 2006, Grant-Thomas projected.

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