One of the most important rights Americans have is the right to a free public education. No child in the United States, whether native- or foreign-born, can be denied access to a public school for elementary and secondary education. While in theory this means that everyone is entitled to the same educational experience, in fact that is not necessarily the case. Public schools can vary dramatically from community to community simply because some districts have more money to spend on education than others.
For years, segregation of black and white students was quite common. In some places, it was common because local and state laws mandated segregation in one form or another. In other places it was common because neighborhoods were segregated (often by choice) and students went to the closest schools. From the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, segregated schools were protected by the concept of “separate but equal,” upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. Separate but equal was overturned in 1954 in the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, but segregation in the schools continued. In the 1960s and 1970s, efforts were made to desegregate schools across the country. Many of these efforts succeeded, but many failed. A number of desegregation efforts, begun with the best of intentions, turned out to be more divisive than inclusive.
Desegregation is one of the most complex issues educators and parents face. In the 1950s, desegregation was about blacks and whites. When people used the word “minority,” they meant blacks. As of 2002, the entire concept of minorities and diversity has shifted. Minorities can include blacks, Central and South Americans, Southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian), Arabs, and a host of others. This sort of multiple ethnicity existed in large cities for decades, but in the 21st century people are more mobile and even small communities can have a dozen or more ethnic minorities. Consequently, communities cannot merely take a “one size fits all” approach. Finding the right approach to desegregation, or rather, to encouraging diversity in the schools, is an ongoing challenge to school districts across the country.