A Tale Of Two School Districts In many parts of the U.S., public school districts are just minutes apart, but have vastly different racial demographics — and receive vastly different funding. That's in part due to Milliken v. Bradley, a 1974 Supreme Court case that limited a powerful tool for school integration.
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A Tale Of Two School Districts

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A Tale Of Two School Districts

A Tale Of Two School Districts

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court threw up a huge obstacle to school integration. And the court's only black justice, Thurgood Marshall, wrote the dissenting opinion.

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THURGOOD MARSHALL: Our nation, I fear, will be ill served by this court's refusal to remedy separate and unequal education. For unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together and understand each other.

MERAJI: Justice Marshall went on to say the court's decision, in his view...

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MARSHALL: Is more a reflection of a perceived public mood that we have gone far enough enforcing the constitutional guarantee of equal justice than is the product of neutral principles of law.

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MERAJI: This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Milliken v. Bradley is the Supreme Court case we're talking about on this episode...

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MERAJI: ...Its history, and its effect on public school education in this country today. In a 5-4 decision, the court stopped a busing plan in Michigan that was designed to desegregate Detroit's public schools. This came two decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that was supposed to end public school segregation. So what happened?

Well, the public mood in the United States that Justice Marshall wrote about in his dissent, it was fearful and angry. More specifically, this was the mood of many white American voters who could not stand the idea of busing their kids into black neighborhoods to attend public schools, nor the idea of busing black children into predominantly white school districts. First up, here's Cory Turner from NPR's Ed team.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: That fear and anger helped propel Richard Nixon to the White House. And in just a few years, he filled not one but four vacancies on the Supreme Court, including tapping Warren Burger to be chief justice.

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WARREN BURGER: Arguments next are No. 73434, 35, 36. Milliken against Bradley.

TURNER: Leaders from the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit had been sued by black parents for using policies that helped segregate Detroit's schools. Two thirds of students there were African American, while growing suburbs were almost exclusively white. The plaintiffs argued that school policies reinforced racist housing practices that had trapped black families inside the city. It was a story playing out across the country.

MICHELLE ADAMS: The story was the story of American apartheid.

TURNER: Michelle Adams is a professor at Cardozo Law School in New York City. She's writing a book on the Milliken case and says federal redlining of neighborhoods and race-based restrictions on house deeds made it hard, if not impossible, for black families to move to the suburbs.

ADAMS: They were contained. And over and over and over again, the plaintiffs used this phrase, contained, and this theory of containment.

TURNER: And the children of Detroit were being contained by school district lines. The state was pouring money into shiny new suburban schools, but building them behind district lines that acted like fences. A lower court judge ruled the only way to desegregate Detroit was to tear down those lines and to bus students between the city and 53 suburban school districts. The suburbs fought that ruling in the Supreme Court. Here's attorney William Saxton.

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WILLIAM SAXTON: There is no evidence in this case that any school district in the state of Michigan, including Detroit, was established or created with the purpose of fostering racial segregation in the public schools.

ELISE BODDIE: First of all, he's making this issue a question of white guilt or innocence.

TURNER: Elise Boddie is a professor at Rutgers Law School, and she says Detroit's suburbs were essentially saying...

BODDIE: We know there may be a problem of segregation, but it's not our fault. We're not responsible for it.

TURNER: No one disputed that Detroit's schools were profoundly segregated. The fight in Milliken was over who should have to fix it. Should those dozens of booming white suburbs have to share their schools and potentially bus some of their kids into Detroit? Michelle Adams says they didn't think so, even though they had benefited from racist policies.

ADAMS: We all want to think about ourselves as, you know, independent actors who make our own way. It's very American. But when you peel some of that back and you're forced to acknowledge that in fact some of the things that you got were provided from of a wide variety of actors that acted in a racist fashion, maybe you don't feel so great about it.

TURNER: The plaintiffs in Milliken argued the suburbs should not be allowed to hide behind artificial school district lines. But the suburbs said...

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ROBERT DERENGOSKI: These are not artificial lines.

TURNER: That's Robert Derengoski, Michigan's solicitor general. And this tape of oral arguments in early 1974 comes from the website oyez.org.

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DERENGOSKI: People arrange their lives according to where that line rests on the map. If you move the line, people would rearrange their lives over a period of time, according to where those lines are.

TURNER: The suburbs argued, the federal courts had no right to cross or change our school district lines, or to force kids into or out of our schools, unless they can prove that we're responsible for Detroit's segregation problem. A 5-4 court agreed. Of the five justices in that majority, four had been appointed by President Nixon. In the end, the suburbs were held blameless and their schools off limits. Detroit was told to somehow desegregate itself - an unrealistic demand, said the court's only African American justice.

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MARSHALL: For these reasons, the Detroit-only plan simply has no hope of achieving actual desegregation.

TURNER: Justice Thurgood Marshall offered this dissent.

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MARSHALL: Under such a plan, white and Negro students will not go to school together. Instead, Negro children will continue to attend all-Negro school. The very evil that Brown was aimed at will not be cured but will be perpetuated.

TURNER: Marshall knew because schools are funded through local property taxes that these segregated big-city districts weren't just separate but clearly unequal. Justice Marshall warned, this should worry everyone.

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MARSHALL: The rights at issue in this case are too fundamental to be abridged on the grounds as superficial as those relied on by the majority opinion today. We deal here with the rights of all of our children, whatever their race, their right to an equal start in life, to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens. Children who have been denied that right in the past deserve better than to see fences thrown up to deny them the right in the future. Our nation, I fear, will be ill served by this court's refusal to remedy separate and unequal education. For unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together and understand each other.

Desegregation is not and was never expected to be an easy task. Racial attitudes ingrained in our nation's childhood and adolescence not quickly thrown aside in its middle years. But just as the inconvenience of some cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the right of others, so public opposition, no matter how strident, cannot be permitted to divert this court from the enforcement of the constitutional principles at issue in this case. Today's holding, in my view, is more a reflection of a perceived public mood that we have gone far enough enforcing the constitutional guarantee of equal justice than is the product of neutral principles of law.

The short run may seem to be the easier cause to allow our metropolitan areas to be divided up into two cities, one white, the other, black. But it is a cause I predict our people will ultimately regret. And for these reasons, I respectfully dissent.

MERAJI: Nearly half a century after Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that opinion, U.S. schools are still incredibly segregated. And people like Rebecca Sibilia from EdBuild, a nonprofit that studies public school funding, points straight to Milliken.

REBECCA SIBILIA: One in 5 students are going to school in districts that could easily be desegregated by crossing a school district border, and the federal government has taken themselves out of the game in terms of being able to provide that solution.

MERAJI: After the break, even more on Milliken's effect on public school integration...

ELAINE GROSS: Where was I? The schools, they mirror the residential segregation.

MERAJI: ...'Cause we're headed to Long Island. Stay with us.

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MERAJI: Shereen. Just Shereen. CODE SWITCH. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in the Milliken v. Bradley case that the federal government couldn't mandate desegregation across school district borders. So you can desegregate schools within the same school district but not across school districts. Confusing. I know. That's why we've invited Elissa Nadworny from NPR's Ed team to talk more about what that means and how it's still affecting public schools all these years later. Hey, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hey, Shereen.

MERAJI: All right. Explain to me why desegregation efforts within public school borders but not across public school borders doesn't actually help integrate public schools.

NADWORNY: So first we have to start with housing. So if you think about kind of where people live, that's going to dictate what schools they go to, where they send their kids. And so we have a system in the U.S. in which we have historically put certain groups of people, mostly divided by race, in certain pockets. And so when the school district lines are drawn around where people live, you've got divisions.

MERAJI: Yes. Hashtag #housingsegregationandeverything.

NADWORNY: (Laughter) Seriously. Yeah. I mean, like, you see it today in how people buy houses and how they pick where they live. It's based on the school district. So it's kind of this, you know, continually cyclical thing.

MERAJI: And so what I'm hearing from you is it makes no sense to desegregate within a district that is concentrated either with only people of color or only white people because of the way these lines were drawn.

NADWORNY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you saw that in actually the Milliken case in the '70s. As Cory explained, kind of Detroit, which is predominantly African American, they're saying, hey, like, we don't actually have enough other raced children to actually integrate our schools. Like, we have to look across district lines in order to make this happen. And this is all over the country.

MERAJI: Knowing this, have we moved the needle, then, on public school segregation post Brown v. Board?

NADWORNY: So that's kind of a tricky question because, sure, in some places, we have. We actually see it a lot more in the South. In the South, the school district lines are for the county, so that's kind of, like, a metropolitan area. So it's a city and maybe some suburbs, some rural areas. When the school district lines are broad enough that you can have proper integration within the school district, we've seen a lot of integration efforts. I mean, we are nowhere near where we should be. I think research has shown that kind of we peaked in, like, the '70s and '80s, and we've just gone downhill since then. But that said, today, let's just take black students living in, say, Mississippi. There are more black students in Mississippi today who are going to school with white children than there were Brown v. Board time. So in that sense, yes, we've definitely moved the needle on certain places, but in a lot of places, we haven't.

So one of the ways that we can kind of see where it's working and where it's not working is because of an organization called EdBuild. So they're this nonprofit that investigates school funding inequities and how race plays into certain districts. They looked at districts that neighbor each other - so districts right up against each other. So you could have a kid kind of living right across the street from another kid, and they go to different school districts - right? - 'cause that line has to be somewhere. And they were looking especially at race - so the racial makeup of the student body - and how much funding each district got. So per pupil funding is kind of the metric we use, and that's how much money does the school have to spend on each kid? So they looked at these two factors, and they wanted to narrow in to borders, neighbors that differed a lot on both of those factors. So it's not just segregation. It's also resources.

MERAJI: And what did they find?

NADWORNY: They identified about a thousand school districts that differed substantially by their racial makeup of the students and by how much money they were getting per student per year. So on the nonwhite side, those school districts were getting about $4,000 less per student per year than their wealthier, whiter neighbors.

MERAJI: And how is that affecting the kids, especially the kids on the side that are getting $4,000 less?

NADWORNY: I talked to Rebecca Sibilia, who's the founder and CEO of EdBuild, about this. And she pointed to the fact that 9 million children - so that's nearly 1 in 5 public school students in the U.S. - they attend schools on the disadvantaged side of that line. So they're racially isolated, and they receive far less money.

SIBILIA: The kids that sit on the advantaged side of those borders, there's only about 2.9 million of them. And so what we understand is that in our country, basically, for every one student that has advantage based on these borders that we've drawn, they leave behind three of their neighbors. And that is the kind of growing inequity that we've seen in our society certainly since the '70s. And this Supreme Court ruling in Milliken has basically created the school district border as a fundamental tool to further fracture society.

NADWORNY: Yeah. I love what she says there - to further fracture society. I mean, in reporting this, I've heard people refer to school district lines as weapons or, like, shields to keep people out. I mean, it's amazing kind of the power that these lines have had. The other interesting thing is that this isn't just a Southern issue. Like, I think people, when we talk about segregation or unequal schools, they think of the South, and that's not true.

SIBILIA: Oftentimes, when we're looking at the impact of school district lines, we find that they impact states that you wouldn't expect much more than they impact the South. The states that have relied on school district lines historically and continue to in order to segregate communities are New York, New Jersey, California. For every one student in California with advantage in a neighbor pair, there are 12 students that are left behind.

MERAJI: She also mentioned New Jersey and New York there, and I am curious, how have those districts taken advantage of this Milliken decision to maintain de facto segregation in their states? Have they?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So I think the easiest way to kind of illustrate this is to talk about how many school districts there are in some of these places. Take Long Island for example. There are more than 125 school districts. So this is for maybe about half a million students. So think about that versus, like, a Los Angeles, which serves about the same number of students but is one school district. So you've got 125 school districts on Long Island. It's a patchwork. I mean, you drive 15 minutes, and you're in another school district, and you drive 15 more minutes, and you're in another one.

MERAJI: Did this happen, like, post Milliken?

NADWORNY: No. So Long Island has always had a ton of school districts. And in many other places, even in New York state and across the country, over time, all these school districts were consolidated. In Long Island, there's been a real hesitancy to do that. And that's mostly linked with this idea of local control. So that's the idea of local money going to local schools. So one of the things we're seeing post-Milliken is this idea of breaking away from larger districts. So this happened around Birmingham, Ala. So little sections, mostly white, trying to secede from the county district. And you remember, we were talking about the South, how in many places it was more integrated because the districts follow county lines. So they're much bigger. It's more like a metropolitan school district.

And now we're seeing these pockets, these, like, wealthier, whiter suburbs say, actually, we don't want to be in the county school district. We're going to secede and make our own little school district because of Milliken, 'cause it's going to protect us from having to share our students and share our money.

MERAJI: So it's almost like they're taking a nod from places like Long Island, which is where you went.

NADWORNY: Sure. Absolutely. I went to Nassau County, which is home to several different districts. But it includes Garden City Union Free School District and Hempstead Union Free School District. So those are kind of long, wonky titles. But essentially, they're neighboring towns, Hempstead and Garden City, and they have their own school districts. They're right next to each other, right in the middle of Long Island. So if you think about Long Island, it's kind of, like, this long stretch out from New York City with water on both sides. And Hempstead and Garden City are right in the middle.

MERAJI: Got it.

NADWORNY: I wanted to see the lines. I wanted to drive the lines between the two school districts. I had heard so much about it, and so I wanted to see it myself.

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GROSS: I'll just turn down Front Street here.

NADWORNY: I went with Elaine Gross, who runs a nonprofit called a Erase Racism. And she took me driving to see these two communities.

GROSS: You know immediately that you've, on this one street, you've left Garden City, and now you're in Hempstead.

NADWORNY: As we're driving, these big houses, green lawns, country clubs, they're behind us in Garden City. And we're driving towards Hempstead. And you can just - like, the street changes below the car. It becomes full of potholes, not smooth. The houses are closer to the sidewalk. The green essentially goes away. You know, instead of these big houses, they're now apartment buildings right up against the sidewalk. I mean, you just know instantly that you've changed, and you're now in Hempstead.

GROSS: Where was I? The schools. They mirror the residential segregation.

NADWORNY: So this is exactly what we've been talking about and what EdBuild found. The schools reflect this housing segregation, the racial makeup of these two neighboring towns. And again, these are, you know, 15 minutes from each other. But if you look at Hempstead's public schools, they're 2% white. Garden City schools, 87% white.

MERAJI: Wow. So 15 minutes away, and it's drastically different racially.

NADWORNY: So, you know, the other thing that's worth mentioning is the difference in funding here. So again, it's not just racially segregated. It's that the students in Hempstead are getting about $5,000 less per year than the students in Garden City. So I saw this kind of firsthand, just being in both of the district's high schools. You see this just in the actual quality of the buildings. But it's also evident in the number of computers they have and textbooks and what their library looks like. I mean, there's differences in kind of the classes that they offer.

You know, the other thing, we looked at a website called Donors Choose, which is where teachers can put up kind of fundraising initiatives for their school. So this is where they would put a project, or they would ask for money for something that they're working on in the school year. And we looked at Hempstead and Garden City, and you can see differences in what the teachers request. I mean, in Garden City, it's things like money for field trips or for their robotics lab. In Hempstead, teachers are asking for more basic needs - food, clothing, things for their students.

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GROSS: We are now in Garden City again. And you'd see the difference in the houses.

NADWORNY: As we kind of drove around, Elaine was giving me the history of this place. You know, it used to be all potato fields out here. I don't know if you've been to Long Island recently...

MERAJI: I have never been to Long Island. How 'bout that?

NADWORNY: It is houses, houses, houses, houses, houses. I mean, this is essentially, like, what we think of as suburbia. Elaine brought me to this park, and it's right on the edge of Hempstead. It's in Garden City, but it's right on the line. And it's a really beautiful park. It's lush, green, new swings. And this park, for Elaine, it represents this clear division between the two communities because it is a park that is clearly for just the folks in Garden City.

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GROSS: It could be one of those things that you're just supposed to know. What does that sign say over on the right?

NADWORNY: This area - this area for use by Garden City residents only.

GROSS: Yeah. There you go. (Laughter).

NADWORNY: But it's a public park.

GROSS: But it's a public park for people who live in Garden City.

MERAJI: Wow. So this is what we're dealing with.

NADWORNY: And it's right in your face in a way that, I think, in a lot of places, it's a little bit more hidden.

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NADWORNY: So as we drive and we're kind of seeing this literally outside our window, Elaine is talking about that history.

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GROSS: The intention was to permanently keep blacks out because the deeds had racial covenants saying that the owners, those white owners, the original owners, could not resell to someone who was not Caucasian. And so certainly, the intention was to forever, (laughter), keep out black people. Talk about a structural impediment. You can't get any more obvious than that.

NADWORNY: There are legacies even today. I mean, you think about kind of where people live and why Garden City has almost no multi-family housing.

MERAJI: Right. It's all single-family homes.

NADWORNY: Exactly. And just in that little detail, like, you know, if you want to rent or you're living with other family members or you're a recent immigrant, like, you're going to live in Hempstead, not Garden City.

MERAJI: What about the students who go to these very different schools who can't play in a public park together?

NADWORNY: Yeah. I mean, they notice it. Of course, they notice it. This is the thing that they live.

DARAENO EKONG: It takes a lot to change the way people think.

NADWORNY: That's Daraeno Ekong. So she was a high school student last year, so she was a senior, and she graduated. And I met with her on one of the last days of the school year at Hempstead High School.

EKONG: Today, I have AP literature, AP biology, Spanish and AP statistics, and then I have band.

MERAJI: Wow.

NADWORNY: Her - yeah. Her schedule is packed (laughter) as, you know, a high school student heading off to Yale.

MERAJI: Oh, there we go.

NADWORNY: So she's going to be at Yale this fall. It's funny. She went to accepted students day at Yale, and she got to talking with other students who would be starting in the fall, freshmen like her, and it was there that she kind of realized that...

EKONG: Like, they have more resources that they've had at their schools, so kind of finding a way to kind of catch up to them.

MERAJI: That's so interesting to me that she had to go all the way to Yale to talk to other students to realize that these students had more resources than she did when, 15 minutes away, there's this school that is so completely different from the school that she was attending.

NADWORNY: When I asked her about Garden City, she said, oh, I've actually never been there. She's never talked to a student who went there. She'd never gone to a sporting event or over to their campuses. She's never seen Garden City students over at Hempstead either.

EKONG: They see what Hempstead is on the news or, like, in the newspaper, but they don't actually interact with Hempstead students to see that, oh, we might be thinking the same way or we might do the same things, you know.

NADWORNY: It was really interesting to talk with her because I think she wants that. She wants to foster friendship across districts. And that's exactly the point that Thurgood Marshall was trying to make in his dissent 45 years ago.

MERAJI: And to that point, thinking about the Supreme Court, I can't help but think that there's nothing anyone can do to rectify this problem outside of taking in another case all the way up to the Supreme Court that will somehow make this Milliken ruling no longer have any teeth.

NADWORNY: Well, I - you know, it's super interesting, the courts issue. Like, the role of the courts, they have been kind of this powerful thing in making change. And I asked Rebecca about this, and she says courts are still an option, even state courts.

SIBILIA: Milliken v. Bradley was a lawsuit that was brought by one woman who was representing the children that she had enrolled in her public schools. Any person out there can become a plaintiff in a lawsuit that sues the state to say we'll no longer take this kind of unequal treatment. There are very tangible things that parents and teachers and community members can be doing in order to raise pressure to change the system.

MERAJI: I hear that, but I also feel like if that's the case, then why do we still have this problem of a de facto segregation in our public schools in the United States?

NADWORNY: Yeah. I mean, I think it's also worth noting kind of, like, where power lies. Like, who are state legislatures and what do they care about? I mean, that's kind of where a lot of this potentially could change. Those are the folks who are deciding where district borders are and how we fund schools. And Rebecca talked about this a little bit, about how parents and community organizations, they can put pressure on these folks, too, that are making the decisions. I mean, you don't have to wait a decade to change where these districts are drawn. They could be changed the next legislative cycle if we wanted to. But the reality is this is really hard. There's a reason why this case happened in 1974 45 years ago and things haven't really moved.

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NADWORNY: Clearly, history has shown us that it's an uphill battle, but I think, you know, there is a little bit of hope.

MERAJI: Yeah. And hopefully after people listen to this podcast, they'll see these borders. Although they're invisible, they're not. They're actually quite visible. And maybe it'll open the eyes of some of our listeners to where these borders exist and where there's these very stark differences between school districts and how kids' educations are funded.

NADWORNY: Yeah. I think that's absolutely right.

MERAJI: Well, thanks, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Thank you.

MERAJI: Elissa Nadworny covers education for NPR's Ed team.

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MERAJI: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. And we want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Send us your burning questions with the subject line ASK CODE SWITCH. We will answer them here on this podcast. You know we will. Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch and subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan with help from Jess Kung. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond and a big shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Kat Chow, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Sami Yenigun, LA Johnson and, of course, Gene Demby. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Gene's back next week. Peace.

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