Fueled by a widening wealth gap between whites and minorities and racially stratified neighborhoods, public schools in the United States have grown more segregated today than they were in the 1970s.
As much as a third of African American students currently attend schools that are more than 90 percent black, according to studies. What's more, a third of black students and Latino students attend schools where at least 75 percent of pupils receive free or discounted lunch, indicating a disproportionate share of poor children.
For decades, educators and sociologists have documented the disadvantages to minority children being taught in segregated classrooms, and the long term and short term educational benefits of integration for children of color. But we have neglected the strong evidence that white students also benefit from school diversity.
A recent research paper by the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD), "How Non-Minority Students Also Benefit from Racially Diverse Schools," concludes that white students benefit from attending multicultural schools in a number of ways. For instance, white students in diverse learning environments are exposed to complex classroom discussions and they also develop better critical thinking and problem-solving skills than their counterparts in racially homogenous schools.
The paper's author, Dr. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an assistant professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education and a member of NCSD's Research Advisory Panel, said white students in diverse learning environments are also more likely to understand issues of social injustice and exhibit lower levels of racial prejudice.
Her research challenges the longstanding notion that integrated schools serve the best interests of minorities exclusively.
White students won't be "dumbed down" by attending schools with black and brown peers. In fact, their test scores actually improve with diversity. According to NCSD's research review, an analysis of 59 social science articles about the impact of school demographics on math scores found that students from all racial and class backgrounds who attended integrated schools performed better in math at each grade level.
Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the advantages of multicultural learning environments, finding in the 2007 case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1, that school integration and reduction of racial isolation was a "compelling" government interest.
Clearly, as our nation grows increasingly diverse, it has never been more important than to push for further integration of our schools.
But integration has become a forgotten public policy, one that blacks and whites overwhelmingly say they want, but our leaders stop short of enacting practices that can make it happen. In 1942 only 33 percent of whites thought that blacks and whites should attend the same schools, while today a staggering 95 percent of whites support diverse schools. Yet, schools remain segregated and political support for school diversity programs is floundering.
To increase support for diverse schools, there must be more awareness of the benefits to all children, benefits that impact life outcomes long after they have graduated.
Racially homogenous schools aren't adequately preparing youths for the challenges they face in the world today. Surveys of white high school students in Jefferson County, Kentucky, found that 75 percent said that diverse classrooms enabled them to better understand different points of view. And two-thirds of these students said that their diverse learning environment left them feeling "very prepared" for a diverse workplace.
That's remarkable given that corporate America spends up to $300 million annually on diversity training to teach workers how to interact with people from different backgrounds.
Today, whites make up just more than half of public school students nationwide, a sharp decline from 1970 when the number was 80 percent. The percentage is continuing to drop, underscoring the need to re-energize the push to establish integrated schools so that students from all walks of life can benefit.
Here's more proof of the role that diverse schools play in quality of education: The racial achievement gap in schools narrowed the most ever in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. It's not a coincidence that the time period marked the point when schools were the most integrated in our country's history.
Armed with this data, school integration must once again become a priority -- for our children, for our communities and for our future.
Philip Tegeler is executive director of the Policy & Race Research Action Council, a civil rights policy organization based in Washington, D.C.