Education Reformers Say It's Time for a New Civil Rights Era

Some say there's a new kind of segregation in schools, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

Students protest in support of affirmative action, outside the Supreme Court during the hearing of "Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action" on Oct. 15, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
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The civil rights movement that desegregated American schools may have happened several decades ago, but some say segregation and discrimination have slowly resurfaced over the years in a new form: segregation based on both race and income.

Gary Orfield, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, says many of the civil rights reforms put in place following Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 were only seriously enforced for a few years, and that other provisions have been slowly stripped away in the years since the landmark case.

[READ: Obama Administration OK's 'Lawful' College Affirmative Action Programs]

"Race matters deeply in the U.S. and we are pretending that it does not," Orfield said at the American Educational Research Association's Brown Lecture in Education research Oct. 24. "Being colorblind in a segregated and unequal nation means accepting persistent inequality and blaming the victims. There is a long, often sad history and it is not over."

The debate regarding colorblind policies in American education, both at the K-12 and postsecondary level, has a long and heated history. But according to Orfield, the issue never really went away.

"The core anti-discrimination aspect of civil rights policy is often neglected because people assume that discrimination only happened in the past," Orfield said. "To expand opportunity, education policy must be supported by policies that improve opportunity in homes and communities."

Most recently, the debate has gained renewed strength in the midst of affirmative action cases returning to the high court.

In June, the Supreme Court avoided a major ruling in the case of Abigail Fisher, a white student who claims she was denied admission to the University of Texas's flagship Austin campus because of her race. The court ruled the university's admission policy required further scrutiny and sent the case back to a lower court, which is scheduled to hear oral arguments next month.

And earlier this month, on Oct. 15, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a suit challenging a 2006 constitutional amendment that banned affirmative action in Michigan. Leading the case in favor of the ban is Michigan's Attorney General Bill Schuette, who says the ban cannot be discriminatory in itself.

"It is curious to say that a law that bars a state from discriminating on the basis of race or sex violates the Equal Protection Clause by discriminating on the basis of race and sex," Schuette wrote in a brief.

And policies at the K-12 level have also resurrected the idea of segregation and discrimination in schools.

[ALSO: Supreme Court Sends Affirmative Action Case Back to Lower Court]

School choice systems, such as the voucher program championed by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have seen their fair share of both support and criticism. In August, the Justice Department attempted to block a portion of the Louisiana program, claiming vouchers issued in some districts impeded the desegregation process for districts that are still under federal desegregation orders.

Vouchers offer financial assistance to low-income children attending failing schools who want to transfer to private schools.

A similar program in Alabama also faced a legal challenge from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which alleges that the system creates two classes of students based on who can afford private school tuition or the added cost of transportation. In this case, families receive tax credits (which they can't immediately claim) rather than up-front tuition assistance.

These types of reforms, Orfield says, are attempts to fix a larger problem: residential segregation that funnels low-income and minority students into underfunded and failing schools because they can't afford housing in better school districts.

[MORE: Higher Education Creates 'White Racial Privilege,' Report Says]

"Housing policy is school policy," Orfield said. "If children have to move, it disrupts their learning. If the family cannot live in a safe neighborhood with a decent school and positive peer groups, the children will learn less."