Feb 28 2019

The Federal Role and School Integration: Brown’s Promise and Present Challenges

 Although integrated education is not a panacea, diverse learning environments benefit all students, helping children to develop cross-cultural understanding, lessen bias and prejudice, and promote civic participation.
–The Federal Role and School Integration: Brown’s Promise and Present Challenges

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the doctrine of "separate but equal" in its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which represented a major legal effort to dismantle legal segregation in public schools. That ruling paved the way for federal, state, and district efforts to expand access to quality educational opportunities to all students, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Research presented in an amicus brief in Brown showed that integrated education benefits all students. Those findings have been supported by an overwhelming body of research conducted since. A review of the research shows that integrated schools contribute to:

  • promoting tolerance;
  • developing cross-cultural understanding;
  • eliminating bias and prejudice.
  • increasing the likelihood of students living in integrated neighborhoods as adults and holding jobs in integrated workplaces later in life;
  • improving academic achievement and critical thinking skills;
  • improving educational attainment; and
  • promoting civic participation in a diverse global economy.
 In the absence of federal guidance and support for school diversity, many districts are left without the tools and resources needed to promote integrated learning environments.
–The Federal Role and School Integration: Brown’s Promise and Present Challenges

To ensure state and local compliance with the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown and subsequent rulings, as well as civil rights legislation that has passed since the ruling was handed down, the federal government has implemented and enforced civil rights laws; engaged in investigation and oversight; pursued litigation; collected and disseminated data; and issued regulations, statements of administration policy, and guidance. Most recently, in response to confusion over the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Departments of Justice and Education under the Obama administration issued voluntary guidance in 2011 to clarify the ruling and to provide districts with resources and guidance on how to foster school diversity. That guidance was rescinded in July, 2018, by the Trump Administration. Despite the rescission of the guidance, some districts are still committed to advancing efforts to promote school diversity.

The guidance suggests a range of approaches that do not conflict with that ruling. They include:

  • School and program siting decisions which locate schools, such as magnet schools, and special programs to help achieve diversity or avoid racial isolation.
  • Decisions about grade realignment and feeder patterns based on examination of available data to identify disparities and design school grade alignment or feeder patterns to help mitigate disparities.
  • School zoning decisions that assign students to schools based on attendance zones in ways that promote diversity, rather than assigning students based solely on their geographic proximity to schools.
  • Choice and open enrollment decisions that allow parents to choose (or rank by preference) schools within or across school districts. The district then assigns students based in part on parental preference in ways that help achieve diversity or avoid racial or economic isolation.
  • Admission to competitive schools and programs that may give special consideration in admissions to students from neighborhoods selected specifically because of their racial composition and other factors (i.e., treating all students who live in the same neighborhood alike, regardless of their race).
  • Inter- and intradistrict transfers which allow students to transfer among schools in ways that promote racial diversity and reduce racial isolation.

Despite the rescission of this guidance, several districts continue to implement the approaches outlined, including Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky; San Antonio Independent School District in Texas; and Hartford Connecticut.

This report is one of two based on white papers by the Learning Policy Institute commissioned by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2018. The other addresses the federal role in protecting student civil rights as they relate to school discipline practices.


The Federal Role and School Integration: Brown’s Promise and Present Challenges by Janel George and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Sandler Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and are not to be attributed to our funders.