U.S. school segregation on the rise: report

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Black and Latino students are educated in U.S. schools that are increasingly segregated, said a report Wednesday that undercuts optimism about race in America surrounding the presidency of Barack Obama.

Blacks and Hispanics are more separate from white students than at any time since the civil rights movement and many of the schools they attend are struggling, said the report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California.

A 2007 Supreme Court decision on voluntary desegregation is likely to intensify the trend because it reduces pressure on local authorities to promote school desegregation, said the report, which called on Obama to address the issue.

Obama, who will take the oath of office Tuesday, will be the county’s first black president.

“It would be a tragedy if the country assumed from the Obama election that the problems of race have been solved, when many inequalities are actually deepening,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project.

Orfield said these trends were “the result of a systematic neglect of civil rights policy and related educational and community reforms for decades.”

Part of the reason is demographic. As the percentage of white students shrinks -- they now make up 56 percent of the school population -- they are more integrated with students who are nonwhite.

Another factor is that residential segregation, on the rise in many parts of the country, increasingly determines the racial composition in schools in the absence of measures by education authorities to create and maintain integrated schools, Orfield said.

At the same time, Orfield said little had been done in recent years to prosecute violations of the Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination in the allocation of housing and was set up to foster equality in the housing market.

As a result of the trend, 39 percent of black students and 40 percent of students from the fast-growing Latino minority are increasingly isolated in schools in which there is little racial mixing, the report said.

Evidence that U.S. schools are becoming less racially integrated is politically charged because school integration was a basic goal of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 1960s.

That movement was in part triggered by a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 that decreed school segregation in the South was inherently unequal, did irreversible harm to black students and violated the constitution.

The report also found that the average black and Latino student is now in a school that has nearly 60 percent of students from families who are near or below the poverty line.

Schools marked by racial segregation and poverty tend to have weaker teaching forces, more student instability and a higher percentage of students from homes where English is not spoken -- factors that militate against academic achievement.

Editing by Tom Brown and David Wiessler