In 1972, a group of parents in Buffalo, New York, filed a federal lawsuit to desegregate the city's public schools. A judge ruled in their favor; the city went on to become a national model for school integration.
But four decades later, that progress have been erased. According to the Buffalo News, 70 percent of public schools in the city are segregated (defined as 80 percent or higher minority or white enrollment), the same level as when the 1972 lawsuit was filed. Today, just 47 percent of public school students graduate.
How did this happen?
The school desegregation rules that went into effect in 1976 required that each school be made up of 30 to 65 percent non-white students.
The city achieved this by turning many of the district's schools (a third, by 1985) into magnets that would draw to children of all races. These new programs were so popular that only 15 percent of the 30,000 students being bused across the city resisted the integration efforts.
Buffalo's program was so successful that the New York Times hailed it as a "model for U.S." The article described Buffalo's desegregation efforts as a "velvet steamroller." Then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton eventually recruited Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Eugene Reville to lead Little Rock's desegregation efforts.
Buffalo's results were so good that the court lifted its mandate in 1987. Since then, most of the gains have fallen away.
The city's shifting demographics have played a big role. In 1972, 54 percent of the city's public school students were white. Today, just 22 percent are. And residents are living in an increasingly segregated city. One elementary school in predominately white South Buffalo is 82 percent white. Nearly every other school in the city has seen minority enrollment jump.
The city has tried to limit the impacts of neighborhood segregation by enacting a "choice admissions policy." Parents can apply to send their children to any school in the city.
And there are some very good options. Some of the city's magnet schools have remained academically strong (last year, Newsweek ranked magnet school City Honors as the 22nd best public high school in the country). And the city is still coming up with new specializations. The most recent proposal, a school that partners with the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus, teaching science, technology, engineering and math to students grades 5 through 12 received federal funding and praise from Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez earlier this week.
But magnet schools helped accelerate the decline of "regular" schools, fostering a sense of second-class status among students who couldn't get into one of the specialized programs. "The minute you set up criterion schools, you create an environment in which middle class kids will do better," says Henry Louis Taylor, a professor at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at SUNY Buffalo. This was even a problem 30 years ago, when one guidance director at a non-magnet school told the Times, sometimes "students come here feeling they're the rejects."
Charter schools, allowed in New York State since 2000, only add to these woes. When the State started accepting charter school applications, writer Jake Halpern warned that "given Buffalo’s demographics, many of these schools are bound to be self-segregated enclaves." That's exactly what has happened. According to the Buffalo News, minorities made up 99 percent or more of the students at five different charters in 2012.
As a result, parents are often competing for just a handful of spots at the city's best schools. At magnets like City Honors (where 66 percent of its students are white) most students test their way in with only a few lottery spots open to everyone else. That means few of Buffalo's most disadvantaged kids get the privilege of attending. Vice President of the District Parent Coordinating Council Sam Radford told WBFO in 2011, "because so many schools are persistently low achieving schools, any other school you want to move your child to is another persistently low achieving school, and all the good schools - they'll tell you, 'Oh, we ain't got no room.'"
Whether the city can reverse this trend is an open question. Since the turn of the century, it's spent $1.4-billion on a dramatic upgrade of all public school facilities in an effort to make them as architecturally and technologically savvy as their suburban competitors. But that's had little impact on the neighborhoods that host them, and in turn, it's done little to address the fundamental problems. "It failed because it was building-specific," says Taylor. "We need to realize there's an interactive relationship between schools and neighborhoods. If we fix the neighborhoods, people will want to live in them."
Taylor points to programs like HUD's "Choice Neighborhood Program" which bring public and private sector community leaders together to develop a comprehensive plan that addresses a neighborhood's struggling schools, distressed housing stock, safety, and lack of services all at once. Taylor even led up an effort to win a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant for the area around the city's impovershed Perry Projects. It was rejected by HUD last month, but Taylor plans on fine-tuning the application and re-apply next year.
Solving an issue as complicated as public school integration in a city as impoverished and segregated as Buffalo will never be easy. But the city did (during arguably the most tumultuous period in its history) come up with a unique solution that, for a brief period, seemed to work but was ultimately flawed.
Meaningful change will require a serious and never-ending effort. As Judge Curtin told the Times in 1985 when asked if he was pleased with Buffalo's results, "the school system is like most things in life; it calls for attention all the time."