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Public has conflicting opinions on school integration

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: March 24, 2004

Most Americans support the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision striking down segregated schools, according to a recent poll.

Americans also believe it is still important that children of different races and ethnicities attend class together, according to a Scripps Howard News Service national poll of 1,013 people. But many say they attended segregated schools and oppose new attempts to increase racial diversity in local schools. They also incorrectly assume schools in their communities are racially integrated now.

"This is a country of contradictions. America has always been ambivalent about the question of race," said Ernest Green, former assistant Labor secretary under President Jimmy Carter and the first black student to graduate from Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

Green has experienced the paradox of public opinion on integrated schooling. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered troops into Arkansas to prevent rioting when Green and eight other black teenagers began classes at Central High in 1957.

"But now, when I go back to Little Rock, I can't find anybody who is or was opposed to my going to school there," he said.

The survey, conducted Feb. 15-29 at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University, found several incongruities in public attitudes about school integration:

_ Ninety percent said they believe the Supreme Court "made the right decision" in its Brown vs. Board of Education decision 50 years ago that struck down so-called "separate but equal" schools. Only 6 percent said the court erred. The most common reasons were that it "created social turmoil" or that the court "overreached" its legal authority.

However, the country is divided over the Brown decision's educational legacy. Forty five percent said they believe the decision improved the quality of public education, while 34 percent said it had no impact and 12 percent said it harmed education.

_ Seventy-three percent said "most of the kids were of the same race" in the elementary school they attended, while only 25 percent said there were "many kids of difference races" in their classrooms.

Sixty percent also said they believe public elementary schools in their local communities are integrated, while 34 percent said they are not. Education experts have said the public generally overestimates the amount of integration. A recent study by Scripps Howard of enrollment records found the level of integration is declining in most states.

"People get much of their perceptions from the media. They heard stories about busing and assume a lot more is happening than in fact is going on," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

The survey found people with school age children were less likely to believe their local classrooms are integrated than are people who don't have kids attending public schools.

_ Sixty percent said it is "very important" and 28 percent said it's "somewhat important" for children of different races to attend classes together, while 8 percent said it's "not important."

But at the same time, only 23 percent said that "schools officials (should) try to increase the amount of racial diversity" in their local schools. Sixty-six percent said leaders should "leave them as they are."

"Truth is there is precious little support for school desegregation in this country," said Theodore Shaw, incoming president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which brought the lawsuits that were consolidated by the Supreme Court into the Brown case.

Shaw said parents _ white or black _ have long preferred neighborhood schools. The question, he said, is whether communities can continue to make voluntary, race-conscious efforts to ensure schools don't resegregate. He said changing housing patterns and court-decisions to end hundreds of desegregation orders might "make Brown v. Board's mandate almost impossible to achieve."

The poll found that black adults tended to be divided on whether new initiatives are needed to increase diversity at local schools, while white adults were overwhelmingly opposed to new initiatives.

In general, younger adults were much more likely to approve of new efforts for diversity and to believe the Brown decision improved the quality of education than were older Americans.

The survey was sponsored by Scripps Howard News Service and was conducted under the direction of professor emeritus Guido H. Stempel III at Ohio University.

The survey has a margin of error of 4 percent, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the poll. For more survey results, go to www.newspolls.org.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)