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Racial segregation is widespread in Massachusetts

Racial segregation is widespread in Massachusetts, with more than 225,000 students attending segregated or highly segregated schools for non-white students, that is, schools where the non-white student body makes up at least 71 percent of the total, according to the 2024 annual report of the Racial Imbalance Advisory Council, one of about a dozen panels that advise state education officials.

Take a moment to digest the shocking result: Almost a quarter of all Students in the state's public schools attend segregated schools. In addition, more than half of the students who attend segregated schools are Latino and about a fifth are black.

Why is it so urgent to address these inequalities? There is no question that severe segregation in schools has a dramatic impact on academic performance.

The council's analysis, based on data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, found that “white and Asian students consistently outperform black and Latino students, with Latino students consistently having the worst scores” in highly segregated nonwhite schools, or schools where 90 percent or more of the student body is nonwhite. Moreover, all students who attend segregated schools, including white and Asian students, perform worse. A look at third-grade MCAS test scores in English Language and Literature reveals “a staggering gap – students in highly segregated white schools are 2.5 times more capable than students in highly segregated white schools,” the report said.

People have become “numb” to these findings, said Raul Fernandez, chairman of the Council on Racial Imbalance and a lecturer at Boston University's Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, in an interview. This is despite the fact that Massachusetts already has laws against racial imbalance in schools. But there needs to be a real confrontation, a paradigm shift, if you will, especially in the way we talk about racial segregation in schools, which is still viewed as a problem between blacks and whites.

“I'm not saying it's not a black problem, but I'm saying it's a Latino problem too,” Fernandez said. “And not just now. There was the Mendez case, which preceded Brown v. Board of Education.” The Mendez v. Westminster case took place in California in 1947 and is considered the first case in which racial segregation in schools was successfully challenged in court. A similar example is the Tape v. Hurley case, which involved an Asian family during the era of Chinese exclusion.

The council's report makes nearly 20 broad policy recommendations, including expanding METCO, the voluntary school integration program; updating the way racially imbalanced schools are identified in the state to meet the most modern and nuanced definitions of racially integrated schools; and improving state oversight and enforcement of existing laws related to racial imbalance. On that last point, the law requires that students enrolled in a racially imbalanced school have the right to request a transfer to another school in the district. Yet, according to the council, not many districts and schools inform families of this provision.

Of course, the reasons for segregation in schools are multifaceted and complex. One of them is that the population is already economically segregated.”[M]”More than 60 percent of our black population lives in just 10 cities, while just 10 cities are home to over half of the state's Latinos,” the report said. In a statement sent Monday evening, Massachusetts Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler said the administration was “committed to ensuring that all students receive a quality education in inclusive learning environments.”

Still, harmful racial and ethnic segregation in schools is unacceptable. The report's recommendations are a good starting point for addressing the problem, but first, policymakers at the state level should agree that these inequalities are unacceptable. “There is a difference between those who find racism and its effects regrettable and those who think it is unacceptable,” Fernandez said. “Our job is to get people to stop thinking it is regrettable and start thinking it is unacceptable.”

That would be a reason to celebrate.


Marcela García is a columnist at the Globe. You can reach her at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.

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