“Integration was a Solution to Segregation, but Integration does not Address Quality Education”: A Conversation About School Desegregation with Dr. Michael A. Middleton
by Sarah Diem & Jeffrey Brooks - 2013
We conclude this special issue reflecting back on the history of desegregation and questioning how we move forward in trying to achieve racially integrated school settings. The epilogue includes a conversation with Dr. Michael A. Middleton, an expert in civil rights and employment discrimination and served as the lead counsel for plaintiffs in the St. Louis metropolitan school desegregation litigation. Dr. Middleton discusses the history, current status, and future of school desegregation.
Dr. Michael A. Middleton is Deputy Chancellor of the University of MissouriColumbia. He is an expert in civil rights and employment discrimination and served as lead counsel for plaintiffs in the St. Louis metropolitan school desegregation litigation. Dr. Middleton previously served as director of the St. Louis District Office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He was also an associate general counsel at the EEOC in Washington, DC for three years. During this time, he managed the commissions national litigation program and supervised 250 attorneys at 22 district offices in federal court litigation activities. He has held several other high-level government positions, including deputy assistant secretary of education at the U.S. Department of Education; director of the Office of Systemic Programs at the EEOC; and assistant deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. As deputy chief counsel and director of the Government Employment Project for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in the early 1970s, Middleton handled civil rights litigation focusing on voting rights and government employment throughout the South. He began his career as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, where he actively litigated several major employment discrimination cases in the federal courts across the country.
On February 15, 2013, we sat down with Dr. Middleton to discuss the history, current status, and future of school desegregation.
Brooks: Please tell us about your history and experience related to desegregation efforts.
Middleton: I attended a segregated school in Jackson, Mississippi for the first four or five years of school. I had the benefit of having my mother and my sisters as my teachers, but thats a side story. My real involvement in working on desegregation issues, legally, started when I was in Washington, probably in the late 70s. I got involved with the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.1 I was the Director of Policy there for the Office of Civil Rights and we were working with some of the higher education desegregation casesthe Adams case and others. I was involved in those discussions with the policymakers and the lawyers of the department, but I also have a lot of friends from the outside world like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Lawyers Committee who I had worked with as an employment discrimination lawyer. Thats where I worked since 1971, with the Department of Justice. So, I was involved in that whole Civil Rights community all of my life. I grew up living it as a child, a Black child in Mississippi. I really got most intimately involved in K-12 school desegregation when I came back to Missouri in 1985, when I left government. Bill Taylor, who led the St. Louis desegregation case, and whom I had known for years, asked if I would join him on the case in St. Louis. I joined the case around 1985. Bill was a great teacher because he did all of the school desegregation cases. He was the nations leading lawyer on those issues, and so we worked very closely, transitioning his knowledge to me. I was on the St. Louis case until we settled in 1999, and were still working on some of the final issues with the implementation of that settlement.
Diem: And what do you think about the state of things in St. Louis today? It mirrors a lot of the country in terms of the unfulfilled promise of Brown.
Middleton: Its a difficult situation. It raises issues that I worried about even before I started in this work. Integration was a solution to segregation, but integration does not address quality education. The assumption of the law, which grew out of Brown vs. Board, was that integration would improve quality. That hasnt proven to be the case. And given that, theres always a struggle of what to do. Freeman Bosley, when he was mayor of St. Louis, made a passionate argument that what we need to do is not worry about integration, but worry about educating Black kids where they were. I think he was right. But the law had us locked into integration as the path to equity. I dont want to sound as though Im diminishing the importance of integration, but it isnt a final solution. I read something very instructive that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1939, when they were having this debate and the question was what is best for Black kidsintegrated schools or segregated schools? He drew this little matrix, and you have good schools on one axis and integrated schools on another. And when you look at the quadrants, you have good integrated schools, bad integrated schools, good segregated schools, and bad segregated schools. Du Bois said we should be focusing on the good integrated schools as the best model. It has to do with social growth and interaction between the races, but above all it has to be about quality education. Thats what you want. But of the other three quadrants, is a bad integrated school better than an excellent all-Black school? Weve struggled with that. And, I think thats the work that needs to be done in the future, working on that quality question in an integrated context or not.
Brooks: That was one of the questions we had, tooare law and education policy enough? It seems like we enact something that has a lot of promise, such as Brown vs. Board, but then things can shift around and seem to undermine the spirit of the law.
Middleton: Sure. Youve got to always be vigilant. Certainly, a court ordering a school district to desegregate does not alone get it done. And a school district thinking that it can do it, by itself, obviously doesnt work either. So, school policy and legal mandate are both essential components in forcing a solution, but neither is a solution by itself. Somebodys got to start working on all sorts of things in this society that will create the conditions that will allow this kind of success to occur. My biggest problem with courts, and remember that Im a lawyer who uses the courts, is that they cannot come up with solutions. They come up with direction and prohibition on something thats damaging. But to create something that is going to work, you need a whole lot of expertise in a whole lot of different areas.
Diem: So, in which areas do we need help? Its been almost 60 years since Brown and you have to wonder what happened as we see schools and districts resegregating.
Middleton: Were probably worse off now than we were then. As I mentioned earlier, my mother and sisters were my teachers through fourth grade, so my success in a segregated school was not due to what the school was doing, per se. It was due to what my teachers were doing with me during those years. I lived with my teachers; they cared about me. They made sure I learned what they were trying to teach me because they were my family. I dont know how you replicate that in a school system and apply it to kids whose parents have been victimized by the system, parents who themselves can give kids very little help. I envy you educators who are going to come up with the solution.
Diem: Im not sure if envy is the word! I do a lot of work in districts that are trying to implement integration plans. The people I see in some of the public meetings, those who are crafting these plans, dont always reflect the diversity of the communities. Often, the real community leaders are missing. You dont see people from the churches or from city planningsometimes people from social services are there. You start wondering if all of the pieces of the system are going to work together.
Middleton: Right. It has to be everybody. Youve got to get a communitywide consensus on a plan and youve got to identify everybodys part in that plan. They all have to work on it, like a university works on accomplishing its mission or like any organization. The organization isnt big enough. The organization now thats dealing with it is the school district officials and the lawyers. And the mayor, occasionally, trying to get it. I, I shouldnt be critical of anybody, but there are people who think its purely a management issue. If I were in charge, I would solve this. Well, no, the mayor isnt going to do it either. Everybodys got to get involved, understand their role in the solution, and work very hard with strategic plans and all the rest, and implement that solution. And, Im afraid that nobodys even thought of what the solution is yet.
Diem: Given the recent decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and the forthcoming Fisher v. University of Texas case, why would people want to get involved? How do we get people to want to engage in desegregation efforts and see that it is important for society?
Middleton: Exactly. You would think you wouldnt have to educate people who live in this country about its values, but we are where we are. You need a mandate. We got that mandate in Brown, and I dont think Fisher is going to undo integration. It will slow down affirmative action efforts, I wouldnt say integrate because most institutions are integrated now. Its meant to maximize an appropriate balance and I guess thats the problem. We may be at a point, if the court keeps doing what its doing, when we have to accept the fact that there will be some racially identifiable school buildings or school systems and that maybe that isnt a bad thing. The more important question is, what kind of education are those kids getting where they are? To undo segregation, youve got to do more than say, Were going to stop doing this. So, the court saidintegratethe solution was the opposite of segregate, and thats integrate. Thats where we are. Im not willing to back off from that because I believe that an integrated society is a better society. I hope most Americans would agree with that. Perhaps Im wrong. Thats a scary thought to consider, but perhaps Im wrong. But, when youre talking about school systems, and school administrators, and politicians in these communities, you hope that they will be trying to integrate because they understand thats better for the community. I dont know that theres a need to convince people. I know theres a need to avoid listening to people who arent convinced, but I think that we can get this done if we can just get everybody to understand their part in the process. But we havent thought that broadly yet, and we dont have the resources to support a whole-system change. The real problem is that schools are so underfunded they can hardly do what theyre supposed to be doing, without this added. Thats my dislike for the term unfunded mandate because I first heard that term in connection with this issue. Integration is an unfunded mandate, but its a mandate nonetheless; this is something weve got to do. Im hopeful that in higher education institutions, where people are supposed to be thinking and doing cutting edge research and moving things forward for society, that we would come up with that plan or at least a call for somebody to really take these issues seriously and deal with them.
Brooks: I wonder if the sort of rise of the testing and accountability systems that most states have now is giving a foundation for a new legal challenge based on quality. Could we see something about Brown but that is based on quality rather than just equal opportunity? Its very clear that segregation has many faces in American education. There is segregation within schools in the form of remedial tracks, magnet programs, and advanced placement. Its not only anecdotal now; we have solid data showing that this is happening.
Middleton: No question. Its happening all the time. And in some ways, thats just going to continue the confusion that we have. Weve integrated the schools and now weve got to go in and integrate the classrooms. I think the real solution is providing high-quality education to all of these kids where they are. And, how do you prevent districts from resegregating in the schools? Im assuming theyre resegregating them, and this may be a bad assumption, but I know their defense is going to bebut were not segregating Black kids, were segregating kids who perform poorly. But, how do you avoid that poor performance? Im willing to assume that the tests are valid and these particular children are performing more poorly on some valid measure of quality. They may challenge that later, but lets assume that. Its not a matter of White teachers pointing out the twelve Black children in the classroom and because youre Black youre going to be in the remedial class. Thats where we were at in the South when I was going to school there. We are more sophisticated than that now. So lets assume that these kids are less prepared to succeed at this point at which the school gets them. What we need to be worrying on is how to get these children capable of meeting whatever that standard is. And thats where we really need to be, if were going to really solve this problem that weve been dealing with for hundreds of years. Though I am working in education now, I dont consider myself the kind of educator who can figure out how to do it at that level. My assumption is that early childhood education is a great idea that makes sense. Somebody needs to be working on these kinds of issues, fundamentally preparing our young people to do the learning that they need to be doing when they get in the schools. Its so confusing and so big, but thats the work in front of us.
The solution to our entire educational systems problem, I think, is grounded somewhere in our inability to prepare our kids to learn and to have a system of education that continually enhances what they get from the beginning. And, I dont know where that is or how to do it. I know people in education are always studying this and always writing stuff and coming up with new ideas. I mean, that was one of the reasons for the litigation and the court supervision that occurred in St. Louis. I cant count the number of meetings Ive had in St. Louis with 20 lawyers and a judge in a room deciding what the St. Louis public schools should do. Its always several experts who have the next newest, the next greatest thing. And a year after the court has told the superintendent to do X, and X didnt work by the next year, lets go to Y. It doesnt work like that. So, its lawyers arguing around the table, and its a lot of commotion, and the judge ends up making a decision and its over. That is not the way to manage an educational system. But I dont know how a superintendent chooses among the various things that may help a school district. He has to have a difficult job.
Brooks: And even if you pick something, there are so many beautiful programs on paper. Its just like the spirit of Brown. Thats the right thing to do. But when it comes to implementation, its a lot more difficult.
Middleton: Its a lot more difficult. So, I think we made some progress. The progress we made on the integration side is dwindling. I think in St. Louis we made some progress in terms of shifting some resources to the St. Louis Public Schools, and shifting the focus of desegregation efforts to quality education. We have this voluntary inter-district transfer plan that provides opportunities for families who want their child to have a suburban school experience. Although there are many questions about that suburban experience, if people feel more comfortable with that, they can get it through the voluntary inter-district desegregation program. And then we have a lot of focus on the remaining nonintegrated schools in the city. They are improving. They lost their accreditation a couple of years ago, but they are getting it back so, theyre on their way. They have a good superintendent. We do have some concerns about their governance structure. We have a Special Administrative Board (SAB) running the district currently. Once they are reaccredited, the justification for having that special board evaporates and they have to come up with a new system. The reason we put the SAB in was because the elected board was dysfunctional. There are lots of concerns about going back to an elected board on the assumption that it, too, will be dysfunctional, but there is no mechanism for not doing that. So, there is worry about what happens at the next stage of this process.
Diem: Its interesting, too, when you start looking at the way our system is set up from state-to-state, theres such great variation. Thats why I wonder if we start thinking about whats the one lever for change, does there need to be more federal legislative policy or law? Is it going to take something more like the cases leading up to Brown, that are happening here and there and then all of a sudden they will all come together.
Middleton: I dont know how, in this day and age, we can get anybody to accept heightened federal rule. And, while I might be one who would go with that because, as a civil rights lawyer, my experience is that it sometimes takes a federal role to get things done. But concentrating all of that control in one place, I have an equal problem with that. So, I dont think a fundamental change to the system will work. So, we need a new approach. We tried a series of school finance cases and that did not turn out to dramatically change things. Maybe if there were some enforceable mandate around quality, but then we would have to ask, how do you measure quality and whats the remedy for lack of quality?
Brooks: Well, we know too, its not just quality teachers. There is increased scrutiny and questions about quality of preparation programs and teachers, and the administrators role, and whether they chose the right curriculum, and if its being implemented faithfully. There are just so many variables that come into play.
Middleton: And, where in that spectrum would you make your law and assign blame? Thats just a complex regulatory scheme that would require a whole lot of effort on a whole lot of peoples parts, including lawyers, politicians, etc. But moving it from the civil rights model that integration grew out of is going to be difficult. Again, we have that model, we have the civil rights model going. I just havent, apart from school finance, I havent thought of the lever that one can use.
Diem: Im studying the inter-district desegregation program in St. Louis and all of the other inter-district desegregation programs across the country and to me, while there are problems, that may be the next step in promoting and sustaining diversity: using a regional approach. You cant just leave it up to one school district anymore to achieve and maintain integration. We need multiple school districts to come together if this is something that we really care about.
Middleton: Or consolidate multiple districts, which is how we got the inter-district plan in St. Louis in the first place. Now, on the eve of the trial the judge suggested to all of the suburban districts what his remedy would be if he found out that they were complicit with the segregation. And that remedy wasIm going to eliminate all you people and create on big district. They saidokay, we dont want that. So, we worked out this voluntary plan that may be a solution.
We have had discussions as litigators on how to, where weve made efforts to get courts to recognize the connections between housing, education, and other obvious things, but the more different entities you bring into litigation as defendants, it increases their ability to get out of it and file motions. So, these cases have all been whittled down because of the restrictions of the law; you cannot deal holistically with it. And I think that is more because judges dont want to have to deal with that confusion. Lets find the guy thats guilty and take care of that.
Brooks: But, its interesting, too, because it sort of brings you full circle back around towhats the purpose of educationand how does that tie into our, sort of, bigger social values? If were looking for increased scores on standardized tests, it could just be taught through a computer, but I would like to think were going to continue to have a more holistic vision of what education is that includes some of these social dynamics and some of these nonquantifiable things that happen in a classroom.
Middleton: Sure. You cant measure all of those things. You cant evaluate all of those intangibles. The education system seems to be based on performance on standardized tests. And, we use that ourselves to evaluate people, so why shouldnt that be how we evaluate our kids? I hate to have to even ask that question because it makes things even more complex. But we need to think about how we evaluate and what were trying to do through these evaluations. Maybe we cant evaluate peoples social skills and competencies to act effectively in a cultural and multiracial society, I dont know.
Brooks: It just continues to amaze me when reading some of the demographic projections, that the year 2050 will be the first time some white students are going to be the minority and to see the schools resegregating rather than moving in the opposite direction is disturbing.
Middleton: Its disturbing. Well, do you think as the population becomes majority minority, the resegregation that were seeing will continue? Are we talking about a withdrawal of Whites from the system?
Brooks: I think were seeing the policy mechanisms for that being put into place now through charter schools and voucher programs. People arent completely sold on those now, but I think were seeing the foundation for that being laid. I think thats one of the biggest ideological battles that were going to see over the next 12 to 15 years is the battle over the public school system.
Diem: While the research on charter schools is mixed, it has shown that many of these schools are being segregated by race, even though they are not supposed to be selective in their admission processes.
Brooks: And you have a lot of people championing the privatization of the system. I think if things do end up at a certain point heading in that direction, anything but just massive segregation will occur.
Middleton: And continued minimal support for public education.
Brooks & Diem: Absolutely.
Middleton: Well, I guess the thing to do then is to have another civil rights movement within the charter schools. A whole other desegregation effort.
Diem: But I find it interesting that the current administration is pushing for charter schools.
Middleton: The charter schools are an alternative to moving kids, busing kids to the suburbs to get a decent education. The charter schools that were involved with are located in minority neighborhoods in St. Louis and Kansas City, and their mission is to serve that population. Theyre not excluding Whites. Rather, they seek to provide a quality education to kids that were concerned about in segregated life, situations that are being miseducated by the public system. So, theres an aspect of the charter movement that I think is positive. And, since the charter movement is thereand I recognize, much of the talk about the value of charter schools in the early days of that movement are from people who I wouldnt be surprised if they had segregationist leanings, elitist motiveswe have a structure that can be beneficial in those communities, so well use them, too. But the worry about what happens to the minority public system when White folks are all comfortably ensconced in their communities with their charter schools is really scary. Which is why you have to work on it from all fronts. Perhaps the political system will result in greater support for public schools. I dont know. Well just have to ride this wave and see what happens.
Brooks: Thats why, to me, this next 12 to 15 years is going to be so important to see what kind of policies fundamentally change the system, if any.
Middleton: If any. And, the system needs fundamental change. Everything else in society has changed over that last couple hundred years. The structure of the schools really hasnt. The solution is going to come from your students and those that follow and they have got to understand the problem before they can come up with a solution. And you talk about the creativity of our system. We do produce creative people and maybe we can find one or two in the masses of our students who can come up with a solution, because were not there yet and we dont know what the solution is.
1. Now, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare is known as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.