CHICAGO -- As we near the 60th anniversary on Saturday of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, it is pretty clear that many of America's schools remain both separate and unequal -- and not always in the ways we've come to expect.
What are we to make of an educational landscape in which African-American children in a low-income community can attend either a failing public school or an equally low-performing charter school in the same building?
How about a community in which newly arrived Mexican immigrant students are put into public school bilingual education classes where they are instructed almost exclusively in Spanish, or get selected through a lottery to a majority-Hispanic charter school where crisp uniforms and an emphasis on English immersion are the norm?
And of course, let's not forget about nearly all-white rural schools and the predominantly African-American inner-city schools, even though some in both categories defy the stereotypes.
These days, education that is "separate and unequal" comes in all varieties, making for a range of outcomes shaped by family income, parental involvement and community health. But they tend to have one thing in common: racial isolation.
Think of it this way: If someone talks to you about a "diverse school," chances are they're really talking about a school with a student body dominated by a single racial or ethnic minority and not about a school with a near-equal amount of students from various backgrounds.
Whether the school is stocked with high achievers likely to go on to college or with at-risk students likely to drop out, it is rare that you'll find one or the other in which students are not isolated within a single racial group -- a situation that flies in the face of every sociological study that finds diverse groups make for stronger teams than homogeneous ones.
Yet we still find ourselves vexed over how to provide high-quality education for all students when funding for excellent teachers and facilities is routinely tied to high property values, which has the effect of shutting out the neediest of all races (unless, of course, they luck into a spot at a well-funded, if not particularly diverse, charter school).
The next 60 years of the Brown legacy will have to address the issue of racial or ethnic isolation. Regardless of the quality of education a school district can provide, it will never adequately prepare students for opportunities in a globally interconnected world if it can't offer the real-world experience of working alongside people of many different cultures, races and even income levels.
"It's so hard to identify one single cause for isolation -- there are housing patterns, discrimination, joblessness; so many complicating factors," said Dennis Parker, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's racial justice program. "But regardless of the cause, creating opportunities for kids of color and society as a whole must deal with not just racial and ethnic isolation but also economic isolation."
Parker told me that there are a few places around the country where the conversation on school integration has shifted to considering true diversity among the student population, but the results have been mixed.
In 1996, Connecticut was ordered by the state's Supreme Court to reduce racial isolation in Hartford's impoverished and mostly black and Hispanic school system. But all these years later, many Hartford schools still struggle to reach the 25 percent minimum threshold of white children required to truly diversify the schools, even as other schools boast multicultural student bodies, higher-than-average achievement scores and long waiting lists to get in.
It's a situation that seems to force an uncomfortable choice between good education and an integrated school experience. But the two should not be seen as mutually exclusive.
Parker said. "You can look at how you locate schools, how attendance lines are drawn and ways to create incentives to create diverse schools."
And what better incentive could there be than providing America's students a school experience that accurately reflects their world?
Esther J. Cepeda is a syndicated columnist.