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26 New York University Review of Law & Social Change 457 (2002)


In recent years, courts and commentators have routinely assumed that the desegregation era caused white flight and contributed to the deterioration of urban schools. Cleveland is often cited as a prototypical example of this misguided policy. The empirical basis for this belief, however, has been assumed rather than proven. This article uses the critical case study method to assess how the 1976 Cleveland desegregation order altered pre-existing demographic patterns within the Cleveland metropolitan area. Specifically, the article draws upon the social science literature to construct two theories of central city decline: (1) studies that link increased rates of white flight to court-ordered desegregation (desegregation/white flight model); and (2) research on the general cycle of middle-class outmigration spurred by an attractive suburban lifestyle and the declining social and economic conditions of the central city (economic and social conditions model).

To assess the relative importance of these two mutually compatible theories of central city decline, the analysis considers evidence from a wide variety of sources, proceeding chronologically from the early 1900s to the present. The article concludes that the economic and social conditions model provides the most robust explanation of not only the failure of the Cleveland public schools, but also the failure (and success) of dozens of suburban districts in the region. Further, the author generated several GIS maps, which permit a spatial analysis of race, socioeconomics, and school performance for the seven-county Cleveland metropolitan area. At least in Cleveland, these maps demonstrate the enormous predictive power that social and economic isolation has on education outcomes. (The maps in the article are in gray scale; color maps in Word format can be obtained by contacting the author.)

Freed from the historical baggage of the Cleveland desegregation order, the article considers the potential of racial and socioeconomic integration as an educational reform. It examines the mounting evidence that such an approach has a profoundly positive effect on the life chances of poor and minority students. Further, this article identifies specific examples where racial or socioeconomic integration has been shown to be politically viable. Finally, it directly addresses the complex theoretical issue of racial tipping in schools as opposed to neighborhoods and offers a legal and practical roadmap to a legislative solution.