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Why Has the Federal Government Stopped Enforcing Court Orders to Integrate America's Schools?

The number of students who attend racially segregated school is on the rise, and the government is doing little to stop it.

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For decades, federal desegregation orders were the potent tool that broke the back of Jim Crow education in the South, helping transform the region's educational systems into the most integrated in the country.

Federal judges, often facing down death threats and violence, blanketed Southern states with hundreds of court orders that set out specific plans and timetables to ensure the elimination of racial segregation. Federal agencies then aggressively used the authority of the courts to monitor hostile school systems, wielding the power of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to strip federal dollars from districts that refused to desegregate.

The pace of the change wrought by the federal courts was breathtaking. In 1963, about 1 percent of black children in the South attended school with white children. By the early 1970s, the South had been remade 2014 fully 90 percent of black children attended desegregated schools. Court orders proved most successful in the South, but were also used in an attempt to combat de facto segregation in schools across the country, from New York to Michigan to Arizona.

Today, this once-powerful force is in considerable disarray.

A ProPublica examination shows that officials in scores of school districts do not know the status of their desegregation orders, have never read them, or erroneously believe that orders have been ended. In many cases, orders have gone unmonitored, sometimes for decades, by the federal agencies charged with enforcing them.

At the height of the country's integration efforts, there were some 750 school districts across the country known to be under desegregation orders.

Today, court orders remain active in more than 300 districts. In some cases, that's because judges have determined that schools have not met their mandate to eliminate all vestiges of segregation.

But some federal courts don't even know how many desegregation orders still exist on their dockets. With increasing frequency, federal judges are releasing districts from court oversight even where segregation prevails, at times taking the lack of action in cases as evidence that the problems have been resolved.

Desegregation orders were meant to guarantee black and Latino children the right to an equal education. They addressed a range of issues including the diversity of teaching staff, racial balance in schools, curriculum, discipline and facilities.

The orders uniquely empower parents to fight actions by school districts that might lead to greater segregation or inequality. In districts under court order 2014 having been found in violations of the constitutional rights of black children 2014 parents do not have to prove intent, only that black students could be harmed.

Since the 1990s, the Supreme Court has sharply curtailed the power of parents to challenge racial inequities in schools. Districts not under court orders are largely prohibited from considering race to balance schools. And parents in these districts must show that school officials are intentionally discriminating when they make decisions that adversely affect black and Latino students.

And so, as desegregation orders are ignored, forgotten or lifted, black parents are losing the ability to effectively challenge school inequality.

Over the course of months, ProPublica has compiled the nation's most comprehensive and accurate data on active desegregation orders. We used legal databases, academic studies and contacted more than 160 school districts across the country.

The effort uncovered a world of confusion, neglect and inaction.

For example, the lawyer for the school district in Hollandale, Miss., said he didn't know if the desegregation order that had long ago been imposed on the district was still in effect.

"I haven't looked at anything or researched it. I've never read the order," the lawyer, Bennie Richard, said.