'fault lines'

A stark income divide along the border of two Colorado school districts

Students in the Sheridan School District practice for the 2015 PARCC tests (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post).

The Sheridan School District is small but proud, serving a community that grew up around the Fort Logan military installation southwest of Denver. Nine in 10 students qualify for government-subsidized lunches. Though there have been glimmers of hope academically, the district sits on the state’s watch list for low academic performance and faces sanctions.

The bordering Littleton school district is bigger and better-off. Far fewer students live in poverty, with just 18 percent qualifying for free and reduced-priced lunches. The district is the only in metro Denver to have won the state’s “accredited with distinction” recognition for five years running, and its three high schools regularly make “best of” lists.

The stark socioeconomic contrast between the two Arapahoe County districts earned a dubious distinction this week.

In a report that got a lot of people in the education world talking, the border the school districts share was spotlighted for having some of the largest differences in child poverty rates from one side to the other.

Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” produced by the nonprofit group EdBuild, found that the gulf separating the haves and have-nots along the Sheridan-Littleton border qualified as the ninth largest in the U.S.

To put that in context, the report examined 33,500 school district borders.

The study’s architects used U.S. Census Bureau income and poverty estimates to build their comparisons, not subsidized lunch rates. By the report’s measure, 49 percent of school-age children in Sheridan’s boundaries live in poverty, compared to 9 percent in Littleton’s.

“In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens,” the report says. “… We’ve created and maintained a system of schools segregated by class and bolstered by arbitrary borders that, in effect, serve as the new status quo for separate but unequal.”

To get their read on the disparities called out in the report, Chalkbeat spoke with the superintendents of the two Colorado school districts spotlighted: Sheridan’s Michael Clough and Littleton’s Brian Ewert.

Neither were surprised the border their districts share would be framed in such a way. Nor do they think the report provides enough context about their districts or how school choice and school finance work in Colorado.

Littleton Superintendent Brian Ewert in his first day in the role in August 2015 (Denver Post file).
Littleton Superintendent Brian Ewert in his first day in the role in August 2015 (Denver Post file).

Ewert’s resume includes time at low-income school districts. He took the top job in the roughly 16,000-student Littleton district after a stint in higher-poverty Englewood Public Schools, and after working in San Bernadino, Calif., one of the nation’s most impoverished areas.

“The bottom line is, there is an absolute disparity between school districts with regards to boundaries, poverty, things like that,” Ewert said. “Those are the kinds of things we can’t control.”

One important wrinkle Ewert says the report missed — Colorado’s system of open enrollment, which allows students to attend schools in other districts if there’s room (and families are able to transport their children across district borders).

Ewert said that while open enrollment does a lot of good, it can also have unintended consequences. That includes “affluent flight,” or families bolting from schools in their home districts as neighborhoods change and poorer students move in.

Having pockets of poverty, like the Littleton district, makes it easier to devote more money to schools with the greatest needs, Ewert points out. His district has poured resources into high-poverty Field Elementary School, which has posted big gains in state test scores. That is a luxury not enjoyed by districts with high proportions of poor students, he said.

As the EdBuild report notes, chiseling away at income disparities along school district borders is extremely difficult.

A 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case challenging segregation in Detroit Public Schools, Milliken vs. Bradley, found that desegregation efforts cannot be enforced across district borders, cutting off one avenue. Then there’s the fact that district boundaries — unlike, say, congressional districts — are not redrawn as a result of changing demographics.

Consolidation of school districts is one possible answer. The report suggests that the larger the district, the lower the chances of socioeconomic segregation. Van Schoales of the advocacy group A-Plus Colorado floated it as justifiable in this case:

Merging with a high-performing district is one option available to state officials considering consequences for districts such as Sheridan that are chronic low performers and about to run out of time to improve.

The prospect is pretty much a non-starter, however, given the sensitive politics involved and Colorado’s long history of cherishing local control, among other factors.

“I get this question (about consolidation) a lot,” said Clough, the Sheridan superintendent. “Sometimes people are bold enough to say, ‘Why are you still here? Why haven’t you been swallowed up?’ My answer is the same — We were here first.

“This is a community with a longstanding historical tradition of being here to support Fort Logan, the military base that was here a long time. (It closed after World War II). It’s a community with its own identity, its own government. When I took the job, I was told it feels much more like a rural district than our urban counterparts.”

Michael-Clough-239x300
Clough

Championing consolidation is based on the false premise that “bigger is better,” Clough said. Some families choice-in to the 1,500-student Sheridan district because of the family feel, he said. (By the way, 117 students living in Sheridan’s boundaries attend Littleton Public Schools).

Not surprisingly, both Clough and Ewert say fixing school funding in Colorado would help with inequities. The state regularly ranks near the bottom nationally in per-pupil funding, and superintendents have fought long and hard to change that.

Although property values are much higher in the Littleton district, Sheridan receives more in state per-pupil funding ($8,220, compared to Littleton’s $6,765) after a number of factors including poverty is taken into account. Higher-income districts like Littleton do have a leg up in passing bond measures and tax increases to support schools.

Ewert argues that the state first needs to adequately fund each student first, then have a conversation about how to provide equitable funding.

“I don’t think tearing down arbitrary community boundaries around school districts solves the problem without a funding solution,” he said. “People say, ‘Well, you can’t solve a problem by just throwing money at it.’ Well, if you throw adequate money at a problem, we can make significant headway.”

democrats for school integration

Want to reduce racial segregation? Elect a Democrat to school board, study says

PHOTO: Matt Detrich

When Republicans won control of the Wake County, North Carolina school board in 2009, they promised to eliminate the district’s racial integration program in favor of “community schools” closer to students’ homes — and they did. By 2012, Democrats had retaken control and were trying to change course.

The shifts caught the attention of Duke professor Hugh Macartney, who wondered whether party labels predict how school boards will address — or fail to address — school segregation.

Now, a new study released by Macartney and John Singleton of the University of Rochester suggests that Wake County was not unique. Electing Democratic school board members, they found, leads to less-segregated schools.

The results are substantial: Electing at least one Democrat leads to students being “reassigned in such a way that the school board is now 18 percent closer to achieving the district [average racial breakdown] for each school,” said Macartney.

The first-of-its-kind paper, which is set to be released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines hundreds of school board elections in North Carolina between 2008 and 2012. The researchers compared districts that narrowly elected Democrats to those that narrowly elected non-Democrats — largely Republicans, but including independents. (Like most school board races, the North Carolina elections were technically nonpartisan; the researchers later matched school board candidates to the party they were registered with.)

Racial segregation was likely reduced, Macartney and Singleton show, by changes to school attendance zones. Non-Democrats made fewer changes, “potentially allowing residential sorting to increase segregation without substantial intervention,” the paper says.  

“The reductions in segregation with the change of the school board are really interesting and line up with, anecdotally, what we’ve seen in some school districts that have made strong moves on this front,” said Halley Potter a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think that that backs school integration.

Democratic efforts to reduce segregation may have caused one unintended — albeit unsurprising — consequence: “white flight,” the migration of white families out of a district in order to avoid integration efforts.

The study shows that electing a Democrat leads to a reduction in the share of white students attending the public school district, though the research can’t definitely identify the cause. This effect does not wipe out the integration gains, though.

Potter notes that some of the departing families may have left heavily white districts, which would not hamper integration efforts. She also points out that the effect may have been caused by families of color entering the district as opposed to white families leaving.

The paper has not been formally peer-reviewed. But David Deming, a Harvard economist who has examined segregation in North Carolina and briefly reviewed the study, said the authors used a well-established research approach.

The study highlights the importance of school board elections, given the ability of one policymaker to ameliorate segregation — as well as the diverging education agendas of different parties.

“Policymaking is all about trade-offs, and we should expect Republicans to prioritize different things than Democrats do. Like achievement and choice, for example,” said Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

But a number of studies have shown that more integrated schools improve the achievement of low-income and black students. Deming’s research found that the end of busing-based integration efforts in Charlotte led to higher crime rates and lower achievement among students of color.

Macartney’s study doesn’t look at the effect of a board’s partisan makeup on student outcomes. He also found no link between changes in economic — as opposed to racial — segregation in schools and a board’s political leanings.

In addition to the changes in enrollment zones, one possible explanation for the results is Republican support for school choice policies. Other research has found that North Carolina’s charter schools have increased segregation.

However, Potter says one way to make integration more politically tenable is to include some parent choice in assignment systems designed to prioritize diversity.

Wake County, she said, is one example of the power of school board elections to derail such integration plans. The study, Potter said, “reveals some precariousness that we want to think about — how to set up enrollment plans and priorities that can’t be unwound with one election.”

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”