integration lessons

Study finds explosion in the number of school districts working on integration

A new report by the Century Foundation found that 100 school districts and charter schools are currently pursuing socioeconomic integration plans. (Image by the Century Foundation)

School integration can be politically treacherous, tricky to define and hard to achieve. But more and more school districts are willing to give it a try.

A study released Friday by the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on inequity, found that 100 school districts and charter schools across the country are currently pursuing socioeconomic diversity plans — a number that has more than doubled since 2007.

Among the districts profiled is New York City, one of the most segregated school systems in the country but also home to a growing number of advocates pushing for more diverse schools.

“There’s been a big growth in the number of school districts that are pursuing socioeconomic diversity,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the foundation and a contributor to the report. “New York has made an important and good start in this effort.”

The report highlights some recent strides: The city has factored student diversity into recent rezoning proposals, allowed schools to implement their own admissions plans to enroll more disadvantaged students, and now requires annual reporting of demographics and integration efforts.

Still, the report says: “Systemic progress has been slow.”

“Despite this mounting pressure from community organizations and local leaders, Department of Education leadership has largely resisted any commitment to the politically contentious work of systematically revamping neighborhood school zones or the admissions policies that have contributed to citywide school segregation,” the report notes.

In an emailed statement, department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the city is “focused on increasing diversity at our schools through both systemic and localized approaches.”

She highlighted more than 80 new bilingual programs started under the current administration, and an increase in the number of students with disabilities in general education settings and in screened high schools. She also echoed comments by Mayor Bill de Blasio that the city is working on a larger diversity plan — but, like the mayor, provided no details.

“Across the city, there is a range of meaningful conversations and real steps forward around different approaches to increasing diversity,” Kaye wrote. “As we’ve already stated, we’re going to put forward a larger plan on increasing diversity in our schools – something we believe in.”

The Century Foundation report was released ahead of a national conference in Washington, D.C. — hosted by the foundation, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Coalition on School Diversity — where education leaders will share best practices for integration.

“Like math, reading, science, social studies, and the arts, diversity is essential for helping our students get ready for the world they will encounter throughout their lives,” U.S. Department of Education Secretary John King said in a statement. “The school districts and charters pursuing socioeconomic integration highlighted in this report demonstrate what is possible when we embrace the richness of our diversity.”

The report includes case studies from across the country that offer potentially valuable lessons to New York.

One takeaway, for instance: Setting system-wide integration goals and ensuring diversity at the individual classroom level are essential.

The report also notes that policies that encourage choice over compulsory integration, an approach that New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has favored, have proven successful and even popular.

Take Louisville, for example. In the 1970s, 98 percent of suburbanites opposed busing plans for integration, the study reports. Now, Louisville uses a choice system that includes consideration of student diversity — and 89 percent think the school district should “ensure that students learn with students from different races and economic backgrounds.”

A close look at districts in Cambridge and Hartford found that magnet schools, which offer instruction around specialized themes, can lead to an uptick in public school enrollment and more diverse student bodies.

“Many districts are able to marry choice and integration quite successfully,” the report notes.

Chalkbeat explains

How school desegregation efforts could change, or not, after DeVos’s move to scrap Obama-era guidance on race

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence in Miami.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw guidance dealing with race in school admissions last week wasn’t just about colleges.

School districts across the country have grappled with how to integrate their schools, too. And one of the seven documents withdrawn by the education and justice departments offered a roadmap for districts looking to voluntarily integrate their elementary and secondary schools.

This move is important symbolically — particularly in light of a surge of discussions about the persistence of segregation in public schools. But it’s not likely to have far-reaching policy implications, since only a handful of districts voluntarily use race in school assignment decisions.

Here’s what we know about what this change might mean for K-12 schools. Keep in mind that the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has authored a number of the key affirmative action opinions, puts things in even more flux. Critics of affirmative action hope Kennedy’s replacement will join other conservative judges to further limit the consideration of race in state and local policies, including school admissions decisions.

What was this guidance?

What’s relevant to K-12 education is a 14-page Obama-era document that explained how school districts can attempt to racially integrate schools without getting into legal trouble. (The document was targeted at districts that wanted to adopt desegregation policies on their own, not districts bound by federal desegregation orders.) That’s what DeVos rescinded.

It offered advice for school districts looking to make policy changes to diversify schools. Districts should first consider factors like students’ neighborhood or poverty level. But, the guidance read, “if a school district determines that these types of approaches would be unworkable, it may consider using an individual student’s race as one factor among others.”

It’s hardly a push for wide-scale race-based policies, but it left some room to use race if districts find they had exhausted alternatives.

This guidance was necessary, some argue, because the Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue in a complex way. A 2007 case, Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, struck down Seattle’s school assignment plan for its reliance on race to make admissions decisions.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in a widely quoted passage of the opinion. But Kennedy, the key fifth justice in the majority, didn’t fully sign on to this — continuing to allow districts to use race as a factor, but not the sole one.

“A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered,” Kennedy wrote. “What the government is not permitted to do … is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification.”

The Bush administration issued its own interpretation of the ruling in 2008, encouraging school districts not to consider race, though it did not say that doing so was prohibited in all circumstances. By publishing a guide for using race in 2011, the Obama administration was offering practical help but also sending a message that its goals were different.  

Erica Frankenberg, a professor who studies K-12 desegregation at Penn State, said the user-friendly way the guide was written was part of the Obama administration’s strategy to encourage districts to integrate their schools.

Did any school districts use it?

According to recent research, 60 school districts in 25 states have school assignment policies meant to create more diverse schools. Of those, just 12 districts take race into account, rather than just socio-economic status. (Using socio-economic status isn’t affected by this debate about race-based admissions.)

But it’s hard to tell if the guidance was a deciding factor for any school districts.

“Even with the 2011 guidance in place, voluntary integration is still an incredibly complicated thing to do,” said Frankenberg. In addition to a plan being in compliance with the law, this approach require garnering political will and tackling logistics like transportation.

Why are some people concerned about it being rescinded?

The guidance represents the official viewpoint of the administration, but the underlying law hasn’t changed. It does mean that districts won’t have the backing of federal government when it comes to race-conscious integration policies. That might make districts using race more fearful of a lawsuit.

“This is a legal intimidation strategy from a very conservative administration that is really intent on not having race a part of decision making and policy,” said Liliana Garces, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, law, and education.

The move to rescind the documents fall into set of decisions by the Department of Education to deprioritize voluntary desegregation. Last year, the department discontinued an Obama-era grant program that was intended to help schools increase socio-economic diversity. (According to The Atlantic, 26 districts had been interested in applying for integration grants before that program was scrapped by the DeVos administration.)

To no longer have [the guidances] as an official stance is certainly at the very least, a missed opportunity to use the bully pulpit,” said Frankenberg, who supports race-based integration efforts.

Others support the move, arguing that attempts to use race in public policy are unconstitutional.  

“Being opposed to racial preferences is not being against diversity, which is what the critics will claim: It’s simply being against discrimination,” Roger Clegg, of the anti-affirmative action Center for Equal Opportunity, told Education Week. “The federal government should not be going out of its way to encourage such discrimination.”

What does research say about school integration?

It’s found that low-income students and students of color benefit from racially integrated schools. One recent study found that graduation rates of black and Hispanic students fell modestly after the end of a court order mandating desegregation plans. Another study found that Palo Alto’s school integration program led to big boosts in college enrollment among students of color (though, surprisingly, also led to an uptick in arrests).

Research has also shown that income is not a good proxy for race when looking at academic outcomes — even when accounting for differences in family income, black students were substantially less likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Other research has shown that attempting to use income to integrate schools by race isn’t nearly as effective as using race directly.

sounding off

New Yorkers respond to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to overhaul admissions at elite but segregated specialized high schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to better integrate New York City’s specialized high schools was met with fierce pushback but also pledges of support after the mayor announced Saturday he would work to overhaul admissions at the elite schools.

The reaction foreshadows the battle that lies ahead if de Blasio is going to convince lawmakers to sign off a key piece of his plan.

Considered the Ivies of the city’s high school system, eight of the nine specialized high schools admit students based on the results of a single entrance exam (the remaining performing arts school requires an audition.) The most significant but controversial change de Blasio is proposing is to scrap the test in favor of a system that offers admission to top students at every middle school, which requires a change in state law for some of the specialized high schools.

Many alumni from those schools have fought fiercely to preserve the entrance exam requirement, worrying that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards.

Many made the familiar arguments that the city should instead focus on improving the quality of middle schools, or expand access to gifted programs, to serve as a feeder into top high schools.

Alumni who would like to see the Specialized High School Admissions Test remain in place likely have many lawmakers on their side. New York State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal.

The reaction also captured concerns about how the changes could impact Asian students, who make up a disproportionate share of enrollment at the specialized high schools. Those students are also likely to come from low-income families.

But others took to social media to support the mayor’s proposal. Specialized high schools have enrolled an increasingly shrinking share of black and Hispanic students: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

Some thanked the mayor for taking action after campaigning for years to make changes.

And not all alumni were against the changes. Also included in the mayor’s plan is an expansion of Discovery, a program that helps admit low-income students who just missed the cutoff score on the entrance exam.