Why the Administration Needs a Bolder Plan on School Integration

(Originally published in The American Prospect on September 23, 2015.)
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In late August I looked at the Obama administration’s record on school integration and found that, overall, Arne Duncan and his team at the Department of Education did not prioritize school diversity very much within its key initiatives, though they spoke often of its importance. Earlier this month, four education policy researchers published a new report assessing the impact of a little-known federal grant, the Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans (TASAP), which had been quietly earmarked in 2009 to promote school diversity. In light of a Supreme Court decision that significantly muddied the legal terrain around school integration, TASAP offered technical assistance to districts seeking to promote student diversity and combat segregation. But as the researchers find, the Obama administration’s failure to broadly promote integration on the federal level significantly impeded TASAP’s success. If the government is serious about integrated schooling, then concerted federal involvement is still very much needed.

Background on the Grant:

The impetus for TASAP followed the confusing 2007 Supreme Court decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, where the justices both rejected student assignment plans that relied explicitly on race, and affirmed the state’s role in reducing racial isolation and promoting diverse public schools. This paradoxical decision, coupled with guidance from the Bush administration that discouraged race-conscious student assignment plans, perplexed district officials around the country.

The Council of Great City Schools (CGCS), an organization representing large urban school districts, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) recognized that districts might need professional help if they hoped to maintain or promote diverse student assignment plans in the wake of Parents Involved. No district wants to risk an expensive lawsuit. According to the researchers, LDF and CGCS pushed for technical assistance funding within the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act for this reason.

But advocates wanted to avoid a top-down approach through bodies like the Equity Assistance Centers, entities funded by the Department of Education under Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As the researchers put it, “In contrast to its history of forcing reluctant local officials to integrate their schools, and later of directly providing desegregation assistance, with TASAP the federal government endorsed the goal of diversity and financially supported technical assistance for district diversity efforts, without imposing a particular outcome or providing technical assistance itself.”

Twenty-one districts and one charter school applied for funding, and 11 districts were ultimately awarded TASAP grants. The grantees were diverse—most were relatively large districts, and all had engaged with racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic integration issues before—whether because they were formerly under a court-order, or because they had experimented with controlled choice programs like magnet schools, or both. Grantees included Boston, Portland, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Champaign, Illinois, among others.

Though funding was limited, and instructions were vague, advocates felt that promoting TASAP was better than nothing. TASAP also served as a symbolic statement by signaling to school districts that the federal government still backed school integration, even after Parents Involved. As researchers noted, TASAP “was a subtle sort of symbol, though. Rather than a high-profile act of Congress, it was an earmark to the Equity Assistance Center budget, authorized via a Joint Explanatory Statement.” This allowed the federal government to quietly support diversity, without angering political opponents.

What the Researchers Found:

The four researchers, Elizabeth DeBray from the University of Georgia, Kathryn A. McDermott from the University of Massachusetts, Erica Frankenberg from Pennsylvania State University, and Ann Elizabeth Blankenship from the University of Southern Mississippi, analyzed TASAP’s design, the Department of Education’s involvement, and how grantees ultimately used the federal funds.

In their report they explain why they felt studying TASAP was so important, despite it being “just a small, relatively invisible technical assistance program.” For them, it offers an opportunity to better understand what factors are most likely to help promote, or inhibit, successful diversity initiatives.

Overall, TASAP’s results were mixed. Despite all districts articulating a commitment to promoting diversity when they applied for TASAP funding, a majority did not end up using the money in a way that emphasized diversity. Districts often spent the funds on other local priorities, like balancing the budget.

Researchers found that federal officials did not have much of a strategy, other than generally feeling as though districts were better positioned than they were to determine appropriate forms of technical assistance. The Department of Education was unwilling to clearly define what “diversity” should mean and provided minimal oversight throughout the program.

While deferring to local districts sounds reasonable, researchers found that, in practice, other issues tended to “crowd out” diversity from the political agenda. Many of the districts were struggling with shrinking school budgets and faced pressure to reduce transportation costs. The researchers found that, “districts with current or past commitments to diversity could not necessarily sustain those commitments in the face of public indifference to diversity as a goal and of other pressing priorities, such as boosting test scores, implementing budget austerity, and attempting to recruit or retain middle-class and white students.”

Implementing TASAP proved to be particularly difficult for districts that wanted to design new diverse student assignment plans, compared to those that just needed help improving or maintaining their existing diversity schemes. Only one district, Champaign, was able to change its student assignment plan to encourage more diversity; it used the TASAP funds to hire a consultant who helped them create a more diverse student assignment algorithm.

Lessons Learned:

Federal involvement can provide political cover for districts that want to promote diversity but feel pressure to prioritize other things; federal involvement helps ensure that integration will not be “crowded out” from the political agenda. The four researchers point out that one problem with the “something beats nothing” TASAP approach was that six districts did not end up actually using their funds to promote diversity.

The researchers ultimately conclude that local technical assistance for diversity initiatives will be most effective if it comes alongside a larger federal strategy. The Department of Education must both provide strong and consistent supports for local communities, while also including diversity incentives within its own federal programs. This can help challenge the perception that diversity is just some optional bonus at best, or a distraction from more important improvements, at worst. Without clear federal commitments—matched by deeds as well as words—local politics are likely to impede integration reforms. And since the groups most likely to benefit from diversity initiatives are those most excluded from local politics, the researchers conclude, “leaving the use or interpretation of such policies up to local governments is likely to limit the extent to which they have their intended effects.”

This week, the National Coalition on School Diversity will be holding its third annual conference in Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of school integration efforts. (I’ll be reporting from the event.) While there exists a general feeling that the mandatory integration policies seen in the 20th century are unlikely to return any time soon, advocates also recognize that a strong role for the federal government is still clearly needed. This could mean increased federal support for controlled-choice programs like magnet schools or racially diverse charters, or withholding federal funds from states that permit discriminatory housing policies. As lessons from the TASAP program reveal, if policymakers are serious about promoting diverse local schools—something even the Supreme Court views as a compelling state interest—then tactical federal involvement is a must.

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