Will America’s Schools Ever Be Desegregated?

Originally published in Pacific Standard on December 5, 2017, co-authored with Will Stancil.
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Only a few years ago, school desegregation was a topic confined to history books—a tumultuous chapter of the civil rights era, starting with Brown v. Board of Education and ending, ignominiously, with the backlash of white parents in the 1980s and ’90s. But over the past three years, thanks to the renewed efforts of advocates and researchers, a surprising resurgence has taken shape. Authors and activists are once again highlighting America’s failure to successfully integrate its schools as a root cause of educational inequality and a driving force behind the nation’s persistent racial divides.

As concerns over unresolved segregation have picked up steam, so too has recognition of the hard practical obstacles to educational integration. Is desegregation a feasible goal? Even some self-described integrationists voice skepticism—potentially slowing, or even derailing, momentum for integrated schools. History threatens to repeat itself, with frustrated advocates accepting segregation as inevitable and refocusing, as many did in the ’90s, only on providing better education in racially isolated environments. But this would be a mistake.

No obstacle to school desegregation is greater, or has been more frequently cited, than racially divided housing patterns. The basic issue is simple: Segregated neighborhoods tend to produce segregated schools. If most of a school district’s population is black or Hispanic, most of its schools probably will be too.

This relationship between school and housing segregation has long been the bugbear of integration efforts, though for slightly different reasons than today. During the 1970s, when courts across the country tried to dismantle segregated districts, education officials pointed to housing patterns as a reason they couldn’t be held legally responsible for the demographics of their schools. The Supreme Court agreed, in part. It called school segregation that arose out of living patterns “de facto segregation,” and argued that it represented private activity that shouldn’t be corrected by government action. The role of the courts, it said, was to eliminate the effects of officially sanctioned discrimination, not to engage in racial balancing for its own sake.

But recent work has helped expose the government’s pivotal (and heretofore frequently overlooked) role in the creation of housing segregation. In 2014, as part of an explosive Atlantic cover story, Ta-Nehisi Coates traced how the government redlined black neighborhoods and denied their inhabitants good mortgages, trapping residents in place. This year, Richard Rothstein followed up on Coates’ work with The Color of Law, a book that takes aim at the myth that racialized living patterns are the result of individual choices. Instead, he shows, they are mainly the product of government policies developed to maintain the racial character of neighborhoods.

With these developments have come a subtle shift: Where housing segregation was once cited as a legal defense excusing districts from the obligation to integrate, it is now raised as a practical obstacle that makes integration impossible. Skeptics say that, until cities address their legacy of discriminatory housing, little can be done to ameliorate school segregation. This argument was notably deployed last spring, when New York City mayor Bill de Blasio suggested his options were limited on school integration, given that “we cannot change the basic reality of housing” across the city.

Undoubtedly, segregated housing complicates school integration. But residential patterns can’t become a scapegoat for racially divided education either.

For decades, school districts have exploited arguments about housing to attack court-enforced desegregation plans. Critics still maintain that any form of proactive school integration will result in white flight, intensified housing segregation, and, ultimately, greater racial isolation in schools.

Experience shows, however, that segregated neighborhoods are not inherent barriers to integrated education. Following a 1996 state supreme court decision, the racially fragmented region of Hartford, Connecticut, established a school desegregation program by funding the creation of diverse magnet schools in Hartford and expanding an interdistrict choice program in the suburbs. Today nearly half of all Hartford public school students attend integrated schools, and parents are clamoring for more.

There is no secret method of school integration that works best. Magnet schools, careful boundary drawing, even the much-maligned practice of busing students to integrated schools instead of just the closest—all seem to work under the right conditions. New York City just announced it will be launching its first-ever district-wide integration plan, using “controlled choice“—a model used in cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Champaign, Illinois, that balances racial diversity with parental preference. Families rank their top school choices and the district assigns students to schools taking those considerations into account, but also considers the demographics of each school.

And, besides, neighborhood diversity alone will not always guarantee that schools integrate. In the absence of proactive desegregation plans, it isn’t unusual to find diverse communities served by segregated schools.

Consider the school districts surrounding Minneapolis, Minnesota. Several of the city’s major first-ring suburbs have experienced a rapid demographic transition over the past few decades as the region’s non-white population has quickly grown. Over 30 years, these cities—formerly monolithically white—have become highly diverse.

But change in the cities’ schools has outpaced change in their neighborhoods, and tipped into the realm of outright segregation. In 2010, for example, 50 percent of residents in the large suburb of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, were white, but only 26 percent of the students in its schools were white. In nearby Richfield, which is served by a citywide school district, the mismatch was even greater: The city was 63 percent white while its schools were 32 percent white.

Despite the diversity of the areas they serve, districts like Richfield’s and Brooklyn Park’s are caught in a trap: There’s little to prevent white parents, skittish about the effects of integration, from finding alternatives to their neighborhood school. In Minnesota, that means parents can always place their kids in a charter school, or move their child to a neighboring district under the state’s broad open enrollment rules.

There’s an essential lesson in the plight of these districts. Regardless of whether housing is integrated or otherwise, successful school desegregation requires a plan strong enough to discourage boundary trolling by parents. Indeed, the thing that unites the nation’s best school integration plans is a broad scope. Plans that extend across entire metropolitan regions can coordinate the activities of many different districts and prevent any area as acting as a haven for white flight.

There is no more compelling example of such a plan than Louisville, Kentucky. The Louisville region implemented a city-county school desegregation plan following a court-order in the ’70s. Students still travel between the city proper and its suburbs to attend integrated schools with carefully drawn attendance boundaries. The system has maintained relative demographic balance for decades, even in the absence of quotas.

Of course, the road has been bumpy at times. Desegregation efforts in Louisville faced initial resistance. This is typical: Parents are deeply sensitive to changes in school policy, and adding race to the mix rarely calms things down. Very few cities, districts, or regions have attempted desegregation without some form of parental protest.

But what divides efforts that succeed from those that have failed often isn’t the presence or absence of resistance, but authorities’ patience in overcoming it. Popular dissent over desegregation, it turns out, doesn’t last forever. If changes look inevitable—and can’t be easily escaped by moving to the next town over or enrolling in a different school—parents generally come to accept them. This is what happened in Louisville: resistance gave way to acceptance and even vocal support. The district’s commitment to desegregation has survived multiple attempts to dismantle it—at the Supreme Court in 2006, and just this year in the state legislature. The plan’s resilience exists in large part because it has been embraced by the region’s parents and leaders, most of whom now believe that integration redounds to their benefit.

If anything, research suggests leaders aren’t worrying enough about effects in the other direction: Segregated schools creating segregated cities.

Last year, University of Southern California sociologist Ann Owens published a study examining census data from 100 major metropolitan areas across the United States. She found that large national increases in neighborhood segregation by income—20 percent from 1990 to 2010—were caused almost entirely by families with children, those seeking “good” school districts. Other studies have shown neighborhoods in cities with metropolitan-wide school integration plans are markedly less likely to become segregated over time. (Notably, Louisville’s rate of housing segregation fell more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

Not that the impact of schools on housing is any great mystery: Ask any real estate agent. It’s no coincidence that real estate services like Zillow or Redfin prominently feature metrics of school quality on their house listings—a legal gray area, since realtor discussion of neighborhood demographics is banned by the Fair Housing Act.

Even the Supreme Court’s desegregation cases, which often treated housing patterns as a fact of nature, conceded that the construction of segregated schools “may well promote segregated residential patterns which … further lock the school system into the mold of separation of the races.”

In other words, regions that wait for diversity in neighborhoods to create diversity in schools may quickly find themselves with little of either.

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School Choice and the Chaotic State of Racial Desegregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 15th, 2015.
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In 2013, a group of white parents in northeast Arkansas tried to transfer their children out of the predominately black Blytheville School District. Like many low-income, majority-black districts, Blytheville’s schools are struggling: state officials recently labeled two of its schools as “academically distressed.”

That same year, the Arkansas state legislature passed a law allowing students to transfer between school districts, unless their local district still had a federal order to desegregate. Blytheville said it was indeed still under federal mandate, and thus the white parents could not transfer their children out. The parents sued, arguing that Blytheville’s desegregation order had ended decades ago, and that they had a constitutional right to switch districts. In 2014, a district court dismissed the case,and on August 31st, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision, ruling that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee public school choice. On September 11th, the plaintiffs filed a petition for rehearing.

Whether or not the parents prevail, the Blytheville legal battle reveals a lot about the confused state of school desegregation six decades after Brown v. Board. While the appellate judges focused on whether the plaintiffs’ claims were matters of constitutional import, they sidestepped on whether Blytheville is, or isn’t, still under federal desegregation. That question will surely be litigated in the future, but as it turns out, it’s a surprisingly difficult one to answer, and not just for Blytheville.

In hundreds of cities nationwide, parents, school officials, and even legal experts have struggled to figure out exactly where districts once under federal desegregation now stand. Decades of bad record keeping and lax federal oversight have significantly undercut the power of court-ordered desegregation, and a growing movement around school choice has made the policy discussions around structural racism even that much more complex.

IN 1989, ARKANSAS passed a school choice law that permitted students to transfer to neighboring districts, depending on their race. “No student may transfer to a nonresident district where the percentage of enrollment for the student’s race exceeds the percentage in the student’s resident district,” the law stated. It was an attempt to both promote school choice while also prevent the resegregation of Arkansas public schools. But in 2012, a federal court ruled the statute unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Public School Choice Act of 2013, passed to replace the 1989 law, allowed students to transfer between districts regardless of race, but placed several new restrictions on transfers. Legislators said that transfers could not result in a net enrollment change of more than 3 percent for each district, and that districts still under federal desegregation can be exempted from the law.

During the 2013-2014 school year, 23 districts, among them Blytheville, claimed exemption from the new Public School Choice Act, out of a total of 232. To claim exemption, districts just had to notify the Arkansas Department of Education that it planned to do so. “There appears to be no process in place for validation of these exemptions, theoretically allowing any district, regardless of history of desegregation, to claim an exemption,” University of Arkansas researchers wrote in a 2013 report. They found that six of the 23 exempted districts did not even cite a specific court case when they notified the state Department of Education. And some cases that districts did cite raised questions of legitimacy or relevancy. Attorneys representing the Blytheville parents, for example, argue that the school district inappropriately cites Brown v. Board of Education, a local desegregation order that was dismissed in 1978, and a voting rights case from 1996.

“State officials, reluctant to tread on the ground of federal litigation, refuse to challenge these claims,” wrote the attorneys in their petition for rehearing filed last week. “Thus, using old federal cases, districts falsely claim unfinished desegregation obligations to nullify state education policy and rights. Citizens cannot intervene in those closed cases to stop this farce.”

I was surprised to hear that Arkansas state officials could not validate districts’ requests for exemption by referring to a comprehensive list of schools still under federal desegregation. Surely this all must be tracked somewhere? But upon further investigation, I learned that determining which districts are still under federal order turns out to be a far messier and legally murky process than I initially understood.

A report published in 2007 by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that as of May 2007, the United States remained party to 266 lawsuits with active court-ordered desegregation mandates. “There are, of course, many more such cases to which the United States is not a party, but no comprehensive list of these cases currently exists,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, many cases were initiated in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the original players have either moved on or in some cases passed away. In such instances, not even the school districts understand the scope of the court orders that bind them and little reliable information exists that can provide a complete picture as to the nature of ongoing court-ordered desegregation.”

I reached out to Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist who has been tracking the impacts of school districts released from court-ordered desegregation, to learn more about why people can’t seem to agree on whether districts are still under federal mandate.

He said that when researching whether districts were still, or had ever been, under federal desegregation, he and his colleagues learned it was a harder question to answer than they had originally expected. “We’d call up people at school districts and sometimes we’d talk to them, and we’d talk to the lawyer, or the central office administrator, or the secretary, whoever would answer questions, and sometimes even the legal office didn’t seem to really know the answer,” he said. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist, cited similar issues in a 2014 ProPublica investigation, finding 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.”

With the passage of time, poor record keeping, and a lack of consistent court oversight, many districts had nobody left who really remembered, or cared, what their legal obligations were. “Districts seemed unable to tell us if they were under a court order more often than you would think, or different people would say different things,” Reardon said.

Poor record keeping helps explain some confusion, perhaps even for many of the 23 Arkansas districts that claimed exemption, but it didn’t quite clarify what’s going on with Blytheville—where attorneys do point to a specific case, Franklin v. Board of Directors of Blytheville School Dist. No. 5, as evidence that the district is no longer under federal desegregation. A district judge dismissed Blytheville’s court order in 1978, without appeal. So what exactly is there to debate here?

“There’s also a fuzziness about what it means to be ‘released’,” said Reardon, largely thanks to judicial developments in the early ‘90s. In its Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell decision, reached in 1991, the Supreme Court created the concept of “unitary status”—a designation that could be applied to districts found to have complied with desegregation orders “in good faith.” Unitary status meant districts could be released once and for all from court oversight, even if resegregation was likely. And one year later, the justices ruled in Freeman v. Pittsthat districts could be released from desegregation in phases, rather than all at once.

“I’ve never gotten a clear understanding of what it means to be ‘unitary.’ I think it’s a slippery concept, it’s harder to nail down,” said Reardon. “I can imagine, based on the people I’ve talked to in different districts that there could be cases where people think they’d been released and some people think they weren’t because they were relying on different criteria and different definitions.”

Blytheville was released from desegregation before the concept of unitary status came about, and this seems to be at the crux of the contemporary legal dispute. In December 2014, U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker found Blytheville to still be under desegregation and wrote, “The Court acknowledges plaintiffs’ argument that, for many years after 1978, the BSD did not operate as if it were under a desegregation order or agency mandate. The Court views this as irrelevant to the issue of whether the district court declared, explicitly or implicitly, that the BSD achieved unitary status, and the Court views the district court’s lack of a finding of unitary status as controlling.” In other words, the judge said that without a unitary status designation, Blytheville can’t consider itself released from its desegregation mandate.

BLYTHEVILLE-SPECIFIC QUESTIONS aside, Arkansas legislators are still left trying to craft fair and equitable school choice policies. The 2013 law was updated this year, and the new version requires school districts that seek exemptions to “submit proof from a federal court” that they are entitled to one.

But issues still remain. “Districts must show documentation in the new law, but it’s not actually that effective because no one sorted out what it means to have documentation,” said Gary Ritter, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. “People are still citing Brown v. Board.”

Open-enrollment advocates argue that school choice increases healthy competition between districts, and creates more equitable opportunities for disadvantaged students. They also believe that school choice allows more families to access schools that fit their particular needs.

Critics worry that school choice policies will disproportionately hurt low-income students and racial minorities, since the more advantaged students with the means and ability to leave struggling districts are more likely to do so. Social science researchers have found that segregation and school choice policies are often closely linked. When Minnesota instituted an open-enrollment program in 1988, researchers found that it led to increased segregation, as more white students left racially diverse districts to attend predominately white ones

So far, this has not been a major issue in Arkansas. A University of Arkansas policy brief published in February found there to be “very little change in the percent white enrollment due to school choice” since the 2013 law was enacted.

Open-enrollment advocates also note that however well-intentioned, the current law effectively denies choice to students who attend some of the lowest-performing schools in the state—those who might benefit the most from leaving. Exempted districts have a higher proportion of ethnic and racial minorities, have more students eligible for free or reduced lunch, and have lower student achievement and graduation rates, on average, than non-exempt districts.

However, Arkansas does not guarantee free transportation for all students traveling between districts, which suggests that even if no districts were exempt, low-income students whose parents could not afford to transport them to and from school each day would still be less likely to benefit from interdistrict school choice.

Ritter thinks that the state will have to ultimately be clearer about what qualifies as a meaningful reason for exemption. “We have lawyers at the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE). I get that there is some gray area about what exactly constitutes desegregation, but in my view, the ADE should come up with a set of rules, apply those set of rules, and generate a list. And maybe it needs to go to a court and the judges need to figure out if that’s a reasonable set of rules, but I imagine that would be better than go through all this ambiguity.”

The political and legal questions that Arkansas is wrestling with mirror the broad tensions that school districts throughout the country face: how to promote school choice without fostering racial segregation—admirable, but often incongruous goals.

Obama’s Mixed Record on School Integration

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 31, 2015.
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As Congress debates competing revisions of the No Child Left Behind Act over the next several weeks, lawmakers are unlikely to spend much time looking at the growing problem of segregated schools. Despite strong academic and civic benefits associated with integrated schooling, and a unanimous Supreme Court decision which ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”—American public schools have resegregated quickly by race and class over the past two-and-a-half decades.

Many advocates had hoped to see the Obama administration take steps to address rising school segregation, but so far its record has not been great. While the Department of Education has paid lip service to the need to promote integrated schools, and has included modest diversity incentives within a handful of federal grants, it refused to use larger education initiatives like Race to the Top to encourage states and districts to prioritize school diversity. In some cases, the department actually pushed policies that made segregation worse.

The Obama administration came to power at an interesting time for the integration movement. With the help of Reagan-appointed judges and justices, court decisions in the 1990s absolved many local districts from their legal obligations to desegregate schools. Between 1988 and 2006, the number of black students attending majority-white schools dropped by 16 percentage points. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of schools where at least 75 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-meals—a proxy for poverty—jumped from 12 percent to 17 percent.

But many districts were also interested in racial and economic diversity, even if they weren’t legally required to promote it. And so various voluntary integration experiments began cropping up around the country. These new efforts seemed promising but quickly faced legal challenge. In a pivotal 2007 decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court rejected voluntarily desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, on the basis that their particular student assignment strategies relied too explicitly on race. But the Court did clarify that, under certain conditions, districts can use race-conscious measures to promote diversity. Justice Kennedy even endorsed specific strategies to do so, including magnet schools and interdistrict plans.

The years immediately following the Parents Involved decision sparked confusion, largely thanks to the Bush administration. While the majority of Supreme Court justices said districts could consider race in school assignments, the Bush administration posted a federal guidance that suggested only race-neutral means of pursuing integration would be legal.

In 2009, shortly after President Obama took office, a group of educators, policy advocates, and civil rights leaders came together under the banner of the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD) to try and push the new administration to take action.

“Our very first goal was to get the Department of Education to take down the guidance from the Bush administration, which told schools they could not promote racial and economic diversity,” said Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and NCSD coalition member. Their efforts were ultimately successful. By December 2011, the department posted a new guidance, which affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision and listed various ways school districts could pursue voluntary integration.

Other NCSD efforts met less success. One of their primary objectives has been to get the Obama administration to prioritize school integration within their competitive federal grant programs. While Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly said that he supports school diversity and wants to reduce racial isolation, his department has not, for the most part, translated such support into its competitive programs.

Despite NCSD’s urging, the department declined to use its largest grant, the $4 billion Race to the Top initiative, to promote racial diversity. Duncan argued that including incentives for voluntary integration would have been too difficult to get through Congress. He also said that when it comes to successful integration efforts, we can’t “force these kinds of things.”

In 2013, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute,responded strongly to Duncan’s arguments, pointing out that “no education secretary has been as deft as Arne Duncan in creating incentives—both carrots and sticks—to get states to follow his favored policies that are technically voluntary.” Duncan used incentives to get states to adopt Common Core standards, to promote after-school programs and early childhood education, and even within Race to the Top, incentives were used to encourage states to adopt teacher evaluation systems tied to student test scores. But in the case of school integration, Rothstein noted, suddenly Duncan sings a different tune.

“Only in this area, apparently, does Secretary Duncan believe that progress must be entirely voluntary, unforced by carrots and sticks,” Rothstein wrote. There have been plenty of opportunities to incentivize racial integration, such as rewarding states that prohibit all-white suburbs from excluding poor people through zoning ordinances, or withholding No Child Left Behind waivers from states that allow landlords to discriminate against families using federal housing vouchers. “Adoption of such ‘voluntary’ policies could make a contribution to narrowing the academic achievement gap that is so much a focus of Secretary Duncan’s rhetoric,” Rothstein said.

Despite a frustrating first term, desegregation advocates have seen some progress in the last couple years. The Department of Education recently began to include diversity as a funding priority in several of its smaller grant programs like the preschool development grants and its charter school grants; it also announced that magnet-type integration approaches are eligible for the school improvement grants (SIG) program.

While modest, these changes have led to some important new integration experiments. At the end of 2014, New York’s education commissioner, John King, helped launch a socioeconomic integration pilot program to increase student achievement using newly available federal SIG funds. King has since moved to the Department of Education, where he now serves as Arne Duncan’s senior advisor.

Other advocates have capitalized on the Department of Education’s 2011 guidance. David Tipson, executive director of New York Appleseed, says it was an absolute game-changer for his work in New York City. “Getting that correct interpretation, with some real practical guidance for school districts, I can’t even emphasize how important that was,” Tipson said. “There was a very deliberate effort to misconstrue the 2007 [Supreme Court] decision and put fear into many school officials across the country. Everything we’ve been able to do to promote school integration has come in the wake of getting that new federal guidance in place.” New York Appleseed, along with community stakeholders, sought to design a zoning plan that would help keep a school located within a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood integrated. Officials resisted at first, but they eventually relented after advocates presented them with the federal guidance. Thus at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, Brooklyn’s P.S. 133 became the first school in Bloomberg’s administration to foster a specific mix of students based on socioeconomic status and English proficiency. At the school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, the city’s school chancellor said he believed their innovative admissions model could be replicated elsewhere.

While advocates of desegregation are happy to see the administration beginning to prioritize diversity within its grant programs, some feel these gestures are too little, too late.

In a letter sent to Secretary Duncan last July, NCSD noted that while the Department of Education has included preferences for diversity within some grant programs, in practice, the department has “consistently underemphasized” these incentives. Many grants still make no mention of diversity at all, and in cases where they do, officials tend to weigh other competitive priorities far more heavily, rendering the modest diversity incentives ineffective. For example, in one grant, applicants could earn an additional five points if their school was diverse, but applicants could earn twice as many bonus points if their school would serve a high-poverty student population

The only federal education initiative to significantly emphasize integration is the Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP), a program first launched in 1976. However MSAP has limited impact today due to the small amount of federal funding it receives. Even though charters are far more likely than magnets to exacerbate segregation, the department gave MSAP $91.6 million in 2014, compared to the $248.2 million it gave the Charter Schools Program.

Advocates have not given up. Next month in D.C., the NCSD will be hosting a national two-day conference, bringing together scholars, educators, parents, students, and policymakers to continue, “building the movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion.” John King will be speaking on a panel there about the progress they’ve made, and further challenges they face on the federal level. NCSD hopes that King’s new role at the Department of Education will motivate the government to take integration efforts more seriously. The department’s press secretary, Dorie Nolt, told The American Prospect that “we’ve taken meaningful steps, and we want to do more.”

Yet this administration has fewer than 18 months left. And the next secretary of education could quite easily end even the modest progress that NCSD has fought for. “Promoting voluntary school integration is an area where the department has a lot of leeway to act on its own, in terms of trying to encourage state and local governments to prioritize diversity,” said Tegeler. “But that also means the next department has a lot of leeway to not act.”