Can Charlotte-Mecklenburg Desegregate its Schools … Again?

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 18th, 2016.
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It was not so long ago that Charlotte, North Carolina, was widely considered “the city that made desegregation work.” The Queen City first pioneered busing to desegregate schools in 1969, and when the Supreme Court upheld that strategy as a legal remedy for school segregation two years later in its landmark Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling, districts across the South began busing students as well.

In the past 15 years, however, Charlotte has seen a rapid resurgence in segregated schooling. Following a late 1990s decision that said court-mandated integration was no longer necessary, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) grew quickly divided by race and class, and the economic isolation continues to intensify with each passing year. Though CMS is still considered a relatively high-performing school system, a closer look at the data reveals deeply unequal outcomes among the district’s 164 schools.

For more than a decade, local residents ignored the demographic shifts taking place within CMS. Political leaders, as well, seemed to just have no energy left to expend on school diversity following their highly publicized school segregation lawsuits. Yet now, due to a district policy that requires school board members to revisit student assignments every six years, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community finds itself facing a rather unusual opportunity. Wary of litigation, but troubled by the damning diversity data, Charlotte leaders have been working cautiously over the past year to see if there might be any popular support for breaking up pockets of poverty within CMS.

Their timing may be just right. In addition to sobering statistics on school segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, new research out of Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley found that Charlotte ranks dead last in the nation in terms of upward mobility, and that racial segregation and school quality are two main culprits behind this. Moreover, after years of lackluster results from other school turnaround efforts, resistance to shuffling students as a way to improve school quality is softening.

The political momentum in favor of school segregation in Charlotte is fairly new, but so is the backlash against it. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has seen a 15-year population surge, predominately in the county’s northern and southern regions. Many of the county’s newcomers missed Charlotte’s desegregation history, and see no real reason to bring it back. They moved into their communities, they say, largely for the schools. As more leaders explore how CMS might revamp student assignment, a growing number of parents have begun to raise objections—warning officials that they would not hesitate to send their children to private schools, or to the state’s notably segregated charter sector, if they had to.

Last summer, when it became clear that the CMS school board was thinking of revisiting student assignment, a group of pro-integration community members began organizing in support of the idea. And so back in July, OneMeck was born—a grassroots coalition of residents committed to making Charlotte-Mecklenburg a place where diverse individuals live, work, and attend school together. Through public forums, social media, and one-on-one conversations, OneMeck advocates began to make their case.

“We spent a few months figuring out what we were for and how we would structure ourselves, and we’re still evolving even now,” says Carol Sawyer, a co-founder of OneMeck. “But we have no intention of becoming a 501c(3); we really value our nimbleness and our ability to advocate as a community organization.”

Students also got involved. Through the organization Students for Education Reform, (SFER), CMS students began to strategize how they could best interject their personal experiences into an increasingly heated public debate over school segregation.

“Even though school board members said they wanted to hear from students, they weren’t actually invited to the table in any of these conversations,” says Kayla Romero, a former CMS teacher and current North Carolina SFER program coordinator. “This issue is going to directly impact students, they are the ones currently in the system, but people were not seeking their opinions out or intentionally bringing them to the table.”

OneMeck supporters say they are not advocating for any one specific policy, and that they believe there are a number of steps CMS could take to reduce racial and economic segregation. They are encouraging the school board to hire a national consultant who could come in and study the school district, and make recommendations on how to best legally, and strategically, diversify CMS schools.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2015, the public discussion in Charlotte revolved largely around issues of race and desegregation. But beginning in 2016, suburban families started to ramp up their efforts to shift the narrative. In February, hundreds of parents joined two new groups—CMS Families United for Neighborhood Schools and CMS Families for Close to Home Schools and Magnet Expansionwhich sought to reframe the conversation around the importance of neighborhood schools, and to express collective opposition to what they called “forced busing.” Some even began to sell T-shirts that read “#Close-To-Home-Schools #NOforcedbusing.”

Christiane Gibbons, a co-founder of the CMS Families United For Neighborhood Schools, (now renamed CMS Families for Public Education) says when she first learned that the school board was rethinking student assignments in early February, she felt compelled to alert local parents to the dangers of forced busing. I asked her if forced busing was on the table at this time. “Who knows?” she responded. “But it seemed like, for a lot of people, an option for alleviating pockets of poverty is to bus in and bus out.”

Advocates of diverse schools point out that CMS actually buses students more now than the district ever did at the height of desegregation. The CMS school board chairperson, Mary McCray, has also stressed that student assignments would be based on choice, and not on forced busing. Since 20,000 students already attend magnet schools throughout the district, integration advocates say figuring out how to improve and expand those models is one choice-based option CMS could consider.

“In some high-wealth suburban neighborhoods there’s been claims that OneMeck is pushing ‘forced busing,’ but that’s been sort of dog whistle politics,” says Sawyer. “We’ve never said anything like that, and neither has any board members. It’s a pure fabrication.”

Whatever the case, many parents began pressing the school board and other local political leaders to commit to “home school guarantees”—promises that no matter what else changes with student assignment, children could still attend the neighborhood schools that their parents have expected them to enroll in. In three towns north of Charlotte—Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson—political leaders passed resolutions affirming that they want every student guaranteed a spot within their neighborhood school. In two towns south of Charlotte—Matthews and Mint Hill—the mayors even floated the idea of splitting off from CMS if the school board goes forward with revamping student assignments.

“That’s not a realistic threat,” says Sawyer. “Though it makes good copy.”

Aside from discussions that smaller suburban towns may secede from the district, leaders take far more seriously the threat that parents may send their children to private schools or charter schools if their traditional public schools no longer seem desirable. Last year, researchers at Duke University published a study suggesting that white parents in North Carolina were already using charters as a way to avoid racially integrated public schools.

On the nine-person CMS school board, Rhonda Lennon, who represents northern Mecklenburg County, has been the fiercest critic of redrawing lines; for months she has emphasized that families would certainly leave CMS if the board interferes with student assignment, and that she might open her own charter school, if parents in her community lost their home school guarantee.

“I think it’s a valid fear that parents have; I don’t think this is ‘chicken little’,” says Amy Hawn Nelson, an educational researcher at UNC Charlotte. “When you look at the aggregate school level performance data in some high poverty racially segregated schools, it can look frightening. Every parent wants the best school for their child, and for parents that have a choice, they are going to choose a school that is high-performing.”

At the end of January, the school board released an online survey inviting parents, CMS staff members, and other Mecklenburg County residents to share their thoughts and opinions on student assignments. Board members said they would use the results—which were published in a 241-page report—to guide their decisions. The online survey, which ran from January 29 until February 22, garnered more than 27,000 responses.

In addition to the survey, the CMS school board voted in late February on a set of six goals to consider when re-evaluating student assignment. These included providing choice and equitable access to “varied and viable” programmatic options; maximizing efficiency in the use of school facilities, transportation, and other resources to reduce overcrowding; and reducing the number of schools with high concentrations of poor and high-needs children.

CMS has since put out a request for a proposal for a national consultant to help the district develop a plan. The consultant would consider, among other things, the board’s approved goals and the results of the countywide survey. CMS plans to make a hire sometime this month.

Some parents say the board is getting this all wrong, and that focusing on student assignments is a distraction from the district’s real problems. “What’s really disheartening about all this is that people are making it about ‘us versus them’ and about race and desegregation, but it’s not,” says Gibbons. She thinks there should be greater focus on improving individual schools, through strategies like increasing parent involvement and expanding after school programming. Gibbons says she does not see changing student demographics as a way to improve schools.

At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, CMS, along with local philanthropic and business communities in Charlotte launched Project LIFT—a five-year public-private partnership to boost academic achievement. The program selected nine low-performing Charlotte schools and infused them with an additional $55 million in private investment. Three years into the experiment, however, researchers have found only modest and mixed evidence of academic improvement.

“I think Project LIFT is a school reform effort to make segregation work, and it hasn’t,” says Sawyer, of OneMeck.

Gibbons disagrees. “I think it’s a great turnaround program, I think it’s obviously beneficial,” she says. “It was the first time they did it so it may need tweaks, I don’t know enough about the actual numbers, but I think those types of turnaround programs are what is going to really benefit the under-performing schools.”

Some of the SFER students that Kayla Romero works with attend Project LIFT schools. “When people say ‘oh we just need more money,’ it’s been helpful to use Project LIFT as an example,” she says. Though spending more money has undoubtedly helped in some ways—such as providing students with better technology, and enabling administrators to employ more strategic staffing—Romero says students recognize that it hasn’t been enough.

The disagreements taking place in Charlotte mirror those playing out in districts all over the country. How much does money matter? Can segregated schools be equal? How should we factor in school choice? How should we define diversity?

Proponents of desegregating Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools point to a significant body of research that says diverse schools provide better social and academic education for all children. OneMeck launched the #DiversityWorks campaign, where organizers asked CMS residents to submit videos explaining how they have benefited from attending diverse schools. They also point to research on economic opportunity that came out of Harvard and Berkeley last year, which found Mecklenburg County is the worst big county for escaping poverty after Baltimore; in 2013 the researchers ranked Charlotte as 50th out of 50 big cities for economic mobility.

Still, some CMS residents balk at OneMeck’s fervent advocacy. In Charlotte Observer op-ed, Jeremy Stephenson, who previously ran for school board, protested that those who push to use student assignment to break up concentrations of poverty “accept as gospel” that this will raise the achievement of all students. “They accept this diversity panacea as both empirical truth and an article of faith,” he writes, alleging that academia is “merging into advocacy” as it did with tobacco-funded cancer research. Stephenson argued that panel discussions “feature no diversity of thought; support for neighborhood schools is cast as xenophobic; and so postured, any questioning is heretical.”

Despite Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s historical legacy of school desegregation, hardly anyone describes that history as central to the conversations taking place today. Sandra Conway, an education consultant who has been working in conjunction with OneMeck, says she and her allies hope to mobilize Charlotte-Mecklenburg around a new, shared commitment to diverse schools.

“We’ve just really been trying to get people together to think about what kind of city we want to be,” says Conway. “We’ve grown so dramatically, we’re a Technicolor city, we’re a Southern city, and race is at play. But we need to have a new vision going forward, and if you don’t understand your history, and you don’t understand the data—that’s a problem. So we’ve just been working hard for over a year to get that out there.”

James Ford, awarded the 2014-2015 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, was a black CMS graduate during desegregation. As an educator today, Ford has been sharing his story to help raise support for reviewing student assignment. “As America becomes more brown, the question is not just whether or not we want integrated schools, but do we want to live in an integrated society? Are we an inclusive or exclusive community?” he wrote in Charlotte Magazine. “The answer depends on how we see ourselves.”

“I think for many kids growing up in Charlotte, segregation has just been the norm,” says Romero. “Some of them could live in this city for their whole lives and never come across white kids. However, some of their parents have had those experiences and do speak out about being part of the integration movement and the opportunities it created for them.”

The school board plans to continue reviewing student assignments throughout most of 2016, and any approved changes it makes would take effect no sooner than the 2017-2018 school year.

Tensions are high, but some school diversity advocates predict that the political landscape will calm down if and when a consultant presents the community with a real plan. “In the absence of a plan, you’ll have all sorts of fear mongering,” one activist confided. “It doesn’t matter how much we say that’s not the case, that there won’t be forced busing—until a plan is presented, people will continue to freak out.”

Even opponents of reassigning students have acknowledged that some of the current CMS boundaries are a bit peculiarly drawn. An article published in The Charlotte Agenda looked at various “gerrymandered” maps and found that it would be relatively easy to increase student diversity in schools without resorting to miles and miles of extra busing. Gibbons acknowledged “there are definitely some lines that don’t make sense” on the maps.

“OneMeck is feeling pretty energized,” says Sawyer. “We realize that we are facing tremendous fear, but we’re trying to show that we can make all our schools better for all our kids.”

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New York City Tackles School Segregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 9, 2015.
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Six decades after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are “inherently unequal,” integration may finally be coming to New York City.

With 1.1 million students, New York City is home to one of the nation’s largest public school systems; it’s also one of its most economically and racially segregated.

For decades, nobody in the city besides a few die-hard activists seemed to care much. Over the past year and a half, however, a perfect storm of provocative research studiesnews reportsrezoning fights, and public advocacy have forced public officials to take notice.

Last month the New York City Department of Education announced that at the start of the 2016-2017 school year, seven public elementary schools will participate in a new pilot program designed to diversify student bodies. Each of the seven schools will be permitted to set aside a certain percentage of seats to give priority enrollment to various student populations, including English language learners and those living in poverty.

Though some advocates have expressed concern that the pilot program is too little, too late, there are signs that that even bigger desegregation efforts are yet to come.

This pilot represents the first concrete step taken by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration towards desegregating the city’s public education system. Despite de Blasio’s reputation as a progressive, his administration has so far failed to tackle the segregation issue head-on.

As an example of his administration’s half-measures, earlier this fall, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña suggested that instead of desegregating schools in poor neighborhoods, public schools could diversify by pairing students in wealthy schools with kids in low-income schools to share resources, meet in person, and become pen pals. Fariña also said school diversity could be promoted by teaching students about world religions in their classrooms.

These proposals drew fire from school equity advocates, but de Blasio defended them, and suggested that promoting school choice and high-quality schools are more pressing priorities than desegregation. Critics faulted de Blasio for perpetuating the policies of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who also did little to tackle segregation.

“The whole idea of us voting Bill de Blasio into office, with his mixed family, was for him to usher in a new agenda—a progressive agenda,” says Jose Vilson, a New York City math teacher and prominent social justice activist. “But what we’ve seen is that he still has to deal with the old politics defined by Giuliani and Bloomberg.”

De Blasio also took heat for failing to follow up on the few steps toward integration that Bloomberg’s administration did take. At the start of the 2013-2014 school year, P.S. 133, an elementary school located in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn, unveiled the city’s first-of-its kind admissions program to reserve spots for English language learners and low-income students. Bloomberg’s then-school chancellor, Dennis Walcott, hailed the innovative program as a potential model for other schools.

But de Blasio failed to follow through once in office, and officials within his administration told principals who wanted to establish diverse admissions policies that the city lacked the legal authority to approve their requests. School equity advocates cried foul—pointing to federal Education Department guidance posted in 2011, which affirmed school districts’ legal right to promote diversity through admissions.

Now that de Blasio has come around, advocates make sure to point out that they had been right all along. David Tipson, the executive director of New York Appleseed, an organization that promotes equity in schools, says that the de Blasio administration’s recent pilot announcement “represents a complete and utter rejection of those bogus legal arguments” that they had used for so long.

MOST SCHOOL INTEGRATION ADVOCATES have hailed the seven-school pilot program, but warn that de Blasio’s one-school-at-a-time approach has pitfalls. There are more than 1,700 public schools in the city, and if desegregation efforts are not carefully coordinated, then desegregating one school can have the adverse effect of exacerbating segregation at another.

To really foster school integration, advocates say, the city needs to adopt what’s known as “district-wide controlled choice”—a desegregation model used in other cities, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Champaign, Illinois—that aims to balance parental choice with diversity. Parents rank their top school choices within a particular district, and then the district assigns students in a way that accounts for those preferences while also ensuring that each school has an integrated student body. (In New York City, this would mean assigning students within the system’s 32 separate school districts.)

“There’s always a fear with incremental change that the most recent increment is your last—that maybe this is as much as we’ll ever get, but I think this [pilot announcement] is really just breaking the seal,” says Tipson, who notes that this is the first time the de Blasio administration has acknowledged that gentrification must be managed at the school level, and not just through housing policy.

The school integration debate will only intensify in New York City, where gentrification and school overcrowding are both growing issues. This past May, the New York City Council passed a new law known as the School Diversity Accountability Act that requires the city to annually publish detailed student demographic data and make clear what steps it has taken to advance school integration. The first report generated by the new law will be published at the end of December.

“I think the pilot program is a good first step, and I hope more schools will do it, but I also agree that in a city with 1,700 schools we have a lot more steps to take,” says City Council member Brad Landers, a co-sponsor of The School Diversity Accountability Act. “We have to keep pushing forward, and the most important and most immediate next steps need to be moving towards district-wide diversity.”

Julie Zuckerman, a principal at Castle Bridge, a Washington Heights-based elementary school participating in the diversity pilot, says when she first founded Castle Bridge six years ago, nobody was interested in discussing integration. She tried to get the city’s permission to prioritize diversity in their admissions lottery, but officials were not supportive. Now under the pilot program, Castle Bridge will be able to ensure that at least 60 percent of its student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, and that the school educates at least 10 percent of kids with incarcerated parents.

Zuckerman says she also plans to build off the momentum from this pilot program to push for district-wide solutions. She currently serves alongside a half dozen other principals on a city superintendents’ advisory panel, where she intends to make the issue a priority.

“This [pilot] is not even a drop in the bucket, and yet it’s the first acknowledgement by the city that it doesn’t have to be the tail wagging the dog on gentrification,” she says. “Let’s harness gentrification instead of being determined by it.”

The seven schools in the pilot program all happen to be progressive schools—that is, institutions that test innovative, often experiential curricula in ways that appeal to middle-class parents. Though many of the progressive schools started out with diverse student populations, teachers and administrators say they have recognized that their school demographics have started to shift in recent years, as more affluent families apply, and poorer families find they can no longer afford to live in the city.

Jia Lee, a teacher at The Earth School, another diversity pilot participant, notes that over the last few years, her school has grown “much more white and middle class” and that it no longer feels “reflective of the community.” She says the school’s new set-aside policy, which will reserve 45 percent of its seats for low-income students, will help ensure that their school can educate a diverse student body in the years to come.

 

ONE OF THE BIGGEST POLITICAL CHALLENGES for advocates of district-wide controlled choice is garnering support from parents who send, or intend to send, their children to public schools that already have mostly white and affluent students. Last month, de Blasio told Chalkbeat NY: “You have to respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school.” In effect, he suggested that given the investments parents have already made to send their kids to certain schools, it would be wrong to try and modify those institutions after the fact.

His comments immediately garnered pushback. “Is it not disrespectful, in fact, to tell low-income families that they can’t go to a certain school because they couldn’t buy a several million-dollar co-op?” wrote Donna Nevel, a local educator and activist in an open letter published in The Huffington Post.

Experts say that the set-aside policies will work to prevent more schools from “slipping”—a term used to denote formerly diverse schools that have become heavily gentrified. If fewer schools “slip,” then there may be less political opposition to larger, systemic policy change.

Dao Tran, a parent of a third grader at Castle Bridge, says that while she doesn’t believe desegregation is something that can be solved school by school, she thinks advocates “have to start by showing certain integrated models that work.” In that sense, Tran believes the success of this pilot program could help to persuade skeptical parents.

“To me, these are all steps along the way, and I agree if we just stopped with this pilot then we have not done anywhere near enough,” says Landers, of the City Council. In a statement, the city’s education department also said the pilot program “remains one piece of a larger effort” to expand diversity across city schools.

The next step, advocates say, will be building a political consensus behind real change.

“It’s almost easier to talk about police brutality than it is to talk about school integration,” says Landers, noting that a swirl of of guilt, resignation, parents’ concerns for their own kids, and racism all work together to make school segregation a tough issue for people to reckon with.

But Ujju Aggarwal, a New York City education researcher and activist, voices optimism. In her 15 years in the district, Aggarwal says she has never seen school integration discussed so broadly until now.

“What’s increasingly clear is that this city has to take a stand respond to the crisis of inequality and segregation that is particularly pronounced in our education system,” she says. “I’m hopeful that with the increased visibility of this issue the city will respond in a more systemic way.”

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.

There’s Plenty of Evidence on the Value of School Integration

Originally published on the American Prospect Tapped blog on September 3, 2015.
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I read an exchange on Twitter yesterday between Maggie Severns, an education reporter at Politico, and CJ Libassi, a researcher at the Education Policy Initiative, an organization committed to “applied, policy-relevant research for improved educational outcomes.” They were discussing my recent piece about Obama’s record on school integration. I was struck in particular by this part:

I found it surprising, and worrying, that a prominent education journalist and an education policy researcher would both say that they have looked around and cannot find “any actual evidence” on the value of school integration.

School desegregation conversations are complex and difficult, which is all the more reason we should strive to make our discussions as informed as they can be. I have no idea what Severns’ and Libassi’s attempts to find evidence looked like, but given that perhaps there are other mainstream journalists and researchers who have faced similar issues, I decided it would make sense to quickly post some starting points:

1. The Spivack Archive is an accessible social-science database that explores the impacts of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic integration. Its stated purpose is to “provide scholars, education rights attorneys, policy makers, and the general public with accessible state-of-the-art knowledge.” The archive has been an on-going project led by sociologist Roslyn Mickelson since 2005. It’s received funding from the American Sociological Association, the National Science Foundation, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.

2. The National Coalition on School Diversity, which formed in 2009, has published a series of short policy briefs on the benefits of school integration. The briefs explore impacts on academic achievement, on college attendance, on poverty reduction, on non-minority student impacts, and other areas. NCSD is a coalition of educators, policy advocates, and civil rights leaders.

3. The Civil Rights Project/ Proyecto Derechos Civiles has commissioned hundreds of studies on issues related to desegregation, racial diversity, racial disparities in school discipline and other related areas. CRP is a research and policy think tank that was founded at Harvard in 1996, and has been run out of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies since 2007.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a decent place to start if you’re looking to familiarize yourself with some of the quality research. I hope more people do, especially those writing and thinking about education.

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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.”