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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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.”