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Friday, March 1, 2019

SD News Roundup: Suburban School Segregation

The Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity is pleased to feature the School Desegregation News Roundup: periodic updates and reflections on educational desegregation and related issues, provided by Peter Piazza, an education policy researcher at Penn State's Center for Education and Civil Rights. Updates are crossposted on his site, available here

I want to start with an aspect of school segregation history that is important but may not be well known. Starting in the 1970-71 school year, Longview, TX was under a court desegregation order that included busing more than 600 Black students to formerly all-white schools. During the summer before busing was to begin, two white men entered the maintenance yard where the district parked its buses for the summer. They had two dozen bombs, which they arranged under successive rows of buses before detonating all of them simultaneously. According to this article from the NYT archive, 36 buses were damaged in all, with several considered “total losses.” Although suspects were not immediately evident, the two men were eventually found and convicted to 11 years each in prison. One of them had earlier set off dynamite at the home of a Black woman who lived in a white neighborhood. 
This story is retold in a stunning new series called Dis-Integration from the Texas Tribune, which looks at contemporary school segregation in four Texas towns: Longview, Edgewood, Richardson and San Antonio. One major theme: While we’d love to believe that this kind of senseless racism is stuck in the past, it is not so much gone as it has just changed shape. 
These are places where political apathy and a near-complete absence of oversight, guidance or public accountability threatens to allow schools to slide further into resegregation. As always, I recommend a full read- the stories are each relatively short and extremely engaging. Here’s a quick summary that, in the interest of space, focuses mainly on Longview.
Starting in 1970, Longview, along with virtually the entire state of Texas, was under a court desegregation order, following a ruling from a federal judge. Longview was only recently released from its order, leaving just two districts in the state that remain under a desegregation order. Immediately after the order was lifted, the school board voted unanimously to implement a voluntary school integration plan that keeps some of the goals of the long-standing order. Longview is changing rapidly, however, and the the series points out that leaders are faced with new threats to their commitment to educational equity. Notably, the district is struggling with “providing an equal education to an exploding population of Hispanic students — many of them immigrants or first-generation citizens, and many of them Spanish speakers.” 
In this short segment on NPR’s 1A, there’s more detail on demographic changes in Longview and other challenges to preventing further resegregation. Given these challenges, the school board’s commitment to integration rests on a shaky foundation. Of course, integration efforts no longer have the backing of a court order and DeVos/the federal DOE just recently revoked guidance for voluntary integration efforts, like those in Longview. In an election cycle, the composition of the school board could change, and the priorities of the district could change with it. Also, even with a supportive school board, the series notes, “Longview is still a small town where many hesitate to talk directly about race. And people are divided on how they recount the racially fraught history or whether they acknowledge that same racism still exists today.” Preventing further resegregation, then, depends on political success of equity-oriented school board candidates and the willingness, in the larger community, to confront difficult historical truths. 
There are important lessons, as well, from the other cities featured in the series-
  • In Edgewood, students of color have long been neglected by local and state leaders; any progress has come “when the courts forced the state’s hand” to addressing segregation and funding inequity. And, even minimal progress was won only after a complicated series of lawsuits and court rulings. Texas is now considering revisions to its funding formula to address inequity. As one advocate argues, the odds are stacked against proponents of funding equity: “You have to convince people that it’s in their best interest to educate children who don’t look like them.”
  • In Richardson, only one person of color has ever served on the school board of a district that is 60% Black and Latinx. That person recently filed suit against the city, claiming that a board composed exclusively of at-large seats denies fair representation to people of color. The article has a lot of fascinating detail about the struggle for this simple and commonsense form of representation. (See here and here for studies about how/why Black and Latinx school board members matter for students of color.) Ultimately, the district settled the lawsuit by switching to a hybrid school board: 2 at-large seats and 5 individual district seats (with at least 2 of those 5 coming from districts with a majority of people of color).
  • I won’t say much about San Antonio, because a lot has been written about that district’s integration effort, including its own series in the 74 and an accompanying critique of that series on this very blog. While the 74 uncritically celebrates SAISD, I found the Tribune’s coverage to feel much more “real” and complicated. It focuses on an inherent challenge of integration via choice: district leaders have to choose some schools to focus improvement efforts, leaving other schools behind. The story digs into the conflict between school district administrators and the parents/students of the schools that aren’t chosen. Especially if you’ve read the pieces in the 74 or this Ed Week article about San Antonio, I highly recommend checking out the Tribune article. For its part, the SAISD superintendent responded to the Tribune coverage recently, noting that “giving families options helps SAISD compete with charter schools.”
If you want to dive in further, the reporters – Aliyya Swaby and Alex Ura – talk about the background/motivation for the series in this short video. You can also hear from them in this short (5 mins) and more in-depth (48 mins) discussions on public radio. 
Although an interesting and useful complement to previous coverage, the San Antonio part of Dis-Integration is a bit of an outlier for me. What I found most compelling was the look at school segregation in places that aren’t typically a part of this conversation, specifically: the suburbs (broadly defined) and places like small “satellite cities” that are experiencing rapid population change.
In their 2012 book on the Resegregation of Suburban SchoolsErica Frankenberg and Gary Orfield note that “the United States today is a suburban nation that thinks of race as an urban issue” (p. 2). They observe that “the focus of racial and economic change is now clearly in suburban areas” (p. 1), as seen in the demographic changes that have swept over places like Longview and Richardson. That book looked at the characteristics of suburban schools in the largest 25 metro areas from 1999-2007. Among many changes, they found, that the percentage of students in 90-100% minoritized schools rose from 2.5% in 1999 to 13.7% in 2007 in satellite cities that surround the countries largest 25 cities. 
Despite the magnitude of these changes, we know little about how suburban places and their school districts have responded. Their book was an attempt to address that question through case studies of several suburban towns. Here’s its major conclusion:
  • “Suburban school districts are feeling unsupported and unable to formulate a coherent response to the metropolitan demographic change of which their district is one relatively small part” (p. 1). And,
  • “There are no federal or state policies constructively addressing these issues, leaving every suburb on its own” (p. 2).
In the Civil Rights Era, major federal and state policy change at least tried to move towards integration. Of course, much power came from historic court decisions and related court oversight. Now, as resegregation spreads further out to small cities and the suburbs, many of the same issues remain, yet court oversight has been decimated and policy guidance is hard to find. And there’s more. While cities are often home to civil rights groups that work to develop political infrastructure and public will for racial justice, these groups are less common in the suburbs. Though it’s a topic for its own post, the housing market and weak/non-existent enforcement of the Fair Housing Act present further obstacles to integration in the suburbs. 
At the same time, suburbs are growing and changing rapidly. According to a recent study of demographic change conducted by the Pew Research Center, the population in suburbs and satellite cities grew from 150 million people in 2000 to 175 million in 2016. Suburbs account for well more than the population in cities (98 million) and rural areas (46 million) combined. During the time covered by Pew, suburban areas grew at a faster pace than the urban or rural counterparts. They also became less white (8% decline) and poverty in the suburbs increased by 51%. 
This being the case, the importance of the suburbs in the school integration movement should not be overlooked. The Tribune series is an important effort to draw attention to these places and to highlight the complexity of their current political and social context. It’s hard to read these stories and not feel frustrated at the lack of movement on major problems or to not fear the fragility of the efforts that are trying to make some progress. It’s also hard to imagine success in school integration without more consideration of the types of communities (e.g., suburbs and small cities) that are home to the majority of US students. 
Yet despite the magnitude of the suburbs as a demographic category, when you read stories like those in the Tribune, you get such a strong sense of isolation (or, at least, I did). In these places, advocates for educational equity, deal with a complicated and shifting legal terrain, extremely limited funding, and ghosts of open historical violence, among other challenges. They are often in the political minority in their communities, and their success depends on somehow facing the future of school segregation with virtually none of the political supports or infrastructure that existed in the past.