Go to the U of M home page

Friday, September 6, 2019

School Desegregation News Roundup: The lines that divide

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

My last post was about the exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden at the first round of Democratic primary debates earlier this summer. It’s amazing to me that this already feels so distant. Before getting to the main topic for the posts this week, here’s a quick summary of some of the major things that have happened in the last month or so: 
NYC also kept up an incredible pace of activity on school integration. The state Department of Education adopted new standards on culturally relevant-sustaining education, and the School Diversity Advisory Group released a new report urging the city scale back the use of admissions “screens” and to replace test-based “gifted and talented” programs with enrichment opportunities that are crafted at the local level. The new report has already attracted a lot of controversy. I’ve found these sources from Chalkbeat and the Daily News to be particularly helpful. And this edition of Voices in Urban Education has thoughtful commentary on school integration in NYC from folks actively involved on the ground. In addition to the links here, the upcoming newsletter from the National Coalition on School Diversity (sign up here) will have more on all of the above, including a list of great resources for anti-racist education. 
This post, meanwhile, focuses on local-level stories that may have been missed in the understandable frenzy caused by the other news this month. In particular, there were a lot of recent stories on potential changes to the invisible boundaries that divide students. Notably, Ed Build drew attention to the most egregiously inequitable district boundaries in the country. I’m referring, however, to boundaries on a smaller scale – the within-district decisions that can have a major positive impact on school integration, such as attendance zone changes or school mergers/pairings. (I was inspired by a recent conversation to use the term “pairing” as opposed to the less desirable “merger,” a framing that clearly favors the opponents of these sorts of school decisions.)
The cases outlined here join similar recent stories about attendance zone changes in Montgomery County, MD – where leaders recently requested a districtwide boundary analysis –  and a hopeful (though complicated) school pairing story in Chicago – where community activists helped create a rare Chicago school that doesn’t have a racial majority. This post covers Austin, TX, Wake County, NC, Sausalito and Oakland in CA, and Richmond, VA. 
Of course, changes to dividing lines inevitably inspire resistance from those who perceive that their privilege is threatened. As illustrated in the stories below, this resistance remains common and widespread.

These stories give disproportionate space to pushback from angry opposition, often from white parents. This is consistent with how desegregation efforts were covered roughly a half century ago (!) in the desegregation efforts of the 60’s and 70’s. Although parent opposition surely still exists, it’s not everything. Examples of parental and community support for integration have always existed as well, and they continue in the places highlighted in these posts, even if those efforts only get a few short lines in the news coverage.

And, as these stories also illustrate, there are also important positive developments, especially strong support for integration from district leaders. School district leaders are using their offices as a sort of bully pulpit to promote the benefits of school integration. This indeed is a long way from district administrators of the 1970’s who deliberately crafted chaotic desegregation plans in an effort to stoke public anger. Support from district leaders is still far too scarce, but it’s nonetheless a source of hope.
I’ve made an effort in the summaries to cover the most important details without getting too lengthy. If you have more info about any of the stories here or on similar efforts that haven’t gotten news coverage, please feel free to reach out on twitter or in comments. 
Austin, TX – Attendance zone changes and school pairings
Sadly, most of the substance in the Austin story is in the reaction more so than the integration plan itself. The district recently announced the potential for attendance zone changes and school pairings in response to declining student enrollment. Though specific zones/schools won’t be identified until September, the district has said that it wants to pursue equity in its decision making process. As detailed in this KUT story, the pushback is what you would expect:
  • “KUT obtained 450 anonymous responses parents submitted to the district about potential changes. The most common themes: Don’t disrupt the vertical teams students are already on (that is, the progression of elementary, middle and high schools assigned to a specific address); don’t close or change schools that are working; and don’t jeopardize property values.”
  • On parent, for example, argued: “Changing to Crockett would be very disappointing to us, detrimental to our children, and a blow to our house value/equity that we have worked hard to build.”
The district, however, is starkly segregated along racial and socio-economic lines, due to a combination of housing segregation and district policies, such as academic screens. Another KUT piece goes into detail on the history of integration efforts in Austin, which includes elaborate government and private business efforts to isolate Black neighborhoods and schools. Referring to the city’s 1928 Master Plan, the article notes:
  • “One of the main themes of the plan was how to get communities of color out of downtown – off land white residents wanted for themselves…They created a “negro district” in an area that is now east of I-35.”
  • “The “negro district” was located on what was considered undesirable land. Fast forward to the present day, and developers see this cheap land as an easy way to make money. They’re buying property up and fueling gentrification.”
After intervention from federal courts, the district implemented a two-way busing program from 1980-1987. As in so many other cities, after Austin was released from federal oversight, its integration effort largely ended, and schools rapidly resegregated. Parent complaints like those quoted above overlook the extent to which all communities are affected by this history, with some benefiting and others being further isolated. For example, one parent urges the city to “fix the problem schools in their areas and do not force families in great neighborhood schools to sacrifice when they don’t have a problem there.” In this great article from KUT, you can actually click through a slide show of all 450 anonymous comments. It also has lots of data on segregation in Austin as well as short videos from key experts, all part of their Dividing Lines series. 
Wake County, NC – Student enrollment targets
There’s been a lot of great reporting around school integration in Wake County, which includes Raleigh. I’m not sure this short blurb can do it justice, but the links have great info. Here are the key details, as reported in the Raleigh News Observer
  • “The school board gave tentative approval Tuesday (8/20) to a goal set by staff to move schools within range of the county average socioeconomically. This calls for switching to a system where every school would be assigned a score, based on Census data of their students, to determine their economic health.”
  • The Wake County Economic Health Index would rely on “Census data such as median household income, households receiving food stamps, whether rent and household mortgages are greater than 30% of income and how many people are living within 100 to 200% of the federal poverty level.” And, it would draw from the Census block level, not from individual students. 
  • “Staff also proposed a goal of getting elementary schools within 20 percentile points of the county average. It would be 15 points for middle schools and high schools. Currently, 26% of elementary schools, 37% of middle schools and 42% of high schools don’t meet that proposed target.”
  • Some of the potential changes: “looking at which schools could become magnet schools, whether before- and after-school care can be expanded and whether transportation changes should be made. The district will also look at how it can market itself as it faces competition from charter schools and home-schools.”
A recent Ed Week article has more details on the resulting segregation from charter expansion in Wake County: 
  • “There’s a fast-growing charter school sector that has proven attractive to white and affluent families. A 2015 study by researchers at Duke found that the statewide share of white students at charter schools was 62 percent in 2012, compared to 53 percent for white students at traditional public schools that year.”
  • “The five charter schools already open in that area have a student population that is more than 80 percent white and Asian… In contrast, the enrollment of the traditional public schools in that area is about 50 percent white and Asian students.”
District leaders estimate that it may take up to five years to reach their diversity targets. It is essentially the next chapter in a district that has a long history of push and pull in school integration efforts. That history was detailed in another News Observer article: 
  • “Wake County has historically been known as a leader in school integration. In 1976, the Wake County and Raleigh City school systems merged despite opposition from many in the community. Wake now has 160,000 students and is one of the largest districts in the country.”
  • “Wake tried to keep schools racially and later socioeconomically balanced, using a combination of student assignment and magnet schools. But in 2009, complaints about student assignment led to a new Republican school board majority that dialed back the diversity efforts.”
  • “Democrats regained the board majority in 2011 but the district still buses fewer students for diversity than it did a decade ago.”
As in the other cities highlighted in the post this week, there’s an important theme: district leaders’ strong stated commitment to integration, despite countervailing forces. Some may remember that the district used a snow day announcement last year to emphasize the importance of school integration. Notably, the school board also recently adopted the statement that “resegregation will not happen on our watch.”
Sausalito, CA – DOJ investigation and school pairing
In the second round of Democratic primary debates, Joe Biden criticized Kamala Harris for not pursuing any school integration cases when she was the attorney general of California. For one thing, it’s extremely rare for a state attorney general to do this. But, more to the point- her office did actually start a case in Sausalito Marin City, and that just recently came to a conclusion. (I’ve been surprised that the Harris campaign hasn’t been more vocal in taking credit for this.)
This New York Times story has key details on the case. In particular, the state’s Justice Department found that the segregation between a charter school in a white enclave and a nearby (and overwhelmingly Black and Latinx) public school violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution. The investigation uncovered clear evidence of intentional racial discrimination: 
  • “At a district meeting in 2012, a district trustee, who is not named in court papers, “admitted that the plan to create separate programs for Sausalito and Marin City was motivated by a desire to create separate programs for separate communities,” according to the complaint. “This trustee also expressed it would improve community relations if students in Marin City were not ‘shipped over’ to Sausalito.””
  • “In court papers, the attorney general said that the district had systematically starved the school it ran of resources.” This short radio piece claims that the former school board “terminated math, science and reading programs at the school which primarily serves students of color.”
The settlement establishes a committee of students, parents, teachers and community leaders to help craft a desegregation plan and the two schools have each passed resolutions to explore a pairing. The radio piece also has a bit about parent reaction, which includes this common refrain of integration opponents: “we’re doing something right and we just keep getting penalized for it.”
Oakland – School pairing
Across the bay, the school board in Oakland recently announced a plan to pair two elementary schools. Many of the themes resonate with the stories across these two posts. As noted in this KQED story
  • “Kaiser (39% Black and Latinx) and Sankofa (79%) are only about three miles away from each other, but in many respects the two schools are leagues apart.” At Sankofa, only 4% met state math standards last year and it was less than 8% for ELA. 
  • An example parent comment: “To merge Kaiser with any school and rip that fabric apart brings up a mix of real deep sorrow and loss, and then anger turning to creativity about how we’re not going to allow that to happen.”
Though, there is one difference from the other stories- a literal ticket out for families opposed to the pairing:
  • “According to the district, Kaiser parents who don’t want to send their kids to the merged school may be able to take advantage of a policy being considered by the school board — what’s being called an “opportunity ticket” that would give them priority enrollment at a school of their choice.”
Baltimore area – Attendance zone changes
This story, though new and less-covered, also echoes the theme of support for integration among district leaders. Specifically, three County Council members signed a letter asking the superintendent to “comprehensively address the socioeconomic and racial segregation in Howard County Public Schools through a meaningful redistricting process.” They charged that: 
  • “Currently school district boundaries in Howard County are drawn in a manner that concentrate students participating in the Free and Reduced Meals program [FARMS] into certain elementary, middle, and high schools.”
Charleston – School pairings
The Charleston County School Board will soon vote on a number of proposals that are designed “to integrate and end racial disparities at its mostly black and underperforming schools.” Among the recommendations is a pairing similar to those described across this roundup. And, like the cities highlighted here, the district has come out strongly in favor of school integration. As noted in this article:
  • In a recent and blunt video message to the community, Charleston schools Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait said: “There are far too many children, particularly of color and poverty, who have been disserved by the system. … We have to have the courage and the will to do something about it.”
Richmond, VA – Attendance zone changes and school pairing
Last June, Richmond released a draft of changes to school attendance zones that also included pairing a majority Black elementary school with a majority white school less than two miles away. Subsequent plans have included even more pairing options. This article has a great discussion of the history leading up to the changes informed by Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who’s published a lot on school integration efforts and has a great piece on benefits for white students.
A school rezoning committee composed of community stakeholders worked hard to push the district to pursue school pairing options as a way to increase school diversity. The city is expecting to receive a cost estimate for the rezoning/pairing plan by the end of September, and the school board is expected to vote on the plan by the end of the calendar year.    
District leaders have supported the committee’s work, despite pushback from parents. As noted in the article, parents submitted anonymous comments on the merger proposal (known as option 2): 
  • Some parents were forceful in anonymous written comments submitted to the school system, which included threats to leave the school district: “If option 2 is passed, I know that I, along with many other neighbors, would carefully weigh the decision of whether to send my children to private school or to move out of the district for a better elementary school option for our family.”
A related piece from Kimberly Bridges, also a professor a Virginia Commonwealth University and former Richmond school board chair, looks at the history of parental reaction to similar decisions in Richmond and elsewhere. In the piece, she points out a too-often untold story: after a 2013 rezoning effort that led to increased segregation, many parents came out in favor of school integration and have since been active on this issue. 
Kimberly calls for massive persistence in the face of what superintendent Jason Kamras has termed Massive Resistance 2.0. Like many of the other district leaders in the posts this week, Kamras has made it a point to forcefully support integration in his response to parents:   
  • “It is fair to make critiques of the proposal but what is not fair from my perspective is critiques that are masquerading as critiques when they’re really resisting the ultimate goal, which is integration.”
In addition, neighboring Henrico County is also in the process of adjusting its attendance zones. As Kimberly highlights here, that district is segregated from east to west according to race and socio-economic status. Although Henrico county doesn’t include Richmond, it is very much connected to the city’s racial history. Part of a trend in suburban school segregation, Henrico does include first-ring Richmond suburbs that are rapidly diversifying and, in the process, raising challenges related to racial equity in the county’s schools. 
I emailed Kimberly about this, and her summary sheds light on the part of the story often left out of media coverage: “While the ongoing patterns are frustrating to observe, I’m also encouraged by voices on the other side. I see growth in Richmond in terms of support for diverse schools and understanding of our systemic and historical challenges related to racial segregation.” (It was also the conversation with Kimberly that encouraged me to use the term “school pairing” instead of “school merger.”)
Supporters and grassroots activists for integration are out there, and their numbers are growing. It’s well past time for the media coverage to move beyond a framing that is many decades old and to make room for more hopeful stories of those who are working for school integration.

I’ll continue to track updates on these stories. If you have updates/comments about any of these districts or updates on any places not featured in the post this week, please feel free to use comments below or reach out on twitter.