Second wave of school desegregation efforts focus on parent choice, poverty

Liz Goodwin

Districts in Arkansas and Arizona made news this week as they struggled to comply with decades-old court orders mandating they desegregate their schools.

A federal judge has ruled that three school districts around Little Rock, Ark., have delayed their desegregation efforts in order to continue to receive an extra $70 million annually from the state. Thousands of kids are bused to schools outside of their neighborhoods in order to maintain racial balance in two of the districts, the AP reported.

Meanwhile, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the school district for Tucson, Ariz., to hire an expert to help it more speedily desegregate its schools. The Ninth Circuit ruling comes after a decades-long court battle over the district's racial disparities in achievement and discipline.

But cases such as these are fast becoming the exception in federal desegregation law. Many judges have backed off desegregation court orders in recent years, arguing that the country's persistent racial disparities in its public education system cannot be solved by judges, nor blamed any longer on the legacies of the Jim Crow era. Though public schools are even more segregated by race and poverty than they were 40 years ago, the new movement for racial equality has not primarily focused on legal remedies. Activists fighting segregation are mindful of the damage wrought by court orders, mandatory busing, and other tactics on racial comity--and of how such measures have historically angered middle-class white parents, and driven them to the suburbs.

About 250 school districts around the country are under a desegregation court order today, but most of the big school desegregation cases have been dismissed in the past 15 years, Wake University Law Professor Wendy Parker tells The Lookout. Many of the districts currently under court order do not receive extra funds to desegregate their schools or face any oversight to ensure they are doing so; thus the order doesn't really affect their day-to-day operations. After a 1990 Supreme Court case set a very "forgiving" test for whether a district could be freed from its court order, appeals judges essentially got the message that they should back off desegregation, Parker says.

"Any remaining inequalities and disparities aren't due to past segregation, they're due to things courts don't have any control over," is how Parker characterizes the change in judicial attitude. "We've done the best we can."

Adding to the sea change on the issue is a 2007 Supreme Court decision finding districts that were voluntarily trying to desegregate their schools could not use race as a factor in assigning a child to a school. Chief Justice John Roberts argued that any voluntary racial selection of students would constitute a form of discrimination.

"We tell school districts for decades that you have to consider race, but when they wanted to do it voluntarily they say, no they can't," Parker said.

Since the 2007 Roberts court ruling, about 80 school districts that have voluntarily decided to try to fight segregation have switched tactics. Such districts now set quotas or weight admissions to public schools on the basis of socioeconomic status rather than race. Because such a large percentage of minority children live in poverty, this tactic also ensures racial diversity.

But this new approach has also sparked opposition from parents' groups. The  tea party-backed school board in wake Forest, N.C., decided to end its socio-economic-based diversity program in January after some parents complained that their kids shuffled around schools only in order to ensure no one school was made up of more than 40 percent poor students.

"If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful," School Board Chairman Ron Margiotta told the Washington Post then. "Right now, we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it."

Margiotta's vision of a school system where poor students are grouped into high-poverty schools is already the status quo in much of  the country. Right now, the average black or Latino child in America attends a school where nearly 60 percent of his peers are poor--and only slightly more than a quarter of them are white. According to UCLA's Civil Rights Project, the average white kid in America attends a school that is 77 percent white, with 32 percent of students living in poverty. In the South, most public school students attend schools that are mostly poor.

The impoverishment of many school-district populations is due in part to residential segregation. In many districts, wealthier families move to better neighborhoods within a city or else out to the suburbs so that their children can attend better-performing schools with other middle-class kids.

Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation think tank who studies school inequality, told The Lookout that numerous studies show that sending a poor, minority kid to a school where most of the students aren't poor is one of the best ways to lift his or her achievement.

But in order to achieve a genuine socioeconomic mix in their enrollments, districts need to get buy-in from middle-class parents. Some districts, such as Little Rock, have done this by creating high-performing magnet or charter schools that weight admission to poor students to ensure diversity while also attracting more affluent students. The era of busing middle-class white kids against their will to poor-performing majority-black schools is over, Kahlenberg said.

"We've gone beyond the area of compulsory busing for racial desegregation to using choice within the public school system," Kahlenberg says. "The lesson of the last 40 or 50 years is you have to provide an incentive for middle-class people to participate in school integration."

The stakes are high for the country's poor kids. On average, lower-income students massively underperform on standardized tests compared to their better-off peers. One district experimenting with new ways to desegregate schools is Montgomery County, Md. The Century Foundation studied a group of low-income students in the county. In the study, one set of poor kids was reassigned with their families to public housing located in a school district where most of the kids were not poor. The other group of students in the study stayed in their poor neighborhoods and continued to attend majority-poor schools--and those schools received extra funds from the county to help them lift academic performance. Even though the majority-poor schools spent more money per-pupil, the poor kids who were sent to "middle class" schools that spent less ended up outperforming the other group on tests.

"There are many stories about individual high-poverty schools that beat the odds, but on average the middle class schools are 22 times as likely to be high performing," Kahlenberg says. Low-income kids in low-poverty schools score two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools on the fourth grade math National Assessment for Education Progress tests, another study showed.

Kahlenberg worked with Chicago's public school system in 2010 to design an admissions system to the city's popular magnet schools. Under his program, magnet schools let in 40 percent of applicants in based on raw test scores--and admit the other 60 percent of applicants based on a formula that uses test scores and their socioeconomic status.

"I think the smartest districts go out and do a survey of parents who are now using private schools and ask them, 'What would it take for you to come back to the public school system?  What sort of magnet programs would you find attractive?' " Kahlenberg said. "If you can attract more middle class students into a district, that will benefit everyone in a school district."

But these desegregation efforts have not been a major focus of the national education reform agenda. The Obama administration has focused instead on encouraging districts to create independent charter schools. The thinking of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other backers of this approach is that it will offer parents more choice, while instituting more rigorous teacher evaluation systems that are tied to student test scores.

However, a recent study by UCLA's Civil Rights Project found that most charter schools are on average more racially isolated than their neighboring public schools. Some charter schools, including the Denver school of Science and Technology, are now weighting socio-economic factors in their lotteries, but that's still the exception.