Courts, School Boards Testing Strategies To Integrate Neighborhoods, Schools

By Peter Schmidt — February 26, 1992 10 min read
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Although social scientists often have found a link between housing segregation and school segregation, few school systems around the country have been willing, as Palm Beach County has, to attack both problems at once, desegregation experts said last week.

Recently, however, several federal courts and school beards have begun, largely on their own, to test strategies to integrate both housing and schools.

With little guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Bush Administration, or each other, the school beards generally have been “trying to feel their way” into the largely uncharted area where the two types of integration overlap, according to Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University who has been involved in developing some of the plans.

The efforts have been called both viable, legal methods of integrating communities and ineffective, unconstitutional attempts at social engineering.

Few, however, have been around long enough to show much impact on schools.

Among the districts to have addressed housing segregation:

  • The Denver school beard, when recently presented with the development of a fairly remote new subdivision called Green Valley Ranch, agreed to build a school close to the subdivision only if the developers signed a contract agreeing to ensure that the subdivision would be integrated.
  • The Nashville-Davidson County (Tenn.) Public School District agreed not to bus children to integrate Antioch High School, located in an outlying section of the county, provided the neighborhoods around the school became integrated. With the help of some marketing by the local community, the neighborhood has become integrated, and the school population is about 20 percent black, district officials said.
  • In both Milwaukee and Louisville, Ky., school-desegregation suits have resulted in the establishment of programs that provide families with various forms of assistance in making integrative housing moves.

Supreme Court Actions

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court took two actions that exports believe might help clarify the power and duty of local authorities to prevent shifting housing patterns from causing racial imbalances in schools.

The Court last month let stand a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that affirmed the broad powers several suburban Chicago municipalities were exercising in seeking to maintain racially balanced communities.

The appeals court rejected claims by two real-estate-agent associations that a nonprofit housing-integration group had violated fair housing laws by marketing homes to specific races in an attempt to make neighborhoods racially balanced.

The appeals court also denied claims by the Greater South Suburban Board of Realtors and the National Board of Realtors that several local municipalities had violated fair-housing laws and the realtors’ First Amendment right to free speech by enacting ordinances restricting the right of real-estate brokers to solicit business at homes and the use of “for sale” signs where they might exacerbate segregative housing patterns.

The affirmative marketing campaign of the nonprofit South Suburban Housing Center was not discriminatory, and the municipalities acted within their purview in restricting solicitation and “for sale” signs, the appeals court held.

But even as the Supreme Court let stand that decision, it was considering Freeman v. Pitts, a case involving the Dekalb County, Ga., school system that experts hope will clarify to what extent desegregated school systems must work to eliminate new racial imbalance brought about by changing housing patterns.

A finding narrowing or even eliminating that duty, several desegregation lawyers said this month, most likely would be interpreted by school districts as justification for reducing their own desegregation efforts and to declaring that they have no control over housing segregation in their communities.

But some school districts, Mr. Orfield said, could view such a Court finding as justification for more actively promoting housing integration.

“School districts should ask themselves if they really want to deal with ghetto and barrio schools,” Mr. Orfield said.

David S. Tatel, a lawyer with the Washington law firm of Hogan and Hartson who has been involved in cases linking housing and school segregation, said: “There are some school systems that are doing the least they can and desegregating only to the extent they are required by law. If the Supreme Court cuts back on their obligation, they will cut back on what they do.”

“But,” Mr. Tatel added, “there are also a large number of school systems in the country which believe that integrated education makes educational sense, and those schools will continue their efforts no matter what the Court does.”

Rental and Sales Bias

Several recent studies suggest that the housing patterns that have complicated or thwarted past school desegregation efforts are likely to continue to segregate schools.

An analysis of U.S. Census data published in USA Today last fall found that blacks are highly segregated in two-thirds of the 47 metropolitan areas where they make up at least 20 percent of the population.

In those metropolitan areas that had become fairly integrated, the newspaper’s study found, the integration could often be attributed to rapid growth that had shaken up old housing patterns, the presence of a military base that demanded housing integration, or the existence of sizable populations of students, researchers, and faculty tied to large universities.

Meanwhile, an analysis of census data conducted last year by the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain found that the levels of residential integration in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas had improved only slightly since 1980, with 30 percent of blacks and two-thirds of whites still living in neighborhoods populated almost entirely by their own race.

Several other studies suggest that the mechanisms that have perpetuated housing segregation are still hard at work.

A study conducted by the Federal Reserve Board and released late last fall found that, even when the income levels of all parties involved are the same, blacks and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to be denied housing loans.

Discrimination by sales and rental agents also remains pervasive, a recently released study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests. The study, conducted by the Urban Institute and Syracuse University, involved 3,800 fair-housing audits in 25 metropolitan areas during the spring and summer of 1989.

When black, Hispanic, and white undercover “testers” inquired about housing, more than 50 percent of black and Hispanic renters and buyers experienced some form of discrimination.

More than 40 percent of each minority group got less help from sales or rental agents on how to buy or finance a home, and more than 35 percent of each black or Hispanic test group were told of fewer available properties than their white counterparts, the study said.

In some cases, resistance to housing integration has been far more overt.

When the city of Dubuque, Iowa, last spring embarked on an unusual integration plan that called on employers to lure 100 black families into the virtually all-white city, crosses were burned around town, and fights between black and white students broke out at the local high school.

Lingering Segregation

The difficulties that districts face in trying to integrate schools in the face of segregated housing patterns were evident in an analysis of federal and state data released last month by the National School Boards Association.

The study, written by Mr. Orfield, found that the degree of school segregation for black children has remained fairly stable since 1970. However, Hispanic children, by most measures, had become more segregated in schools than blacks, largely as a result of residential segregation. (See Education Week, Jan. 15, 1992.)

School segregation, in turn, often worsens housing segregation as parents consider the racial composition of local schools in deciding where to buy a home, noted George C. Galster, a professor of economics and the chairman of the Urban Studies Program at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio.

Mr. Galster said the results of his study, published last November in the Journal of Housing Research, “suggest that, if housing discrimination could be eliminated in the average metropolitan statistical area, there would be sizable decreases in residential segregation, measures of school failure, and poverty rates for African-Americans.”

The Yonkers Case

The Supreme Court was seen as giving courts and school districts the go-ahead to explore the relationship between housing and school integration when, in 1988, it declined to hear two separate appeals of an unusual federal court decision that found both the city and school board of Yonkers, N.Y., liable for unconstitutional discrimination in education and housing.

Drew S. Days 3rd, a professor of law at Yale Law School who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights under the Carter Administration, said his decision to sue Yonkers was based on a belief, gleaned from years of prior work in civil-rights law, that school boards and housing authorities often “work hand-in-glove” in perpetuating segregation.

The U.S. Justice Department presented evidence to persuade the court that Yonkers housing and school authorities had, through the placement of public housing and public schools, worked together to ensure that certain neighborhoods and schools were mostly white or black.

Mr. Days said the Justice Department had been working to link school and housing segregation in other communities, but the agency abandoned the effort under the Reagan Administration, although it continued to pursue the Yonkers case.

In 1986, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ordered the district to carry out various desegregation remedies and the city to build 200 units of subsidized housing for low-income families and 800 units of housing for moderate-income families in white sections of town, where such housing had not been placed in the past.

Dee R. Barbato, a spokesman for the city, said that 142 of the subsidized units for low-income families have since been built and that another 58 are slated for construction.

City officials are discussing the possibility of giving mortgage subsidies in lieu of building the 800 moderate-income units.

“No one has moved into the houses yet,” Ms. Barbato said. “The whole thing is not over with yet to really sum up and say this has worked or this hasn’t worked.”

But Jack O’Toole, the president of a local citizens’ group called the Save Yonkers Federation, said the school system’s desegregation efforts have only caused whites to leave and the system to decline, and, “When the housing is built and populated, the school system will probably get worse.”

“We are not opposed to this on racial balance,” Mr. O’Toole said. “We are opposed based on the fact that public housing has not worked in this country, the state of New York, or Yonkers. The governments of this country are lousy landlords.”

Despite the court order, city and school officials in Yonkers last week said they continue to have little contact with each other over their respective desegregation plans, and district officials are unsure how the population of the subsidized housing will affect the racial balance of local schools.

A Case of Cooperation

In Shaker Heights, Ohio, by contrast, school and city officials have been working closely together to integrate housing and schools for decades.

Nearly six years ago, the city and school system established and began funding the administrative expenses of the Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights, which uses privately donated funds to provide low-cost mortgage loans to people who make housing moves that help keep the city integrated.

“if you look at this as a housing program, you say yes, maybe this is something that a beard of education should not be involved with,” said Donald L. DeMarco, the director of community services for the city of Shaker Heights.

But, Mr. DeMarco said, “it actually is an integrative organization more than a housing organization.”

The city’s efforts have kept three of its nine neighborhoods racially balanced, but the others have become disproportionately black or white.

District officials say the schools are racially balanced, but acknowledge that white and black students often do not socialize as well as they could, especially at the high-school level, and that the enrollment in the district’s honors and Advanced Placement programs is disproportionately white.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1992 edition of Education Week as Courts, School Boards Testing Strategies To Integrate Neighborhoods, Schools

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