Voluntary Programs Said More Effective In Desegregating

By William Snider — April 08, 1987 6 min read
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“The courts have either not demanded [this], or have simply tolerated desegregation plans that do not produce 100 percent of the children in desegregated schools,’' they wrote.

School-desegregation plans that rely primarily on voluntary measures provide more interracial mixing over the long term than those that rely primarily on mandatory busing, a new study prepared for the Education Department has found.

“The Carrot or the Stick in School-Desegregation Policy,’' which has not yet been released by the department, is the most comprehensive study since 1979 to address the relative effectiveness of voluntary and mandatory desegregation plans, experts in the field said last week.

It is also, they noted, the first to conclude that voluntary plans are more effective.

Since 1981, virtually every major court-ordered desegregation plan adopted has relied heavily on voluntary student transfers, usually with an implied or stated provision for mandatory student reassignments if the plan’s target goals are not met.

Acknowledging that the new research findings are controversial, and that they in some cases contradict existing research, desegregation experts said last week that the study’s comprehensiveness made it an important contribution to the debate on effectiveness.

The principal finding of the study—that voluntary plans desegregate school districts more effectively than mandatory plans—is based on a sample of 20 districts, most of which were included in a major federally funded study completed in 1979 that reached the opposite conclusion.

According to Christine H. Rossell, an associate professor of political science at Boston University and one of the new study’s authors, the change can be attributed in part to the fact that, in the 20 districts studied, “the voluntary plans have, on average, [produced] about half the ‘white flight’ over time as the mandatory plans.’'

At the time of the earlier study, by Abt Associates Inc., the voluntary magnet-school plans had only been in place for an average of one year, she said, which prevented researchers from assessing the long-term effects of each type of plan.

The new study is based on data collected between 1965 and 1985, which gave the researchers the opportunity to study an additional seven years of post-desegregation enrollment data.

Resegregative Effects

The researchers found that mandatory desegregation plans produce a large reduction in racial isolation in the first year after implementation, but that schools begin to resegregate shortly thereafter as white families leave the district and few new white families move in.

Voluntary magnet-school programs, on the other hand, typically start off more slowly, they found, but continue to reduce racial isolation by a few percentage points each year.

“Around the third or fourth year of desegregation,’' the researchers write, “the two trend lines cross and the magnet-voluntary plans in this sample produce greater interracial exposure over time than the mandatory plans, all other things being equal.’'

Voluntary Methods

The researchers measured the effectiveness of the desegregation plans on the basis of “interracial exposure,’' or the proportion of white students in the average minority child’s school.

The nine voluntary plans studied accomplished the majority of their desegregation goals by attracting diverse student populations to magnet schools, and by allowing students to transfer from schools in which they were in the majority to schools in which they would be in the minority.

Most of the plans also included some mandatory student reassignments, such as the redrawing of school attendance zones or the closing of some schools.

The school districts classified by the researchers as “voluntary-magnet’’ were in Buffalo; Cincinnati; Houston; Milwaukee; Montclair, N.J.; Portland, Ore.; San Bernadino County, Calif.; San Diego; and Tacoma, Wash.

The 11 mandatory plans analyzed accomplished their desegregation goals primarily through the reassignment of students to achieve racially balanced schools.

Each of the mandatory plans also included some magnet schools, but their purpose was “to reduce conflict and increase parent satisfaction,’' rather than to accomplish districtwide desegregation.

The 11 mandatory plans were in Boston; Dallas; Dayton, Ohio; Des Moines; Louisville, Ky.; Montgomery County, Md.; Racine, Wis.; St. Paul; Springfield, Mass.; Stockton, Calif.; and Tulsa, Okla.

White Flight

In a separate section of the study, the researchers assess the effects of changes in white enrollment in more than 100 school districts that have implemented both mandatory and voluntary desegregation plans.

They conclude that, on average, voluntary plans “produce more interracial exposure ... than they lose in subsequent years as a result of white flight and the declining birthrate.’'

The study also examines a small sample of desegregation plans in predominantly minority urban school districts.

It concludes that, on average, they have “no less success with voluntary plans as they are currently implemented than with mandatory plans.’'

Change in Attitudes

The researchers concluded that districts can dismantle mandatory desegregation plans “with no harm, if they are replaced with a comprehensive voluntary plan whose goal is to at least maintain the prior level of racial balance.’'

“Simply returning to neighborhood schools and relying on voluntary student transfers is not sufficient,’' Ms. Rossell said.

“I don’t think that would have worked in the early 1970’s, but there has been a huge change in the attitudes of white parents toward sending their children to schools in minority neighborhoods,’' she added.

“Whites have to be bribed—and can be—to voluntarily participate in a desegregation plan,’' she said. “We have to be assured that the education our children receive will be at least as good, if not better, than what they were receiving before.’'

In analyzing data up to 1984 from a larger sample of 119 school districts, the researchers found that almost none had achieved 100 percent placement of its students in desegregated schools, regardless of their definition of desegregation.

“The courts have either not demanded [this], or have simply tolerated desegregation plans that do not produce 100 percent of the children in desegregated schools,’' they wrote.

They also found that school districts that desegregated under court order still have a significant percentage of their minority students in schools that are more than 90 percent minority—a situation that affected 20 percent of minority students in school districts studied in the North and 35 percent in the South.

The researchers also compared the effectiveness of three voluntary plans—in Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia—with that of two mandatory plans—in Detroit and St. Louis. They found that “the districts with voluntary plans increased interracial exposure more than the mandatory plans, but the differences appear to be small.’'

“Indeed,’' they wrote, “the only conclusion that can be drawn from these data are that the voluntary plans in these big cities are not the failures that many academics have alleged, but neither are the mandatory plans the failures that the Reagan Administration has charged.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 1987 edition of Education Week as Voluntary Programs Said More Effective In Desegregating


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