Equity & Diversity

Busing Fight Highlights Struggles With Diversity

By Dakarai I. Aarons — April 01, 2010 8 min read
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More than a half-century after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered schools desegregated, districts are still grappling with how best to create the kind of demographically diverse public schools that many experts believe improve outcomes for disadvantaged students.

The recent decision by a North Carolina district to move from a nationally recognized student-assignment policy that promoted socioeconomic diversity to one centered around community-based schools has alarmed advocates of greater integration in the schools.

Yet school district leaders elsewhere, including in San Francisco and Louisville, Ky., continue to work on crafting student-assignment plans that allow them to make demographic diversity a priority. They are doing so against a legal backdrop that changed dramatically three years ago, when the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that made it harder for school leaders to base student-assignment decisions explicitly on race.

In Wake County, N.C., the school board of the 140,000-student school system, which includes Raleigh, voted 5-4 last month to stop busing students for diversity purposes. The district’s move has fueled passionate arguments within the state and beyond. The head of the state’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for example, vowed to take legal action if necessary to keep socioeconomic diversity a part of the assignment plan.

What Wake County’s new student-assignment plan will look like remains uncertain, however. The resolution approved by the board makes no direct mention of the word “diversity,” but said all children, regardless of their demographic background, can learn when given top instruction.

“The utilization of objective, data-driven decisions better supports these efforts than subjective classification and profiling of students,” the resolution reads in part.

The district’s current assignment plan is set to expire in 2012, and schools will continue to follow it in the interim. A new plan, based on redrawn attendance zones to be established by the board, will be developed over the next nine to 15 months.

Shift in Leadership

A 2007 decision by the Supreme Court made it more difficult for school districts to pursue their aims of maintaining racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity. That ruling in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education bars districts from using race as the primary factor when assigning individual students to schools. (“Use of Race Uncertain for Schools,” July 18, 2007.)

While praised nationally by diversity advocates, Wake County’s student-assignment plan has been a source of frustration for many parents, who did not like the lack of certainty about where their children would attend school, said Ann Denlinger, the president of the Wake Education Partnership, a Raleigh-based nonprofit organization backed by business leaders who support the school system.

The current policy guarantees students can stay in a particular school for at least three years.

The county’s explosive growth—the district went from 64, 000 students in the 1990-91 school year to more than 140,000 this school year—has meant lots of shuffling of student assignments to accommodate the growth while avoiding the creation of schools with high densities of low-income students.

Changes to the policy, adopted in 2000, have come with the advent of a new board majority elected in October. The new board, led by Ronald Margiotta, once the board’s lone critic of the student-assignment policy, has moved quickly to put its own stamp on the district. Mr. Margiotta could not be reached for comment last week.

In public speeches, Mr. Margiotta has dismissed charges that he and other board members are racists who are working to separate poorer city students from their wealthier suburban peers. The present policy, he said, has been too disruptive and did not reflect the wishes of a majority of parents.

“We are giving the school system back to the families and taxpayers in this county,” he said in a video of a speech last month before the Northern Wake Republican Club, explaining the philosophy of the new board majority.

Amid the controversy, Wake County schools Superintendent Del Burns announced that he would retire in June, because he could not continue to work in “good conscience” for the system with the attendant changes. He was subsequently placed on administrative leave for the remainder of the school year.

Resegregation Concerns

According to a report by the Wake Education Partnership, the district would immediately have more than two dozen high-poverty, low-performing schools if the new student-assignment policy were to be solely based on the neighborhoods students live in. “In our opinion, Wake County shouldn’t make decisions that result in low-performing schools,” said Ms. Denlinger, a former superintendent of two North Carolina school systems. “We believe we have choices here.”

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, has similar concerns.

“There’s 40 years of research to suggest that probably the single most important thing you can do for a low-income student is give her the chance to go to an economically mixed school, instead of a high-poverty school,” he said. “In Wake County, low-income students are given access to middle-class peers who have big dreams and expect to go on to college, to high-quality teachers, and to parents who are actively involved in the schools,” said Mr. Kahlenberg, who has written extensively on school desegregation and recently visited Wake County.

While many opponents have said the board’s vote will automatically lead to resegregation of schools, Ms. Denlinger said the community process over the next year provides an opportunity for diversity proponents to have a say.

“We are a strong community and we can figure out how to grow at a rapid pace and assign these students to schools without uprooting students so many times and while maintaining balance,” she said.

Starting Over

In Jefferson County, Ky., the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision sent school officials back to the drawing board.

The district’s student-assignment plan at the time classified all students as either black or nonblack. Black student enrollment was required to be no more than 50 percent and no less than 15 percent at most of the county’s schools, said Pat Todd, the 98,000-student district’s executive director for student assignment.

Under the new plan, the county, which includes Louisville, is divided into two regions. In Area A, the adults are less wealthy and have a lower educational attainment, while parents in the Area B are the opposite. Schools will enroll no more than 50 percent and no less than 15 percent of its students from the Area A.

To give parents as many options as possible, Ms. Todd said parents can choose from among four to six elementary schools. The plan began this year with elementary students and will continue to be phased in, reaching full implementation districtwide, including new boundaries, in the 2011-12 school year.

“We believe that when you put a student-assignment plan in place that is coupled with attention to curriculum that is rigorous and to monitoring student progress, that all children actually achieve at higher levels,” Ms. Todd said.

Implementation has not been without challenges. The district was sued by a group of parents this year, but was successful in defending the new policy.

“We know the best preparation for the workplace of the future is one where students do learn to work with people of other races, incomes, ethnicities, and social backgrounds,” Ms. Todd said. “We believe school is in part socialization for the community. Diverse schools support the kind of community and workplace where these children will spend their lives.”

In San Francisco, which has long used socioeconomic factors to assign students, the school board adopted a new policy last month that aims to make its student-assignment process less confusing for parents while maintaining a focus on diversity.

The policy, which will take effect this fall, will in part use a Census Tract Integration Preference, which assigns students a score based on the characteristics of the census area in which they live, including academic performance over time. The district is still working out the methodology of a plan to align with the board’s new policy.

The 55,000-student district’s present system, first used in the 2002-03 school year, asks parents for reams of information that sometimes has been hard to verify, said Orla O’Keeffe, a special assistant to the superintendent and the plan’s manager.

“The current student-assignment system was not meeting its objectives,” she said. “The number of schools that were racially isolated increased each year. It also wasn’t satisfying any of the parents.”

Richard Carranza, San Francisco’s deputy superintendent for instruction, innovation, and social justice, said keeping a focus on equity is a must.

“One of the consistent messages we heard from the community is that parents want good schools. They don’t really care where the good schools are as long as they are good,” he said. “It is imperative within our whole fabric of social justice and equity to make every school a good school.”

Mr. Kahlenberg said that in the years since the Supreme Court decision, more districts have moved to similar systems.

“School districts have figured out how to make individual high-poverty schools work. But no one has figured out how to make a system of high-poverty schools work,” he said. “So ... many districts are trying to reduce the concentrations of poverty that are really at the heart of educational inequality.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as N.C. District Moves Away From Promoting Diversity


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