Equity & Diversity

Chicago Schools Dispute Desegregation Study

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 22, 2003 3 min read
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The Chicago school district took the unusual step this month of releasing a consultant’s report on desegregation in the city’s schools, while also putting out its own memorandum rebutting some of the findings.

The report is one of four commissioned by the Chicago board of education to study whether the system has met the goals of a 22-year-old desegregation decree ordered by a federal court. G. Alfred Hess Jr., the director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University, researched and wrote the report.

While the school system released the other three reports in March, it held on to the one by Mr. Hess, which was completed in May 2002 and then supplemented with an addendum in September of last year. The district released the report on Oct. 9 at the request of local news organizations.

Joi M. Mecks, the deputy communications director for the 439,000-student system, said the district didn’t make the report public initially because Mr. Hess had failed to complete some of the work that had been requested of him.

The main point of contention is whether Chicago’s most racially segregated elementary schools receive more money than other kinds of elementary schools, such as magnet schools. The desegregation plan said that the schools in which students were most segregated by race should receive extra money to compensate for that fact.

Mr. Hess is unhappy about how the matter was handled by the district. He said last week: “There was a continuing mystery about some of these monies. ... They prepared this memo [of rebuttal] even while I was working with someone from their budget office and their lawyer to try to solve these problems, and then they made it sound like I didn’t do my work.”

Disputed Point

Mr. Hess found that as recently as 1995, the more segregated elementary schools—those with at least 85 percent minority students—did get compensatory money. But in more recent years, they lost that funding edge. Segregated high schools, however, still had a funding advantage.

“Does the school system really want to provide extra funds for the schools that remain segregated?” Mr. Hess said last week. “No, it doesn’t. I don’t know whether this policy change has been intentional, or the district slipped into it without realizing its effect.”

But Ms. Mecks countered that Chicago’s more segregated schools still do receive extra money, and that Mr. Hess failed to take into account some sources of funding.

“What we asked him to look up was all funding that would go to compensatory types of programs,” she said. “There is funding beyond desegregation funding. We have invested more resources into the lowest-performing schools, which also happen to be the most racially isolated.”

G. Alfred Hess Jr.

She said that Mr. Hess also confused the findings by lumping the racially isolated magnet schools into the broader magnet school category in his study, making it impossible to track whether that type of more segregated school had a funding edge.

“I looked at every dollar in the budget,” Mr. Hess said, adding that racially isolated magnet schools are a very small proportion of Chicago’s most-segregated schools, so that his findings still hold true.

The disagreement over whether Chicago’s segregated schools have a funding advantage comes as the district is figuring out what to do about its desegregation plan.

At a court hearing in January, U.S. District Court Judge Charles P. Kocoras said the plan was out of date and no longer viable, particularly given how the demographics of the school system had changed over the past two decades, according to Ms. Mecks.

When the consent decree was signed in 1981, 61 percent of Chicago’s students were black, 20 percent were Latino, and 17 percent were white. Latinos now constitute 36 percent of students, blacks 51 percent, Asian-Americans 3 percent, and whites 9 percent.

At a hearing in May, the school system asked for 18 months to study the issue. The judge said that, instead, the district should produce a plan by Oct. 9 to be relieved of the consent decree. Last week, upon request, the school system was given an extension until Oct. 23.

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