Equity & Diversity

City Boards Weigh Rules On Diversity

By Caroline Hendrie — November 05, 2003 9 min read
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Curtail busing in Boston. Discard the “diversity index” in San Francisco. Stop relying solely on race in Little Rock.

Those ideas are on the table in three cities that have played leading roles in the nation’s half-century struggle to desegregate public education, as district leaders ponder possible changes to their systems for assigning students to school.

While the proposals differ in many respects, the debates offer a window into the difficult questions surrounding race, ethnicity, and class that school districts continue to wrestle with. After years of legal battles over carrying out the U.S. Supreme Court’s demand for an end to racially segregated public education, policymakers are still struggling to balance competing interests as they pursue the elusive goal of schoolhouse integration.

“We are pressured to diversify our schools, and from the courts, we’re told not to use race as a factor. And from a community perspective, we’re pressured for neighborhood schools,” San Francisco school board President Emilio Cruz said in a recent interview. “There’s clearly no way to make everybody happy.”

Other San Francisco officials share that sentiment as they weigh rival proposals for altering a student-assignment system that uses socioeconomic factors instead of race as a tool for promoting demographic diversity. The debate follows vehement protests by a group of Chinese-American parents, who kept their children out of school for six weeks this fall rather than have them bused across town.

Policymakers in Little Rock, Ark., are also finding it hard to strike a balance as they deliberate over a plan to drop race as the sole criterion for allocating seats in certain magnet schools. And in Boston, officials have cautiously floated the idea of cutting back on busing, while at the same time promising a lengthy public process to air what they expect to be an outpouring of conflicting concerns.

‘Is This Illegal?’

The three cities’ debates are unfolding as the country’s troubled history with court-ordered school desegregation is looming particularly large. Next May marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, handed down in 1954.

Those arguments also come on the heels of split rulings by the high court last June in a pair of cases challenging admissions procedures at the University of Michigan. By slim majorities, the justices offered qualified approval of the use of race and ethnicity to achieve student diversity in enrollment, but made clear that some approaches to racial balancing were unconstitutional.

Precollegiate educators are in the early stages of figuring out how the rulings apply to them. Whether and how districts that are not under court order can factor race and ethnicity into their student-assignment equations remains a murky legal issue. (“Justices Give K-12 Go-Ahead to Promote Diversity,” July 9, 2003.)

“School districts are constantly asking me, ‘Is this illegal?’” said Christine Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University who has helped districts design choice-based desegregation plans. “I say, ‘Probably, but remember: You can get away with it until somebody challenges you.’”

In Grutter v. Bollinger last summer, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority upheld a policy at the University of Michigan’s law school that takes race and ethnicity into account to further the goal of admitting a “critical mass” of African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian applicants.

But in the companion case, Gratz v. Bollinger, the justices struck down the university’s undergraduate-admissions system, which had automatically awarded bonus points to applicants from those “underrepresented” minority groups.

“There’s going to be a lot of thinking of what districts can do under the Michigan decisions,” said Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard University who has served as an expert witness in many desegregation cases and has studied the issue for decades.

Many analysts foresee a fresh round of litigation to sort matters out. But in the meantime, policymakers are responding to pressures for change—without the political cover offered by the courts.

“It’s hard for policymakers to decide just how race can be used,” said David J. Armor, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “It’s a very fine line you have to walk.”

Among those looking for that line are the members of the Little Rock school board, who may vote as early as this week on a plan to drop race as the sole criterion for winning seats in certain magnet schools.

One of the schools is Central High School, which became a symbol of white resistance to court-ordered desegregation in 1957, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to enable black students to cross the color line at the formerly all-white school.

After 45 years, the 25,000-student Little Rock school district last year was declared unitary, or officially desegregated, by a federal court judge in a ruling that is under appeal. Given that change, and last June’s Supreme Court decisions, the school board’s lawyers have concluded that allocating magnet seats only by race no longer passes constitutional muster.

Still, board members say they do not want to stop trying to bring students of different races and ethnicities together, despite housing patterns that work against diversity, and enrollment shifts that have left the district’s student population 69 percent African-American.

“In general, I think racial diversity is very important to a well-rounded society,” board President Tony R. Rose said last week. “It stands to reason that we do what we can to ensure that kids don’t just go to school with kids who are like them in all ways.”

Under current policy, officials strive for a ratio of 60 percent black to 40 percent nonblack students in 12 specialty schools designed to lure students from around the city. The plan now on the table would consider not just race, but also socioeconomic status and past academic achievement, in allocating seats.

“If this plan is used correctly by the parents, then it will preserve the diversity that we need,” Mr. Rose said. “But what I’m afraid of is that the change will make parents think that we are trying to push further toward neighborhood schools and that we are trying to discourage cross-attendance-zone assignments.”

Boston Busing Examined

Neighborhood schools have long been the rallying cry of politicians and activists in Boston who are opposed to busing for integration, a practice with a long and contentious history in the city.

Prodded by a lawsuit challenging the district’s “controlled choice” assignment plan, the district agreed in 1999 to stop placing students based on their race and ethnicity. Instead, it started setting aside half the seats in elementary and middle schools for neighborhood children and the other half for students from other parts of town.

Now, with the support of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, plans are in the works to consider letting more students stay closer to home, while still preserving some choice for parents.

“If you think I’m dancing on rooftops about this, you’re right,” said Ann F. Walsh, the president of Boston’s Children First, a parents’ group that has battled the district in court over its use of race in student assignment. “This is the return of the neighborhood school and the empowerment that goes with it.”

But Elizabeth Reilinger, the president of the city’s mayorally appointed school board, said district leaders have in mind “no premeditated outcome” as they gear up for what she called “an extensive community-input process.”

She and schools Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said they hoped to spend the coming winter months gathering public comments, before a board vote in the spring. Any changes approved would not start taking effect until fall 2005, she said.

If the 58,000-student district switched to a system based on neighborhood schools, Ms. Reilinger said, the savings on transportation could rise to some $20 million a year once the plan was fully phased in.

“We want to make sure that every child has access to educational resources,” she said. “We also want to respond to the desire of families to have quality schools that their children can get to fairly easily.”

Parent Protests

As in Boston, the San Francisco school district is contending with the legacy of two generations of litigation as it navigates the student-assignment seas.

Those waters have been especially stormy this year, as a group of Chinese-American parents unhappy with the 61,000-student district’s “diversity index” have turned out in force at school board meetings and noisily demanded changes. (“San Francisco Assignment Rules Anger Parents,” June 4, 2003.)

Among their complaints is that too many children from heavily Chinese neighborhoods on the city’s west side are shut out of two high-performing high schools in that area.

In late August, parents of more than two dozen students refused to send their children to the crosstown schools to which they were assigned, and mounted daily protests outside the office of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Cathy Chan, an immigrant from Hong Kong who was a leader of the holdouts, said she was reluctant to have her 14-year-old son miss his first quarter of high school.

“He was doing homework on the street,” she said. “I hated to do that.”

But Ms. Chan said she felt she had to stand up for what she sees as the right of parents to keep their children in schools close to home. “I want neighborhood schools,” she said.

The standoff was finally resolved early last month, after district leaders persuaded two well-regarded charter schools to find room for most of the students, including Ms. Chan’s son.

Since then, Ms. Ackerman has put forward a compromise proposal to reserve half the seats in every school with an attendance area for students from that zone. The school board scuttled a similar plan she advanced last year, and a majority of members this year again seem inclined against the idea.

Critics of the superintendent’s plan say many of the schools to which proponents of neighborhood schools are seeking greater access already draw more than half their students from the surrounding areas.

Eric Mar, the vice president of the seven-member San Francisco board and one of its two Chinese-American members, said he recently dropped his support of the proposal, based on that and other concerns about access to high-performing schools for all segments of the student population.

For similar reasons, he said he opposes a separate proposal put forward last week by the board’s other Chinese-American member, Eddie Y. Chin, to scrap the diversity index and appoint a task force to overhaul the district’s entire student-assignment system.

“We can’t eliminate these different tools for desegregation until there’s a quality neighborhood school for everyone,” Mr. Mar said.

Ms. Ackerman, for her part, said she wants a discussion of the city’s student-assignment options that gets beyond the agenda of a “vocal minority” of dissatisfied parents.

“At least we’re a district that has not given up on the idea of keeping our schools integrated,” she said.

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