School & District Management

Districts Say Diversity Is a Priority--When They Have Time for It

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 01, 2014 2 min read
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It’s not that district leaders think school desegregation is less important since the U.S. Supreme Court stopped race-based student assignments in 2007. It just rarely gets top billing when competing with other district priorities, from shrinking school budgets to enrollment changes to achievement gaps.

Good intentions don’t have the same impact as legal requirements, even when the federal government tries to support districts’ diversity plans, find policy researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; the University of Georgia; the University of Southern Mississippi; and Pennsylvania State University.

In the latest of a series of working papers, researcher Kathryn A. McDermott and her colleagues have been tracking the fallout of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, which greatly limited the use of race to assign students as part of district desegregation plans.

In the years since, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded $2.5 million in grants, through its Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans Program, to 11 school districts to implement new desegregation methods that would comply with the ruling but would prevent racial isolation in schools.

The districts used that federal support in a variety of ways, from high-tech geospatial analyses for drawing attendance maps to hiring a recruiting coordinator to bring more students to magnet programs. Yet McDermott and her colleagues found that most of the new district policies developed using the grants “did not actually include diversity as a priority” and instead met other district goals, like cutting costs or supporting neighborhood schools.

“The crucial flaw in TASAP’s theory of action was that districts with current or past commitments to diversity could not necessarily sustain those commitments in the face of public indifference to diversity as a goal and of other pressing priorities, such as boosting test scores, implementing budget austerity, and attempting to recruit or retain middle-class and white students,” the authors concluded.

As districts nationwide grapple with demographic changes and rising racial, socioeconomic, and language isolation in schools, the study offers some interesting recommendations for administrators and policymakers, such as:

  • Local education officials should consider broader, multidistrict approaches to diversity to counter the problem of racial polarization between urban and suburban districts.
  • Federal Education Department officials should provide more guidance to support local diversity plans, but also more accountability for districts using federal funds.
  • Education advocates should discuss diversity goals in the whole school and district context, rather than as an ideal set against day-to-day operations.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.