Law & Courts

Mass. Tells Districts to Hold Off on Student-Assignment Changes

By Catherine Gewertz — September 13, 2007 6 min read
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Massachusetts is examining all 22 of its school districts’ state- approved desegregation plans, and a multidistrict desegregation program, to see if they are legally viable in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that restricts the ways districts may use race to achieve diversity in school enrollments.

The Bay State is urging districts not to rush into changing their student-assignment plans for this school year, but to hold their course until the state’s attorney general, its education department, and the governor’s office complete their joint review.

“Our message to districts has been simple: Don’t panic,” said Heidi P. Guarino, a spokeswoman for Jeffrey M. Nellhaus, the acting state education commissioner. “It’s business as usual for this year.”

If any districts are “drastically out of kilter” with the high court’s June 28 ruling, the Massachusetts education department will help them revise their plans for the 2008-09 school year, she said.

Amie Breton, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Martha Coakley, declined to elaborate on the review, but said Ms. Coakley’s office “is in contact with affected school districts to provide them with the assistance and advice they need in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Districts nationwide are re-evaluating their desegregation plans because of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision restricting districts’ use of race in assigning students to schools. (“Districts Face Uncertainty in Maintaining Racially Diverse Schools,” June 28, 2007.)

Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., whose student-assignment plans were invalidated by the high court’s ruling, are drawing up new plans.

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The 46,000-student Seattle district no longer uses the racial tie-breaker that was challenged in court, and is working on a plan that will not include assigning students to schools on the basis of race, said district spokesman David A. Tucker II. The district also will review the boundaries on which it bases student assignments, he said.

The Jefferson County school board voted Sept. 10 to include diversity as one of the “guiding principles” of its new assignment system. District spokeswoman Lauren E. Roberts said the 98,500-student district, which includes Louisville, must now build the principles into a detailed plan and obtain community feedback on it before putting it into practice for the 2009-10 school year.

To help districts evaluate whether their assignment plans are legally sound, the National School Boards Association posted guidance on its Web site Sept. 6. It notes that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s widely cited concurring opinion in the Supreme Court’s decision created a majority holding that diversity is an important goal that school districts may choose to pursue.

But it also advises districts that the ruling prohibits them from using race as the only factor they consider when they promote diversity through school assignments.

In Massachusetts, districts drew up assignment plans in response to a 1974 state law offering them incentives to desegregate schools whose minority enrollment exceeded 50 percent. Ms. Guarino, the education department spokeswoman, said one of the aims of the current review is to determine which of those 22 desegregation plans still use race as a factor in student assignment.

Boston, for instance, stopped considering race to assign students to schools in 1999. Its “controlled choice” policy uses geographic proximity and sibling enrollment as preference factors when assignment decisions have to be made.

Race is still key to participation in the state’s Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, however. Known as Metco Inc., the 41-year-old program buses nearly 3,300 minority students from Boston and Springfield to schools in 32 suburban districts that choose to participate.

Jean M. McGuire, Metco’s executive director, said that until advised otherwise, the program will continue as usual.

“We were told by [the state education department] not to do anything until we need to do something different,” she said.

The Lynn, Mass., district considers how a student transfer might affect the racial balance of a school, and that policy is drawing renewed objection. Lawyers for a white family who lost an appeals-court challenge to the 15,000-student district’s practice in 2005 have asked a federal court in Boston to strike down the plan in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“We have received calls from parents of black children [in Lynn] who are being denied access to the school of their choice because they black,” said Chester Darling, one of the lawyers challenging the district’s plan. “It’s wrong when children are provided or denied a benefit by the government on the basis of their color. It’s that simple.”

But the state attorney general has filed court papers defending Lynn’s plan.

Lynn school board member Patricia M. Capano said race is not the primary or most common reason for denying a student’s request to attend a school outside his or her neighborhood. But she said it is an important consideration to keep in the mix, because the district believes in the educational value of racially balanced schools.

“We are standing by it until we are mandated to choose another plan,” she said.

The 28,000-student Springfield, Mass., district revised its open-choice system a few years ago in the hope of getting a better racial balance in its schools, said Superintendent Joseph P. Burke. The district adopted a neighborhood-schools approach, he said, mindful of the district’s racial housing patterns when it redrew its attendance-zone boundaries.

After the Supreme Court ruling, district leaders discussed whether they needed to make changes, but decided they did not because proximity to school, rather than race, is the “dominant determinor” of which school a child attends, Mr. Burke said.

Gauging the Market

In Cambridge, Mass., the student-assignment plan is based primarily on children’s socioeconomic status. Their proximity to the school, whether a sibling is already enrolled, and, lastly, their race, can also be considered. In five years of using that approach, Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn said, “I don’t remember a single time that we got to that last deciding factor” in making assignments. Some schools are still not sufficiently racially balanced, however, he said.

In an attempt to promote diversity without running afoul of legal standards, the 6,000-student district spent more than $7,000 on a marketing study to see what types of programs would draw a racially and socioeconomically varied group of families, Mr. Fowler-Finn said. Based on that study, Cambridge opened a new Montessori program for grades preK-8 this fall, and is so far enrolling a diverse student population, he said.

Worcester Superintendent James A. Caradonio said that adding preschool, extended-day, or magnet programs used to be a key way to attract white families to higher-minority schools in his Massachusetts district. But state funding for such programs has dwindled, and his budget lacks the money for marketing studies such as the one Cambridge conducted, he said.

Robert V. Vartanian, who oversees the 23,000-student Worcester district’s student-assignment system, said families may attend any school within their quadrants, a policy that allows him to recruit families to certain schools by race in an attempt to reach the district’s goal. The district strives to have each school’s racial makeup vary from its overall racial demographics by no more than 15 percentage points, but Mr. Caradonio said it still struggles to meet that goal in some schools.

Lack of space in a given grade level is usually the reason a family is denied its choice of school, according to Mr. Vartanian. He said he can “count on one hand” the number of times race has been the reason.

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