Opinion
Law & Courts Commentary

Integration: New Concepts for a New Era

By Leonard B. Stevens — May 13, 2014 7 min read

In 2007, in a ruling that would resonate nationwide, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected voluntary school desegregation plans for Louisville, Ky., and Seattle. Since then, the conventional interpretation of the decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District has been that the court prohibited school boards from pursuing integrated schools. I disagree. Indeed, I think this view is dangerous because it discourages schools from seeking integration, something I believe they can do legally, and should.

For more than 30 years, I have worked full time in school desegregation, including 10 years as the federal court-appointed monitor for such efforts in Cleveland. I’ve worked on about 40 desegregation cases involving more than 80 school systems, including Topeka, Kan., the genesis point of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. Over the decades, I have written desegregation plans or modified old plans, assessed compliance with desegregation orders, and testified in the courts on integration.

In my view, integrated education has value, and it ought to be pursued. But how we do it is more critical than ever.

We need to continue to work toward integrated schools, but within the current law, including the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision. We need to be inventive in defining an integrated school because the demographics of our schools have changed since Brown was handed down in 1954 and because the vast majority of school districts today are not under court supervision for desegregation, meaning they are not legally required to pursue integration, but may choose to do so.

So, if we look at a school system that is not under court order, has at least some diversity in its student population, and values integrated education, is a traditional definition of desegregation the best fit? Despite my lengthy experience with desegregation and support of it, I don’t think so.

Brown at 60: New Diversity, Familiar Disparities

Even with ground-shifting demographic changes, many public schools continue to be highly segregated 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the principle of “separate but equal” education, but those shifts have also created opportunities to approach diversifying schools and classrooms in new ways.

This special series includes data on race and ethnicity in U.S. schools and the following Commentaries on integration.

  • I, Too, Am America: Making All Students Feel Like They Belong
  • K-12 Education: Still Separate, Still Unequal
  • Hispanics Are Forgotten in Civil Rights History
  • Why Integration Matters in Schools
  • Integration: New Concepts for a New Era

The traditional way to define a desegregated school—and a method I have used for three decades for districts under court order—is called a “plus or minus” model. If a segregated district is 40 percent black (or 40 percent minority), the traditional definition of a desegregated school means it enrolls plus or minus, say, 15 points of the districtwide average for black or minority student enrollment. In such a district, desegregated schools would have enrollment of 25 percent to 55 percent black (or minority) students. If a school did not fall within those percentages, it would be in noncompliance with the district’s plan and be told to comply. This is how desegregation gets done.

One consequence, however, of this desegregation definition is that the focus inevitably is on maximums—too many blacks or other minorities here, too many white students over there. As a court monitor, this was precisely my view.

However, for the district that today is not under court order and that values integration, a different vision of an integrated school is in order.

This vision should address factors in addition to race and ethnicity and look to build critical masses of distinguishable groups of students in schools as a means of producing diverse schools. The additional factors beyond race and ethnicity might include parents’ levels of education, family income, disability, or primary language at home (whichever seem most apt to the district in question). Real metrics or measures can be applied to all the factors, including race and ethnicity, to make the definition work. Since this model is based on critical masses of students (or minimums), not maximum percentages of students, the only operative cap is the capacity of the school.

Nashville, Tenn., has taken this approach, and the details are unusual. Full disclosure here: I worked with Nashville in designing its plan, and I continue to advise the district on the plan’s initial implementation.

Nashville’s integration initiative is styled as a “diversity management plan.” A countywide school system of 82,863 students, Nashville has plenty of diversity to manage. The district enrollment is 45 percent black, 32 percent white, 19 percent Latino, and 4 percent Asian, plus Native Americans and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders at levels under 1 percent each. Note that there is no racial or ethnic majority in the district.

Nashville is also increasingly a system of school choice—about one in four students there chooses the school he or she attends.

Thus, any integration plan for Nashville had to recognize contemporary law, local student demographics, and the significant role of school choice.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Now in its first year of implementation, the Nashville plan is careful not to assign or reassign any student or staff member on the basis of his or her race. Instead, it does the following:

Defines a diverse school. In terms of its student composition, a school is diverse when it meets any of three measures: when its enrollment has multiple racial/ethnic groups, and three of them each makes up at least 15 percent of the enrollment, or when the school has two such groups that each represents at least 30 percent of the student body, or when the school, like the district as a whole, is a “plurality” school, meaning its student body has no majority racial/ethnic group.

In addition, the diverse school has a fair share of low-income students, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. For at least two of the three categories, the diverse school must have at least two-thirds the district average in these categories at its grade level. Consequently, diversity comprises four demographic factors: race/ethnicity, income, language, and disability.

The definition for each of these four factors sets minimum levels for diversity, not maximums. This approach, in turn, inspires efforts toward building a rich mix of students in each diverse school, but in varying combinations. Any of the six racial/ethnic groups in the system could represent the largest group in a school, but not an overwhelming majority.

For school staff members, the plan applies to black and white certified and support employees because they are the largest racial groups in the staff systemwide. A school’s certified staff (which includes teachers and most administrators) is considered diverse when it has black and white representation that is at least two-thirds the district average for each racial group at the grade level of the school. For support staff, the minimum is half the district average.

Dramatically alters the way the district reports on the demographics of its schools. Nashville no longer counts majority-black, majority-white, and majority-Hispanic schools. Instead, it now counts diverse schools, including plurality schools, which represent the district’s paradigm for integration.

Reports whole-school achievement data alongside school-by-school diversity data. This means that policymakers and observers can examine a school’s diversity status and its achievement level all at once.

Requires charter schools to have comparable diversity plans and to report comparable demographic data. This brings charter schools, which are funded with public dollars, under the diversity tent.

Creates four staff work groups—each one interdepartmental—to generate a continuous flow of ideas on how best to implement the plan and priorities. The work groups are focused, respectively, on school choices for students; staff matters, including staff development; funding; and whole-school performance, with each group looking to support diversity.

Calls for district administrative decisions to be made after considering “foreseeable diversity impact.” This provision has already shaped, to the advantage of diversity, one high-profile decision on how to address overcrowding in a popular secondary school.

Of 134 schools in the district this school year (by my count), 63 meet the diversity definition for student enrollment. That’s 47 percent of the total. But 58 percent of the district’s students attend these diverse schools because Nashville’s secondary schools, which are larger than elementary schools, tend to meet the definition at a somewhat better rate than its smaller elementary schools.

On staff diversity, the district batting average is a bit lower: Fifty-four schools meet the definition. But another 57 meet the definition for certified staff, although not for support staff, or vice versa, a pattern that illuminates where progress, with effort, can be made over time.

It’s not a perfect plan, and it likely will never produce a perfect result. The district still has its pockets of racial/ethnic and low-income concentrations, and the plan will have to address them and the students in them.

But Nashville’s goal—“to maximize the number of schools that meet the [district’s] definitions of student and staff diversity”—is unequivocal. Moreover, the plan seems to have legs, since it was adopted unanimously by the elected nine-member district board on the strong recommendation of the district’s chief executive officer, along with a resolution that describes diverse schools as “indispensable to the civic and educational purpose” of the district.

With implementation equal to the goal, the Nashville initiative has a promising future not unrelated to the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Integration: New Concepts for a New Era

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