This following article addresses the two schools districts that were affected by last years June 2007 SCOTUS verdict on school integration and how those two schools sought to combat school segregation in two cities: Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky. I wrote an essay concerning the decision rendered by the Roberts Court and how detrimental this would be for all concerned, especially the students who should all receive a quality education:
A year later, I revisit this issue and how the SCOTUS decision has affected the schools original use of race to combat educational segregation, and how some school districts, one in particular, Louisville, KY, is now using various criteria to tackle the barriers of class, of advantage, and of disadvantage, as well as race, to achieve racial parity, and equal education, in their schools.
Here is the article.
Unconstitutional: The Supreme Court ruling that schools in Jefferson County, Ky., could no longer assign students solely by race has inspired a new approach to integration. More Photos >
In June of last year, a conservative
majority of the Supreme Court
, in a 5-to-4 decision, declared the racial-integration efforts of two school districts unconstitutional. Seattle and Louisville, Ky., could no longer assign students to schools based on their race, Chief Justice John Roberts
wrote in his lead opinion in Meredith v. Jefferson County School Board (and its companion case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1). Justice Stephen Breyer sounded a sad and grim note of dissent. Pointing out that the court was rejecting student-assignment plans that the districts had designed to stave off de facto resegregation, Breyer wrote that “to invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown.” By invoking Brown v. Board of Education, the court’s landmark 1954 civil rights ruling, Breyer accused the majority of abandoning a touchstone in the country’s efforts to overcome racial division. “This is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret,” he concluded.
1954: Students in an integrated classroom in Fort Myer, Va., the year of Brown v. Board of Education.
Wake County adopted class-based integration with the hard-nosed goal of raising test scores. The strategy was simple: no poor schools, no bad schools. And indeed, the district has posted striking improvements in the test scores of black and low-income students: in 1995, only 40 percent of the black students in Wake County in the third through eighth grades scored at grade level in state reading tests; by last year, the rate had almost doubled, to 82.5 percent. Statewide scores for black students also got better over the same time period, but not by as much. Wake County’s numbers improve as students get older: 92 percent of all eighth graders read at or above grade level, including about 85 percent of black students and about 80 percent of low-income students. (Math scores are lower, following a statewide trend that reflects a change in the grading scale.) The district has achieved these results even as the share of low-income students over all has increased from about 30 percent a decade ago to about 40 percent today.
But the lessons of Wake County, Powell and Todd argue, don’t apply everywhere. “In different districts, you have different geographic patterns,” Powell says. “So you need different integration models to shop around.” To begin with, Louisville is less affluent — more than 60 percent of its elementary school students receive free or reduced lunches, compared with Wake County’s 40 percent. In Wake County, the vast majority of the poor students are black and Hispanic, and so mixing kids by class tightly correlates to mixing them by race. But in Jefferson County, more than a third of the kids who receive free or reduced lunches are white. As a result, redistributing students by class alone might still isolate them by race.
1992: The Supreme Court that decided Freeman v. Pitts, which relaxed the need for court control of schools that had not fully complied with desegregation plans.
Photo: Associated Press
This is a limitation of class-based integration that holds true elsewhere. The city of San Francisco, for instance, has undergone substantial racial resegregation since retooling its diversity plan to emphasize socioeconomic factors. Even in Wake County, the fraction of students in racially segregated schools has climbed a bit over the last decade, from 25 percent to 32 percent. A 2006 paper by the education researchers Sean Reardon, John T. Yun and Michal Kurlaender crunched census data across the country and concluded that “given the extent of residential racial segregation in the United States, it is unlikely that race-neutral income-integration policies will significantly reduce school racial segregation, although there is reason to believe that such policies are likely to have other beneficial effects on schooling.”
Many big cities have a different problem. Simple demographics dictate that they can’t really integrate their schools at all, by either race or class. Consider the numbers for Detroit (74 percent low-income students; 91 percent black), Los Angeles (77 percent low-income; 85 percent black and Hispanic), New York City (74 percent; 63 percent), Washington (64 percent; 93 percent), Philadelphia (71 percent; 79 percent), Chicago (74 percent; 88 percent) and Boston (71 percent; 76 percent). In theory, big cities can diversify their schools by class and race by persuading many more middle-class and white parents to choose public school over private school or by combining forces with the well-heeled suburbs that surround them. But short of those developments, big cities are stuck. “The options have shrunk,” says Tom Payzant, a former superintendent of schools in Boston.
Notably, there are a good many districts that have evaded this predicament. They are particularly found in the South, in part because of a historical accident. Because it was predominantly rural for longer, the South has more countywide school districts than the North. An unintended consequence was to ease the way to integration. Instead of city schools filled with poor black and Hispanic kids separated from a burgeoning ring of suburban districts stocked with affluent whites (and in some places, Asians), one district controls student assignment for the region.
Even in school districts with a mix of students of different races and income levels, however, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to socioeconomic integration, as underscored by the differences between Wake County and Jefferson County. Wake County’s demographics entail that mixing kids by class, on its own, produces a fair degree of racial integration. Jefferson County’s demographics don’t necessarily work this way. And so civil rights lawyers suggest that districts configured like Jefferson County should continue to pursue racial diversity directly. They point to cities like Berkeley, Calif., which has an assignment plan that primarily relies on socioeconomics, but like Geography Area A also factors in the racial composition of a neighborhood to guard against resegregation along racial lines. “It’s not either-or,” says Anurima Bhargava, an education lawyer at the NAACP
Legal Defense Fund.
In addition, there’s a tacit liberal constitutional agenda at work in hybrid class-race approaches to integration: better to test Kennedy’s opinion, with its support for the drawing of “race conscious” school boundaries, than to retreat further than is in fact required. “For Kennedy, there are ways of taking race into account,” John Powell says. “It’s just the method that’s in question. How do you do it? We need to find out what’s still permitted.” He also points out that African-Americans are more likely than whites to be poor over generations — a bigger hurdle than a short stint in a low-income bracket.
The continuing attention to race aligns with the internal politics of Louisville and its suburbs.
Many of today’s parents grew up there and tend to remember and care about overcoming their county’s Jim Crow legacy. In 1975, when a federal judge first ordered the city and its suburbs to desegregate, the Ku Klux Klan
demonstrated, and the next day about 150 white protestors attacked eight school buses filled with black students. “We had tough times here when the buses burned,” says Ann Elmore, a black member of the Jefferson County School Board. “We can still include race as a factor in our plan, and let me say I think it’s important that we do.”
Elsewhere in the United States
, it is too soon to tell how the politics of class-based integration (Wake County) or class-plus-race (Jefferson County) will play out. Richard Kahlenberg makes the case for shifting integration policies primarily or solely to being class-based over the next decade or two. What’s fair, he asks, about giving a spot in a coveted magnet program to the son of a South Asian college professor or an African-American politician over the daughter of a white waitress? Over time, such injustices threaten to sour white parents on the whole diversity enterprise, whereas giving poor kids a boost, whatever their color, is far less controversial. Polls at the time of the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which concerned affirmative action at public universities, showed public support running 2 to 1 for giving poorer kids a leg up in going to college, as opposed to 2 to 1 against race-based preferences. In her majority opinion in the case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
famously said she thought that racial preferences would continue only for another 25 years. Barack Obama
has said, looking ahead to his daughters’ college applications, that they don’t deserve an admissions break — an acknowledgment that the mix of race, affirmative action and privilege is a complicated one.
To catch on nationwide, however, class-based integration would have to generate momentum that it has so far lacked. In his State of the Union address
in January, President Bush urged action “to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.” And yet a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act that theoretically allows students to transfer depends on the availability of open spaces elsewhere and has barely been utilized. The administration may have advocated class-based integration to the Supreme Court, but Bush officials haven’t used their signature education law to make it happen.
If Congress were to revise No Child Left Behind to encourage more transfers of poor students to middle-class schools, would poor students drag down their better-off peers? In the end, the prospects of class-based integration will probably rise or fall on the answer to this question. Socioeconomic integration may be good for the have-nots, but if the haves think their kids are paying too great a price, they will kill it off at the polls. Richard Kahlenberg argues that the key is to ensure there is a solidly middle-class majority at as many schools as possible. That majority will then set the tone, he argues. Kahlenberg says that more research is needed to pin down the percentage of middle-class kids that a school needs to have to serve all its students well. Maybe a school can go as high as 50 percent low-income without losing ground. Or maybe it’s telling that in Wake County, a proposal to increase the ceiling for low-income students from 40 percent to 50 percent died a swift death last fall after concerted protest.
Whatever the exact answer, there is some support for the view that schools can handle a substantial fraction of poor students without sacrificing performance. In Wake County, test scores of middle-class students have risen since instituting income-based integration. Additionally, Kahlenberg points out that middle-class students are generally less influenced by a school’s environment because they tend to learn more at home, and that the achievement of white students has not declined in specific schools that experienced racial (and thus some class) desegregation.
Would schools need to track students by ability to protect middle-class students, who are more often higher-achieving than their low-income peers? Perhaps not. In a 2006 longitudinal study of an accelerated middle-school math program in Nassau County, N.Y., which grouped students heterogeneously, the authors found that students at all achievement levels, as well as minority and low-income students, were more likely than the students in tracked classes to take advanced math in high school. In addition, the kids who came into the program as math whizzes performed as well as other top-achievers in homogenous classes.
This study underscores Ronald Ferguson’s point about the value of seating students of different backgrounds and abilities in class together, as opposed to tracking them. Still, it’s worth noting that less than 15 percent of the students studied in Nassau County were low-income. So the math study doesn’t tell us what happens to the high-achieving middle-class kids when close to half of their classmates aren’t as well off.
At the end of February
, Todd started showing the map of mermaid-shaped Geographic Area A, which she hoped to use to implement the new assignment system, to the parents of Jefferson County. Todd would start her presentation with quotes from Justice Kennedy and from Justice Breyer’s dissent; she especially wanted to remind her audiences of the sentiment Breyer expressed by quoting former Justice Thurgood Marshall
: “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”
Todd’s first stop was at a forum sponsored jointly by the Urban League and the N.A.A.C.P., groups associated with Louisville’s black establishment. Most of their members supported the school district, but some clergy members who worked with the city’s black youth spoke against it. The Rev. John Carter, associate minister at Green Street Baptist Church, pointed to the district’s black-white achievement gap and called for a return to neighborhood schools and an earlier era of black self-reliance.
As more forums followed in high-school auditoriums across the county, white parents asked a different question: How would the new assignment plan affect their kids? Would they be forced to switch schools in second, third or fourth grade? “We like the diversity,” a white parent named Niki Noe told me the next morning at her son’s elementary school, St. Matthews. “But if we have to go to Chenoweth” — a school with lower test scores — “we’ll pull out and go to private school.”
That’s a serious threat to the district’s well-being, but one that Todd anticipated. She designed a grandfather clause for kids like Noe’s, so that the new assignments would apply almost entirely to new students. Meanwhile, at every meeting, Todd polled parents on whether they cared about maintaining diverse schools. The University of Kentucky
also conducted a telephone survey with 654 parents of elementary schoolers. In April, Todd called me, elated and relieved, with the results: 88 percent of parents supported enrollment guidelines “to ensure that students learn with students from different races and backgrounds.” Todd said she had dropped Breyer’s dissent in Meredith from her presentation; she was no longer feeling frustrated with the court. “It’s been a personal emotional trek, but I think we’ve come out better for it,” she said in May.
Carter, the proponent of black-self reliance, was feeling more at ease, too. He had come to see the virtue of mixing kids by income level. “Once I did the research, I was pretty impressed by the economic part of it,” he said. Carter had taken note of the district’s data showing that a switch to neighborhood schools, as he had first advocated, would mean that median household income would range from a high of more than $100,000 at the wealthiest school to about $8,300 at the poorest. A split between rich students and poor schools, he agreed, was the wrong path.
It is, of course, the path taken by most of the country. And yet at the end of May, the Jefferson County School Board voted unanimously to make Geographic Area A the basis for integrating elementary schools for the 2009 school year, a new chapter in the district’s history. As the schools shift to the new class-plus-race formula, the district will closely watch the test scores of black students and poor students, hoping for an upsurge, and those of middle-class students, hoping to see achievement hold steady. And if they do, maybe the court’s decision in Meredith will come to seem less like a cause for regret and more like an unexpected opportunity.