Friday, March 17, 2017
Members of the Kentucky legislature are taking aim at school integration. If its new legislation succeeds, it will degrade the educational opportunities available to thousands of kids and, ironically, move in the opposite direction of the stated positions of the new Secretary of Education.
After the Supreme Court held in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle that Jefferson County's voluntary integration plan was unconstitutional, the school board reworked its student assignment plan. The problem with the old plan, according to the Court, was that the district had not shown that the consideration of race was necessary to achieve integration. At least in Jefferson County, maybe the Court was right. The district came up with a new plan that relies on race-nuetral factors and appears to work relatively well. And like the old plan, it remains popular among families there. As Barrett Holmes Pitner reports, "[a]s of 2011, 89 percent of Jefferson County residents supported the school system’s desegregation policies (PDF)."
A constitutional plan, a popular plan, local prerogative, and the benefits of integration apparently are not enough to dissuade those in the state legislature from monkeying with education policy. Kentucky House Bill 151 would "provide that those residing within the shortest travel distance to a school be given first priority in cases where the capacity of the school may be exceeded; permit a child to attend a school other than the one closest with permission of the district." The logical inconsistency of this legislation with other education policies and research findings is astounding.
Both of Kentucky's U.S. Senators just voted in favor of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. DeVos stands on two major policy positions: more local control and more student choice. Just this week, DeVos told the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 68 big-city school districts, of which Jefferson County is a member, that “When Washington gets out of your way, you should be able to unleash new and creative thinking to set children up for success.” Although this statement does not reference state government, it is implied. After all, she was talking to districts, not states. In other words, let local districts unleash their creative thinking.
As far as creativity goes, Jefferson County is in the top one percent. It found a way to make integration work, make it popular, and make it voluntary in a place that was once mandated to desegregation under force of court order because those in power staunchly opposed it. This new bill would crush this creativity and allow the resegregation of schools, even though that result is not what most families there want. So much for respecting parents and local control.
The bill is equally problematic in terms of choice. Jefferson County's current plan does not involve compulsory integration. It works because it allows parents choice of where they will go to school, imposing only a few constraints around the edges when those choices threaten to tip a school toward resegregating. But by giving parents an absolute veto and priority for local neighborhood schools, this new bill would strip many families of the right to choose an integrated school.
This bill does not line up with voucher ideology either. The bill would, in effect, tell families that if you want to exercise school choice outside of your neighborhood, you need to look for a voucher. In your traditional public schools, we will preference neighborhoods. How can choice be a generally desirably things, but bad when it produces integration.
I, however, would rather just put politics aside and have us think about what works to improve educational opportunity. Half a century of research shows that integration is incredibly effective in closing achievement gaps. The reason largely lies in the harms that students suffer in predominantly low-income schools. As I detail here, "It is not just that a student’s individual demographic characteristics make him or her less likely to succeed; rather, high-poverty schools have a negative impact on a student’s educational outcomes regardless of the student’s individual socioeconomic status. In at least six major academic categories, predominantly poor and minority schools cause harm or deliver inferior educational opportunities to students." Access to integrated middle-income schools does the opposite. And to be clear, middle-income and white students receive significant educational benefits from attending integrated schools as well. Contrary to popular belief, the benefits of integration are not a one-way street.
Fortunately, the bill currently appears to have stalled, in part, because of the effect it might have on charter schools, not due to any of the other above concerns.