The past week has produced a spat of stories about the potential redrawing of school attendance boundaries in Loudon County Virginia, which rests in the exurbs of Washington, DC and in recent years has ranked as the wealthiest county in the nation. Despite its wealth, Loudon has pockets of poverty. One is a largely Hispanic neighborhood. The neighborhood, however, is relatively small and, for the past several years, Loudon has assigned students from that neighborhood to several different elementary schools. The purpose and effect has been to deconcentrate poverty there and increase diversity elsewhere--exactly what decades of social science would implore districts to do. Now Loudon is considering a plan to redraw attendance zones and assign all of those low-income Hispanic students to one of two elementary schools. It would, as a result, create two new high poverty schools, where none previously existed, and eliminate economically diverse schools, where they previously existed.
The troubling question is why? According to reports by the Washington Post, the district offers two rationales. First, the new high poverty schools would qualify for more federal resources. Second, teachers would be better able to focus on the special needs of disadvantaged students.“When you have students that have common needs, you can direct your instructional methods in that manner and you have more resources because you have more students with that particular need,” said school board member Jill Turgeon, who is also a former teacher in the district. “When we’re balancing demographics . . . to me we’re watering down the focus we need to have on the students.” Likewise, by removing students with special needs from diverse schools, teachers can better serve the needs of students from wealthier neighborhoods. “I think there are a lot of benefits in allowing a natural grouping of the students according to their neighborhood,” school Turgeon.
One might question whether the first rational is just window dressing. The difference in per-pupil funding that the district will receive from the federal government by concentrating poverty is not enormous. With that said, the federal formulas do create perverse incentives on this score. It is true that the de-concentration of poverty can reduce the per-pupil funding for a school. In other words, schools who do the right thing can suffer financial consequences. And schools who do the wrong thing--segregate--can be financially rewarded. I analyze this absurdity at length here and point out that the federal government needs to reform its funding formulas to incentivize integration and penalize resegregation. There are relatively straightforward ways to do this, but no one has bothered to try. In fact, the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act did not, to my knowledge, make a single change to Title I's funding formulas.
The second rationale similarly sounds like window dressing, although the proponents themselves may not even recognize it or the biases that may drive it. These same exact rationales were trotted out at the beginning of school desegregation. They were the justifications for ability grouping and harsher disciplinary policies. Unless students were separated by ability, white students would purportedly be held back and African Americans not get the help they needed. Without a strict approach to discipline, African Americans would disrupt the classroom and, again, interfere with the learning of whites. These ideas, moreover, are not of a bygone era. Six years ago, the same rationale for meeting student needs, building community, etc., led Wake County, North Carolina, to dismantle what had been one of the most effective socio-economic integration plans in the nation. That plan had also created a district with some of the highest performing low-income students in the country. Its dismantling lead to a civil-rights complaint with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, filed by the UNC Civil Rights Center.
Let's hope Loudon recants before it gets to that point and that the federal government takes this as a lesson and starts thinking about its funding formulas more seriously.