Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Nation's Most Important School Integration Program Is Under Attack

A group of African-American and Latino families have sued Connecticut and the Hartford public school system over the admissions policies at Hartford's magnet schools.  Those magnet schools came into being as a result of Sheff v. O'Neill.  In Sheff, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the extreme racial isolation in Hartford schools deprived minority students of equal educational opportunities.  Moreover, the extreme racial isolation was a result of the school district boundaries that the state set.  The remedy was to create magnet schools that would pull students into Hartford from across school district boundaries. Some students in Hartford would also attend school in the suburbs.

The success of that program has been highlighted several times in the past few years, most notably by the New York Times, which called out the state of New York for dragging its feet on integration when it had a perfectly good model up the road in Hartford to follow.  Likewise, litigants are currently before the Minnesota Supreme Court, asking the court to recognize a challenge to extreme poverty isolation in Minneapolis schools and pointing to Sheff for support.

This new lawsuit against Hartford claims that the admissions policies at the magnet schools discriminate against minority students.  According to local news, "[t]he schools are limited to 75 percent minority student enrollment."  Parents argue this unfairly prevents minority students from gaining access to special programs at the magnet schools and amounts to a quota prohibited by federal law.

The state has yet to respond, but this case is not nearly so simply as plaintiffs would make it.  First, there is unfortunately very little that is fair in education policy.  School funding is not fair.  On average, the nation spends nearly $2000 less per pupil on poor students than it does middle income students.  School suspensions are not fair.  African Americans are suspended at a rate two to six times higher than whites, depending on the jurisdiction.  The very idea of school district lines is not fair.  It locks hundreds of thousands of students out of educational opportunities and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. 

Because I hope I would never dismiss the unfairness that kids experience and am loath to lump one more unfairness those stuck in low-performing schools, I would admit that there is something obscenely unfair about the education these plaintiffs receive.  I would only emphasize that it was an effort to make educational opportunities more fair for more students in Hartford that led to this magnet school plan, not an attempt to just do more of the same for kids in Hartford.  That plan is far from being a solution to all of Hartford's ills, but it is an important step in the right direction.

Second, the courts have never addressed a challenge to a desegregation plan implemented pursuant to a state constitutional mandate.  Courts, however, have tons of experience with integration mandates pursuant to a finding that schools have intentionally segregated schools.  In Swann v. McKlenberg, the Supreme Court made it crystal clear that quotas were an appropriate starting point for creating a desegregation plan.  As a result, hundreds of lower courts entered consent decrees requiring that schools maintain enrollments at each individual school that were within 10 or 15 percent of the overall district's racial demographics.  While Sheff does not involve the elimination of prior intentional or de jure racial segregation, Sheff does involve a mandate to eliminate racial isolation that the Court found was the direct result of the state's actions and which deprived students of equal educational opportunities.  The line between these two circumstances is not so wide that a court could not recognize the authority of the state to implement tight controls on admissions in these magnet schools.

Second, even if these magnet schools were treated as entirely distinct from traditional school desegregation cases, there is good reason to believe that they should pass constitutional muster.  Even under strict scrutiny, the school would have the opportunity to demonstrate that the assignment plan serves a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored.  Ensuring the delivery of equal and adequate educational opportunities should easily rise to the level of a compelling interest.  As Justice Kennedy wrote in his controlling opinion in Parents Involved v. Seattle Schools: "A compelling interest exists in avoiding racial isolation, an interest that a school district, in its discretion and expertise, may choose to pursue."  

The real question, then, is whether the consideration of race is necessary and narrowly tailored.  Shortly after Parents Involved, I offered this explanation for why race, in particular, is a crucial factor in places like Hartford:

State constitutions place an obligation on every public school in this country to deliver an education to its students. Many state supreme courts have further specified that the constitutional obligation includes a qualitative component, described as sound basic, adequate, high-quality, or efficient education. Thus, merely opening schoolhouse doors and providing books and teachers is far from sufficient to meet this obligation. Moreover, both state and federal laws require schools to deliver this qualitative education equally among their students.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that racial segregation prevents many school systems from delivering an equal or quality education. Various nuances and policies, from taxation rates and governmental neglect to municipal overburden, contribute to inequality. But racially isolated minority schools fail to provide equal quality educational opportunities for two harsh reasons. Most white and high-income parents will not send their children to “black” schools, and most quality teachers will not teach in “black” schools for any substantial length of time. These two facts result in conditions that depress the quality of education in minority schools. The foregoing is not to suggest that minority students need to sit next to white children to learn, but to acknowledge that resources, high-income students, and quality teachers follow white schools and that those factors are crucial to learning.

Although some parents and resources follow white schools for legitimate nonracial reasons, for many the reason stems from a history of state-imposed racial oppression. Decades of previous discrimination have a direct impact on private perceptions of race that continue to linger. Schools, in particular, were structured to send the message that blacks were inferior to whites. Through schools and other institutions and policies, many individuals learned to perceive anything “black” or minority as negative. Thus, today a public school that is identifiable as black is still almost invariably perceived as being a bad school. Once a school is perceived as black, almost no white parents who can choose otherwise will send their child there or buy a house in a nearby neighborhood. Many middle-class black parents react the same way.

This negative perception leads to high-poverty minority schools that experience important resource deprivations in many areas, including teachers. Even a school with a diverse student body will become almost entirely segregated if parents perceive it to be a “black” school. The problem is not that the schools become all-minority, but that as a consequence of their makeup, most will become socioeconomically segregated. More than seventy-five percent of predominantly minority schools are also high-poverty schools. High poverty levels at predominantly minority schools deprive students of the invaluable influence of middle- and upper-class peers, which some argue is the most important factor in the success or failure of a school.

The concentration of poverty in a school reduces students' chances of academic success, regardless of race. Both minority and nonminority students who attend schools with low levels of poverty score substantially higher on standardized tests than do students who attend high-poverty schools. Some studies have found that the achievement gap between high- and low-poverty schools is equivalent to two years of learning. Likewise, regardless of individuals' socioeconomic status, students who attend low-poverty schools perform at a higher level than those who attend high-poverty schools. Thus, poor minority students have a better chance of academic success at schools with low levels of poverty than middle-class white students have at schools with high levels of poverty.

The second consequence of racially isolated minority schools is to deprive students therein of access to the best teachers. Research demonstrates that access to quality instruction is the most important factor, or ranks toward the top, in predicting academic success. Predominantly minority schools experience high levels of teacher turnover. This turnover undermines stability and consistency in teaching. In addition, minority schools are constantly forced to hire new teachers, who are often inexperienced. Experienced and quality teachers simply will not teach in predominantly minority schools for any significant length of time. Many will not come in the first instance, and others will leave as soon as they have the opportunity. The reasons teachers prefer nonminority schools can be both racial and nonracial. For instance, many good teachers simply desire to teach high-achieving students, which can have an unintended disparate impact. Yet, the predominant factor dictating a teacher's choice of school is more likely bound up in the lingering stigma toward black schools. As Wendy Parker's analysis of teacher mobility in Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia demonstrates, “race itself influences where teachers teach, not poverty or achievement rates.”

However, even if many teachers' school choices are simply reflections of preferences for teaching high-achieving students, those preferences combine with middle-income parents' refusal to send their children to high-minority schools to produce a vicious cycle. High-minority schools lead to high-poverty schools, which lead to lower achievement. Low achievement leads to teacher attrition and the inability to attract good new teachers, which further depresses scores and increases segregation. This vicious cycle creates predominantly impoverished minority schools where only four out of ten students graduate on time. . . .

The imminent goal of schools faced with these circumstances is not improving interracial interactions or achieving the benefits of diversity. Their goal is academic survival. Racial isolation creates an educational crisis in which predominantly minority schools are unable to deliver a constitutionally required adequate education. Moreover, this can occur even though other schools in the school district have good teachers and are achieving at high levels. These school districts are delivering neither an adequate nor an equal educational opportunity for all.

. . . .

Because race is a dominant factor in the unwillingness of parents and teachers to choose high-minority and high-poverty schools, changing the racial identity of schools is effectively a predicate to delivering equitable and quality educational opportunities to many minority children. Schools cannot change the racial attitudes of adults, but they can create school systems where race will not be a factor. Race ceases to be a factor when all schools in a district are roughly equal in terms of their demographics because no one can look at the schools and say one is white and another is black. The Jefferson County School Board made this point and emphasized its importance when arguing its case in district court: "The Board also believes that school integration benefits the system as a whole by creating a system of roughly equal components, not one urban system and another suburban system, not one rich and another poor, not one Black and another White. It creates a perception, as well as the potential reality, of one community of roughly equal schools. . . . One of the ways JCPS meets the competition [with private schools] is by offering quality education in an integrated setting at every school."

Once a school system achieves this, racial biases may exist among parents and teachers, but these biases do not interfere with the school system's ability to do its job. In effect, by using race to equalize schools, the school system separates or disentangles itself from the racial stigma of the society that surrounds it. By ignoring race or leaving the racial composition of its schools to chance, however, a school system allows private societal discrimination to shape the face of its schools and determine the opportunities provided therein.

Read the full article here.

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