Voluntary Integration: The known and (fairly vast) unknown

A few weeks ago, the Learning Policy Institute released a new report on the federal role in school integration. It makes two very important points about the current state of school integration:

  • Re-segregation has accelerated rapidly after districts across the country have been let out from under court desegregation orders (see below), and
  • There’s a lot of confusion about what is acceptable in the realm of voluntary – i.e., not ordered by a court – district efforts to work towards racial and/or socio-economic school integration.

Of course, this second issue is exacerbated by the fact that the Trump Administration has removed key federal guidance that addresses confusion about the use of race in K-12 student enrollment policies – for more on that, see this very blog, the Ed Law Prof blog, and the NCSD official statement.

The LPI report focuses on what the federal government can/should do to address these issues, and it highlights a few promising local strategies. It came out at a star-studded Hill conference that included Rep. Bobby Scott, Sen. Chris Murphy and Linda Darling-Hammond among others. If you want to catch up on the actual event, there’s a lot of great stuff under #DiversityEquityAccess on twitter, including interesting reflections on barriers to contemporary school integration, its effect on students and potential solutions.

I want to focus here, though, on the district/local level. With court orders in steep decline and extremely limited guidance from the federal government, local voluntary efforts are currently the major policy avenue for integration.

Yet, it’s really hard to get a sense of what is happening across the country. First, it’s certainly not easy to track desegregation orders; but when places are let out from these orders, there’s even less publicly available documentation about their integration plans. It basically boils down to what they choose to post on their website. This feeds into the second point – given uncertainty over previous court decisions, an antagonistic federal climate for school integration, and high-profile K-12 lawsuits, it’s understandable that districts would be wary of even trying voluntary integration. And, those that attempt integration don’t want to risk lawsuit by making their policies easily available.

In light of all this, there’s been a few recent attempts at understanding the landscape of contemporary voluntary integration in the US, and, in full disclosure, I joined one of these research efforts when I became a post-doc at the Center for Education and Civil Rights last fall. Our effort builds on a 2016 report from The Century Foundation, which found that 91 districts across the country use some form of voluntary integration. TCF identified districts mainly via document review of stated district policy; so, our team wanted to narrow that down by trying to figure out who had taken steps to implement written policy. Using interviews with district leaders, we narrowed the number down to 59 districts, which encompasses more than 3.7 million students. Our full report is available here, and you can read a summary by Jeremy Anderson and Erica Frankenberg in the school segregation issue of Phi Delta Kappan. Erica and Jeremy also talked about the research at a recent virtual town hall, hosted by PDK. And, Erica discussed the legal context for voluntary integration in a recent NEPC newsletter. Here are some of the major findings:

  • Of the 59 districts, 46 aim only for socio-economic integration, while 13 aim for both racial and socio-economic integration. This is problematic for at least two reasons:
    • Research demonstrates that policies that consider race are the best way to reduce racial segregation.
    • 42 districts use free- and reduced-price lunch as the only measure of SES, which has become less reliable in recent years. As an alternative, some districts use non-FRL measures of socio-economic status broken down by the neighborhood level, as opposed to the individual student level. These include: median household income, % of home ownership, % of single parent households, adult educational attainment or participation in Head Start.
  • There are four main integration approaches nationwide:
    • Magnet schools – 26 of the 59
    • Attendance zone boundary changes – 23/59
    • Districtwide choice (with some degree of civil rights protections) – 14/59
    • Transfer policies – 8/59

Note that the numerators add up to more than 59 because some districts are doing more than one of these.

The team also used publicly available enrollment data to evaluate the effectiveness of the plans in these districts. As written in the PDK article, we found mixed results:

  • “Districts that pursue voluntary integration have succeeded in reducing socio-economic segregation over the last 15 years” and
  • “The lowest levels of school-level racial and socio-economic segregation are seen in districts that use a combination of attendance zone boundary adjustments and a diversity-oriented magnet school system”

But also:

  • “Levels of racial segregation have remained fairly steady” – though, this is sort of a win, in light of the increase in segregation across the country.
  • “We found the highest levels of school racial segregation in districts that rely on magnet school admissions as their only means of integration”

I joined the project after the release of the initial report. Since then, we’ve been interviewing leaders in the districts that had the highest levels of racial and/or socio-economic integration. We’re hoping to use the research process to fill in gaps that have been created by the federal government’s inaction and backsliding on school integration. It’s been fun and fascinating, and I will of course include updates in future posts.

Erica and Jeremy also participated in a recent virtual town hall. Since I work with these good people, I thought I’d end this post with some reflections from them. Specifically, I asked them:

  • In the process of doing this research, what have you found most surprising/unexpected?

Jeremy: The point that I would want to note is that despite the demonstrated advantages of desegregation for all students, our research has captured that pursuing voluntary integration in school districts has become increasingly difficult and more confusing, especially legally (even more so recently). We’ve felt a chill since we’ve begun our work in district’s reluctance to discuss their efforts that is troubling.

I was also surprised by the wide variety of methods that districts use to undergo voluntary integration. As noted above, there is a good deal of variation in the ways that districts define “diversity”, most in a race-neutral manner, and in the individual methods they are using. This increase in variety really calls for greater research into the effects of these methods on both racial and socioeconomic segregation.

  • What has given you the most hope?

Jeremy: The bright side of our work is that there are districts still willing to address integration, including those using race, and in many of the districts we’ve studied, it’s working to varying degrees.  Also, despite the ever increasing difficulties, we’ve continued to identify more that have engaged in the work recently which is encouraging. Some optimism in troubling times.

My hope is that our work will provide other school districts that want to pursue voluntary integration in the future with a starting point to do so in these legally and politically turbulent times. We believe, and the research on integration demonstrates, that greater diversity in school districts positively influences the academic achievement and adult outcomes of all students.

So, some promise in that many districts see the benefits of integrating voluntarily, though a major barrier in that those that are attempting to integrate are reluctant to discuss their strategies for this, making it much more difficult for effective strategies to spread to districts that are interested in integration but haven’t begun to implement any actual policy.

I want to close this post with a caveat that itself is easily another post- while policy options for school integration may seem few and far-between, things can change quickly. Political action, of course, is closely connected to public will/motivation/organizing. NYC is a great example – based on extraordinary work by student activists, the city has moved to leverage voluntary integration policies that it would not have touched without public agitation. The recent news about stunningly low Black and Latinx enrollment in elite high schools indicates what we have long known – that there’s a lot more work to do. Nonetheless, it shouldn’t distract from many positive changes that are in motion, all of which are voluntary. And, all of which is largely a response to the finding that schools in NYC were among the most segregated in the nation.

Like the history of school integration in general, voluntary integration is slow because we haven’t really tried to do it and, more specifically, there hasn’t been any public will to try to do it. Its challenges notwithstanding, NYC is an example that when people get together to say they want integration, we can begin to move things in a positive direction, and we can find the voluntary integration policies/strategies that may otherwise lay hidden in silence.

7 thoughts on “Voluntary Integration: The known and (fairly vast) unknown

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