SD Research Roundup: Secession, voluntary integration and school spending, part 2

Recent research has examined contemporary school segregation in a variety of forms, including segregation of students in early childhood education, the relationship between school segregation and residential segregation, and segregation that clusters low-income students in under-resourced schools. In part 1 of this post, I linked to a few of these studies before focusing in more detail on three recent articles that each include researchers from Penn State:

Since I used to work at Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights, and I’m still affiliated via this blog, I reached out to the authors for commentaries on each piece. Part 1 included a short summary and commentary from the first article (on school district secession), and this post rounds out that list with summaries and commentary on the remaining two articles. As always, I hope you find something useful. 

“School and Residential Segregation in School Districts with Voluntary Integration Policies”

Like the secession paper, this one also includes Kendra Taylor and Erica Frankenberg as authors, and they are joined by Jeremy Anderson, who contributed the commentary for this post. This paper is an offshoot of a long-term research project at the Center for Education and Civil Rights that aims to learn more about effective practices in voluntary school integration. I’ve documented key findings from similar papers in an earlier post, and, in full disclosure, I remain involved in this research team. 

In this particular paper, the authors identified all schools districts that are implementing a voluntary integration policy and then asked a) are voluntary strategies effective and b) are some methods of voluntary integration more effective than others. There’s a lot of interesting data in the article, but this is the part that stands out to me:

  • Findings show that “there have been reductions in poverty segregation in the school districts with voluntary integration policies.”
  • Although “racial segregation in the districts is a mixed picture,” the authors found that “in school districts that used race-conscious policies, on average, school racial segregation was lower than in the districts that used race-neutral policies, even when residential segregation was relatively constant across both types of districts.”

In his comments, Jeremy reflects on the findings re the effectiveness of race-conscious plans, including barriers to race-conscious research/policy as well as potential avenues for progress. 

  • What would you like readers to take away from the article? What is your overall message re school segregation?

Discussion around school integration and segregation has made a bit of a resurgence after the first few rounds of Democratic presidential debates. However, many seem to discuss integration and segregation as if it is a thing of the past or mainly through the lens of court mandated desegregation. It’s important to understand that there are, currently, school districts across the US that are using voluntary integration plans and that is what our study attempted to capture. What we find is that the voluntary integration plans that school districts are using are becoming more varied in both method and in the ways that they define what a “diverse school” means to them. This is particularly apparent in the wide range of definitions for socioeconomic status that we saw in use.  

Our findings on the effects of these policies suggest that school districts that use race-conscious indicators to promote diversity saw lower levels, on average, of racial segregation. However, the number of school districts using race-conscious policies in our sample was relatively low. At the same time, through our interviews with school district leaders, we found that the current legal and political environment has had a chilling effect on districts’ willingness to incorporate race into their student assignment plans. However, this isn’t to say that there aren’t more school districts using race-conscious policies in the US. As we note, there may be more out there that aren’t widely advertising these plans as to avoid challenges. 

  • How can research build on what you uncovered here?

It would be great to see future research continue to dig into the legal, political, and local obstacles for school districts that implement or want to implement voluntary integration policies. Additionally, while our study focuses in on the student assignment policy aspect of integration, there are many more important dimensions to school diversity and integration such as teacher diversity, funding/resource equity, etc. Future researchers may look at districts using voluntary integration policies and examine these other dimensions within those districts. 

  • What policy changes would address the problems identified in your research?

As federal support for desegregation plans has lessened, school districts have had to operate in an increasingly legally uncertain environment. As I mentioned above, school leaders that we spoke with discussed the potential for lawsuits and how that had an impact on their decision on whether or not to use race in their assignment policy.

As we discuss in the study, there is an ever growing body of research that points to the academic, social, and democratic benefits of segregation for all students in an integrated school district. At the same time, there are also indications that school segregation is growing in the US. Using this research, it would be helpful to, once again, provide school districts with clear legal guidance and policy on how they can design student assignment policies to create greater racial and socioeconomic integration in their schools.

“Pathways to Inequality: Between-District Segregation and Racial Disparities in School District Expenditures” 

I found this paper to be particularly powerful. Often, opponents of school integration argue for equalization of resources before (or in place of) racial integration. This paper, from Victoria Sosina and Ericka Weathers, provides a strong rebuttal. In particular, the authors provide evidence to support an important policy argument: school funding is deeply racialized. 

They used publicly available school finance data to track district expenditures from 1993-2014 in the following five categories: administration, infrastructure, instruction, social support services, and all other spending. Essentially, they wanted to know: within each of the five categories, do differences in spending from one district to another vary according to differences in racial composition?

As detailed in a twitter thread from one of the authors, the study found that:

  • “as Black–White racial segregation increases over time, total per pupil expenditures and other per pupil expenditures shift in ways that disfavor the typical Black student’s district relative to the typical White student’s district.” Emphasis added here and below. 
  • “Latinx–White segregation is associated with a relative shift of per pupil infrastructure expenditures that disfavors the typical Latinx student’s district and a shift of per pupil other expenditures that favors the typical Latinx student’s district.” (So, more mixed results here.)
  • And, although spending shifts were “modest” in some cases, the authors note that there is the potential for a very real impact on students nonetheless: “These shifts may be the difference between hiring and firing a teacher, investing in needed building improvements, or maintaining adequate food service staff at lunchtime.”

Importantly, this study focuses on describing differences in school spending, not on explaining why those differences exist. So, the authors state that “school district spending varies in racialized ways,” but identifying the reasons for racialized variation in spending was outside the scope of the research. In her comments, Victoria Sosina talks about how future research might build on the study towards identifying causality. 

  • What would you like readers to take away from the article? What is your overall message re school segregation?

The big takeaway from this work is that evidence suggests race and ethnicity continue to be connected to school district spending patterns in public education. This highlights the need to for research communities to continue their focus on the structural nature of racial inequity.

  • How can research build on what you uncovered here?

Future research can build on these findings by (1) exploring potential causal mechanisms that link changes in racial segregation to spending patterns and (2) examining heterogeneity in these relationships in greater depth. Answering these questions is an important part of generating the kind of evidence that is useful for policymakers hoping to affect change.

  • What policy changes would address the problems identified in your research?

While we would not advocate any specific policy changes based on descriptive findings without knowing more about the underlying causal mechanisms, these findings do underscore the need for policymakers and administrators to consider how spending practices may end up inadvertently having a disparate impact on historically marginalized groups. Given the long history of inequality in the provision of public education, these kinds of disparities are something we as a nation should be especially vigilant about.

Ericka Weathers is also a part of the Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Project, led by Sean Reardon. Recently, they released a study that rightly attracted a lot of attention. It found that condensed poverty is the main driver of the so-called “achievement gap.” Together, these pieces paint a troubling picture of school finance and contemporary segregation, one in which students of color are clustered into under-resourced schools (Stanford project) and spending disfavors students of color as districts become more segregated (Sosina & Weathers paper). There are a lot of complicated policy questions that follow from findings like these. But, there’s also one very simple takeaway: as these studies illustrate, it is simply inaccurate to talk about race and school finance as if they are unrelated.

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