As new federal funds for school integration efforts become a possibility, we should explore how current integration policies address race and choice in their design

This post is written by Madeline Good, a former teacher and current doctoral student studying educational policy at the University of Missouri. Her primary research focuses on how policies interact with the sociological, political, and technological contexts of education, especially regarding issues of equity and teacher expertise.

A new era of school integration efforts may soon begin as the Biden Administration recently released their 2023 budget, which includes multiple funding increases for education. One portion of the education budget allocates $100 million for a grant program to address racial and economic segregation in U.S schools. This is a notable shift from the previous administration, which halted efforts to address school segregation by withdrawing federal guidance on school district voluntary use of race in integration plans as well as a grant program that would have supported socioeconomic diversity efforts in schools and local education agencies. These potential federal funds have the potential to spur a new wave of research and policy implementation that addresses school segregation, desegregation, and integration across the U.S.

Before these proposed grants become reality, we must first consider what approaches are currently being implemented and analyze how they aim to address the needs of the racially and economically marginalized communities they serve. This is especially important due to the continued proliferation of school choice initiatives and policies across U.S. states since the onset of the pandemic, which have arguably influenced the ways in which racial inequality is created, understood, and addressed in today’s educational landscape. This blog post begins this conversation by providing an overview of a recent study published in Educational Policy Analysis Archives, which analyzes the ways in which discourses of race and choice are used in school integration policies today.

Our Study: Language and Power Dynamics: A Critical Policy Analysis of Racial and Choice Discourses in School Integration Policies, Sarah Diem, Madeline Good, Brittany Smotherson, Sarah W. Walters, and Vida Nana Ama Bonney (free full text)

While schools in the U.S. are more diverse than they have ever been, they also continue to become more racially and economically segregated. Entrenched white supremacy and racism have influenced legal decisions, policy writing, and local resistance prior to and since the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, making the promises of desegregation more of a dream than a reality. Additionally, school choice policies, which were often used to evade original desegregation efforts, have continued to spread throughout U.S. states, frequently leading to worsened school segregation. Even with these barriers, some school districts have designed and/or implemented integration policies to address concerns about racial and economic segregation in their schools.

The purpose of this study was to analyze integration policies in three school districts: Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), and St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS). Using critical policy analysis and critical discourse analysis, we examined how discourses of race and choice were utilized throughout each policy’s development, design, and implementation. While the school districts all have long relationships with school segregation and attempts at desegregation, they each are situated in distinct contexts, providing this study with three nuanced examples of how school districts today engage with integration efforts.

Case 1: Metro Nashville Public Schools (Nashville, Tennessee)

In 2012, MNPS found themselves in a precarious situation, facing pressure from the state of Tennessee to accept a charter school application the district had already denied twice due to concerns that it would worsen racial and economic isolation in their schools. Resisting state pressure, the district denied the charter application a third time, ultimately losing $3.4 million in funding from state retaliation. In an effort to avoid a similar situation occurring in the future, MNPS created and adopted the “Diversity Management Plan” in early 2013, which outlines how the district will prioritize providing “diverse” learning environments for all students. In the document, “diversity” is defined using four student characteristics: “racial/ethnic”, “free or reduced meals”, “English language service”, and “disability”, with “racial/ethnic” being weighted most heavily when building-level diversity is measured.

Interestingly, when considerations for how diverse schools will be created and maintained, “race-neutral” incentivized choices are proposed. This shift from race-conscious to race-neutral language is notable as it discursively diverges from the initial framing of the plan’s purpose: “reducing racial isolation and promoting diversity”. Additionally, the potential contradiction of school choice being both the problem that spurred the plan’s creation as well as the solution posed within the plan may create tensions regarding its overall potential to enact change. In fact, local news reporting alongside the district’s self-reported data have shown that little has changed regarding the district’s segregation rates since the plan’s adoption, and marginalized students still face a multitude of transportation, zoning, resource, and knowledge-related barriers to accessing “choice” schools. MNPS closed their Office of Diversity and Equity in 2019 citing budget constraints, creating an uncertain future regarding the district’s integration efforts.

Case 2: San Francisco Unified School District (San Francisco, California)

SFUSD has implemented five major desegregation plans since the Brown ruling, and is presently developing a new elementary student assignment policy to address continued concerns about school segregation in the district. Currently, SFUSD utilizes a comprehensive district-wide choice program where families can apply to attend any school in the district. Once a school has been filled, tie-breakers include sibling preference, living in the school’s attendance area, and living in an area with the lowest average test scores. Recently, however, SFUSD has shifted away from discursively framing such choice programs as viable paths toward integrated schools, admitting that the current approach was based on theories that more choice would naturally lead to more integration that have proven not to be true. The district is now aiming to balance choice options with the goals of integration in their new elementary student assignment policy that will be implemented starting in the 2023-2024 school year.

Importantly, racial discourses used by SFUSD represent the racial multiplicity of the communities they serve, pushing beyond the Black/white dichotomy and instead considers “multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial practices and conditions”. As compared to the other districts in this study, SFUSD’s racial discourses most explicitly center equitable, integrative, and anti-oppressive values. It is important, however, to consider rhetoric versus reality regarding these discursive patterns, as the district has historically favored the needs and desires of mostly affluent Chinese, Chinese American, and white families when designing choice programs. While efforts have been made to center the voices of historically racially marginalized communities, such as through the creation of the African American Parent Advisory Council, the impact of the new student assignment policy on SFUSD families is yet to be seen.

Case 3: Saint Louis Public Schools (St. Louis, Missouri)

SLPS has one of the oldest and largest voluntary desegregation programs in the U.S. The St. Louis Student Transfer Program is most commonly known as “the VICC program”, referring to the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation who is in charge of overseeing the plan’s implementation. Due to the policy’s roots stemming directly from the Liddell v. Board of Education rulings beginning in 1972, which were initiated and won based on race-based discrimination, racial discourses have been central in the plans development and implementation. This centering of race, however, has not led to an enduring commitment to the predominantly Black communities they should be serving. St. Louis has a long history of racist residential discrimination, leading to a highly racialized city-county divide, and the VICC program’s one-directional design places the onus of responsibility on the Black students and families to desegregate to white suburban schools as opposed to desegregation mandates for all schools in the area.

Discourses of choice additionally pervade the VICC program as voluntary integration is based on Black and white families choosing to participate. Yet, the “choices” available to Black families were only available if white families, school districts, and governmental officials

chose to grant special, temporary permissions to them. Even though SLPS has discursively shown a commitment to addressing school segregation, their surrounding political and economic circumstances have left them in a “downstream” position and many participating predominantly white suburban school districts have chosen to stop participating in the program once certain race-based enrollment goals are met. Continued divestment, shifting expectations, and dwindling accountability has paved the way for the ultimate termination of the VICC program in the 2023-2024 school year, with no replacement program being considered.

Key Takeaways – Discourse Matters

The language within and surrounding school integration policies matter as they convey meaning about the values, beliefs, and intentions of a school district, and the three cases analyzed reflect discourses of race and choice that represent commitments to and divestments from school integration over time.

MNPS’s Diversity Management Plan was initially created as a protection against state pressure to adopt a charter school that would likely worsen school segregation. Yet, the policy’s “race neutral” solutions that relied primarily on incentivized choices have discursive tension with the policy’s stated goal of “reducing racial isolation and promoting diversity”, leaving the district with little evidence that the management plan has impacted school segregation at all.

SFUSD, on the other hand, discursively centered race while reducing the sole reliance on choice to address district segregation concerns, yet their new student assignment policy is still in development and it is unclear if these commitments will ultimately serve the racially minoritized communities that have historically been overlooked.

Lastly, SLPS serves as a case where continued political divestment has left even the most race-centered integration plan with little power, as the concerns around predominantly white districts’ “choice” to participate in the program have been prioritized over Black students’ “choices” to attend less segregated schools. The VICC program will soon be phased out with no potential replacement being developed.

Those developing and implementing integration plans must thoughtfully consider the ways in which race and choice are included in their design while also acknowledging the larger historical and political context that the district is placed within. School choice continues to be a top agenda item for many state legislatures, yet when left uninhibited, it can often lead to worsened school segregation. Additionally, the series of anti-critical race theory bills proposed across the country represent a pushback against race-conscious approaches to education policy and practice. States and districts, however, still have much autonomy regarding educational policy, and with the shift in federal perspectives on school integration efforts, there is potential for a continued evolution regarding how integration plans approach race and choice in their design and enactment.

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