democrats for school integration

Want to reduce racial segregation? Elect a Democrat to school board, study says

PHOTO: Matt Detrich

When Republicans won control of the Wake County, North Carolina school board in 2009, they promised to eliminate the district’s racial integration program in favor of “community schools” closer to students’ homes — and they did. By 2012, Democrats had retaken control and were trying to change course.

The shifts caught the attention of Duke professor Hugh Macartney, who wondered whether party labels predict how school boards will address — or fail to address — school segregation.

Now, a new study released by Macartney and John Singleton of the University of Rochester suggests that Wake County was not unique. Electing Democratic school board members, they found, leads to less-segregated schools.

The results are substantial: Electing at least one Democrat leads to students being “reassigned in such a way that the school board is now 18 percent closer to achieving the district [average racial breakdown] for each school,” said Macartney.

The first-of-its-kind paper, which is set to be released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines hundreds of school board elections in North Carolina between 2008 and 2012. The researchers compared districts that narrowly elected Democrats to those that narrowly elected non-Democrats — largely Republicans, but including independents. (Like most school board races, the North Carolina elections were technically nonpartisan; the researchers later matched school board candidates to the party they were registered with.)

Racial segregation was likely reduced, Macartney and Singleton show, by changes to school attendance zones. Non-Democrats made fewer changes, “potentially allowing residential sorting to increase segregation without substantial intervention,” the paper says.  

“The reductions in segregation with the change of the school board are really interesting and line up with, anecdotally, what we’ve seen in some school districts that have made strong moves on this front,” said Halley Potter a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think that that backs school integration.

Democratic efforts to reduce segregation may have caused one unintended — albeit unsurprising — consequence: “white flight,” the migration of white families out of a district in order to avoid integration efforts.

The study shows that electing a Democrat leads to a reduction in the share of white students attending the public school district, though the research can’t definitely identify the cause. This effect does not wipe out the integration gains, though.

Potter notes that some of the departing families may have left heavily white districts, which would not hamper integration efforts. She also points out that the effect may have been caused by families of color entering the district as opposed to white families leaving.

The paper has not been formally peer-reviewed. But David Deming, a Harvard economist who has examined segregation in North Carolina and briefly reviewed the study, said the authors used a well-established research approach.

The study highlights the importance of school board elections, given the ability of one policymaker to ameliorate segregation — as well as the diverging education agendas of different parties.

“Policymaking is all about trade-offs, and we should expect Republicans to prioritize different things than Democrats do. Like achievement and choice, for example,” said Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

But a number of studies have shown that more integrated schools improve the achievement of low-income and black students. Deming’s research found that the end of busing-based integration efforts in Charlotte led to higher crime rates and lower achievement among students of color.

Macartney’s study doesn’t look at the effect of a board’s partisan makeup on student outcomes. He also found no link between changes in economic — as opposed to racial — segregation in schools and a board’s political leanings.

In addition to the changes in enrollment zones, one possible explanation for the results is Republican support for school choice policies. Other research has found that North Carolina’s charter schools have increased segregation.

However, Potter says one way to make integration more politically tenable is to include some parent choice in assignment systems designed to prioritize diversity.

Wake County, she said, is one example of the power of school board elections to derail such integration plans. The study, Potter said, “reveals some precariousness that we want to think about — how to set up enrollment plans and priorities that can’t be unwound with one election.”

on the air

De Blasio: No decision yet on ‘Chief Integration Officer’ or other diversity recommendations

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a September 2018 press conference at M.S. 51 in Park Slope, Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza approved an integration plan for District 15 middle schools.

Among the concrete suggestions that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s diversity task force made when it delivered its report earlier this month was one for a new executive at the city education department.

But de Blasio hasn’t yet decided whether to hire a “Chief Integration Officer,” the mayor said Friday during his weekly appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. The radio show marked at least the third time since the School Diversity Advisory Group released its report Feb. 12 that de Blasio publicly said he planned to review the recommendations, without committing to any of them.

“Chancellor [Richard] Carranza and I are going to meet with the task force. I’m looking forward to carefully reviewing what they’ve come up with,” de Blasio said. He added, “I’m not ready to say yet what specific actions we’ll take.”

The comments echo similar ones he made last week during a weather briefing and at a press conference kicking off parent council elections.

But de Blasio signaled that he could take up at least some of the recommendations, which include setting local integration targets and adding ethnic studies courses. “Obviously, you know, I named them,” he said about the task force. “I wanted to see them do this work.”

The mayor also said again that changes could be coming to the city’s screened schools, which choose students on the basis of grades and test scores in a practice that has contributed to extreme academic and racial segregation. In September, also to Brian Lehrer, de Blasio said the city was “in the process of coming up with a series of changes around the screened schools.”

On Friday, more than five months later, he suggested that that process remained in the future. “We’re going to be reevaluating the whole approach to screened schools,” he said.

Here’s a list of five things the city could do to tackle screening. And here’s Lehrer’s entire exchange with de Blasio from Friday morning:

Lehrer: Also, on education, your school desegregation task force issued its report last week. I was going to ask you about that last Friday but then the Amazon deal broke down and that kind of took over from everything else for a few days. And your task force recommended among other things every school see if its population represents the district-wide and borough-wide population, and it recommended you name a Chief Integration Officer for the school system. Will you or Chancellor Carranza order that all schools take that inventory and will you appoint a Chief Integration Officer?

Mayor: We’re going to – Chancellor Carranza and I are going to meet with the task force. I’m looking forward to carefully reviewing what they’ve come up with. Obviously, you know, I named them. I wanted to see them do this work. I’m not ready to say yet what specific actions we’ll take until we have that meeting to have a chance to really to think about. I do think what’s important here is to recognize we are in a much stronger place today than fine years ago because we have found a variety of ways to encourage diversity, to integrate our schools better, that many of which are grassroots based and therefore I think the ones that will work the best.

Look at what happened in School District 1 in Manhattan, District 3 in the West Side of Manhattan – 1 is Lower Manhattan – District 15 Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the solutions came from the grassroots. And this is what we want to replicate. We’re working with a number of other districts to do that.

While we’re working on the big citywide issues, obviously I put forward the idea to Albany of changing admissions for the specialized high schools which I think are one of our worst examples of segregation that can be fixed straight away by better policies. And I think the proposal we put forward would do that and would end the overreliance on a single standardized test.

We’re going to be re-evaluating the whole approach to screened schools. There’s a lot going on but in terms of what the next steps will be I want to really sit down with the task force and talk it through with them.

Sorting the Students

New Memphis charter school guidelines would help decide if there are too many schools in a single neighborhood

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Children at Riverview walk home from school. (2015)

Shelby County Schools is developing guidelines that would determine if a neighborhood has too many charter schools, addressing a longtime concern of school board members.

The charter school guidelines, called the Educational Priorities Document/Rubric in a proposed district policy on charter schools, would also prioritize what the district wants charter schools to focus on, such as early literacy.

Board members would be able to systematically slow the growth of charter schools in Memphis, which has swelled to 54 since the state legislature approved their creation in 2002.

“We need to defend ourselves through policy if we’re not expanding in Frayser,” for example, said board member Kevin Woods about the neighborhood during a meeting on the proposed policy Thursday afternoon. “We shouldn’t let another day go by that it’s not addressed in policy.”

The district’s charter school office has used a prototype of the guidelines to inform board members about the number of schools in neighborhoods and how they were doing. But the information was never used to make final decisions. (See appendix here.)

The state does not require districts to determine if there are too many schools in a neighborhood when considering charter school applications. (See map of schools by type in Memphis.)

But as more students choose charter schools, district buildings are left with fewer students and more overhead costs, school board members have said. Plus, a portion of state funding follows every child that enrolls in charter schools, which are run by nonprofits. About 14 percent of Shelby County Schools students attend a charter school.

The policy comes more than a year after charter and district leaders came up with compromises on thorny issues such as charters leasing district buildings and paying for district oversight, and the process for revoking charters. Former superintendent Dorsey Hopson urged the school board to come up with a policy to address neighborhood saturation over the summer when the board approved its latest round of charters.

“No surprise, we have too many schools in Memphis,” Hopson said in August. “If you got 12 schools in a three-mile radius… and all of them are underenrolled, we’re not serving kids well.”

The proposed policy is due for the second of three readings with some changes during the school board’s March meeting, said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.