Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Students load the bus outside Greenlee Elementary School in Denver, August 22, 2016. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Superintendent search

Nashville school official is one of four finalists to become Newark’s next superintendent

Sito Narcisse

A top Nashville schools official is one of four finalists vying to become Newark’s next superintendent.

Newark’s school board has not announced the finalists, but Sito Narcisse, currently chief of schools of the 88,000-student Metro Nashville Public School system, is in the running, Chalkbeat has learned. Narcisse, who has also been a high-ranking official in two large Maryland school districts and a principal in Boston and Pittsburgh, confirmed the news on Monday. The son of Haitian immigrants who spoke French-Creole at home as a child growing up on Long Island, he later helped open two high schools for recent immigrants who were still learning English.

The other finalists, Chalkbeat has previously reported, are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso, Newark Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory, and Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon. (Alonso previously declined to comment, and Leon did not respond to an email.)

Newark’s last state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf, stepped down on Feb. 1 when the school board officially regained control of the district after 22 years of management by the state. As the district transitions back to local supervision, it must adhere to a state plan that stipulated that there be a national search for the next superintendent and three finalists for the full board to vote on. However, the state last month granted a request by the board to name four finalists instead of three.

The finalists will introduce themselves to the public at a forum on Friday, though the audience will not be allowed to ask questions. The school board will then interview the candidates in private on Saturday, before they are expected to make their selection at the public board meeting on May 22.

Narcisse was also a semifinalist for the superintendent position in Duval County, Florida until Monday, when the school board there voted not to advance him to the second round of interviews, according to the district’s website. (Unlike Newark, that school system posted all the candidates’ applications online and will livestream the school board’s interviews with the finalists.)

Alonso, the other candidate from outside Newark, was recently in the running to become Los Angeles’ next superintendent before withdrawing his name last month. Both he and Narcisse may face an uphill battle in Newark, where several board members and many residents have said they would prefer a local educator to run the school system now that it is back in local hands after decades of state oversight.

In an interview Monday, Narcisse told Chalkbeat that if he was hired in Newark he would work hard to get to know the district and “become a part of that community.” He added that many of the schools he oversaw in Tennessee and Maryland served low-income students who dealt with trauma and poverty similar to the kinds faced by many Newark students.

“I know I’m not from Newark,” he said. “But the children of Newark have the same set of issues, the same set of challenges.”

Narcisse began his career as a high-school French teacher in a suburban district outside Nashville, before opening a public school in Pittsburgh and then taking over a struggling high school in Boston. He later held district leadership roles in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he helped design the new schools for immigrants still learning English.

In 2016, he became chief of schools for the Metro Nashville system, the second-highest position in the district, where he is responsible for overseeing 169 schools. In that role, he helped establish a high school where students can earn associate’s degrees, brought new science and technology programs into the middle schools, and participated in a public-private partnership to boost students’ reading skills, he said. His salary is $185,000 per year, according to his application for the Duval County position.

He said that he has absorbed several lessons over the years on how to improve struggling schools: Find a strong principal, provide lots of staff training, and invest in extra support services for students. He also cited another lesson that could be especially apt in Newark, where many residents rejected the sweeping policy changes enacted by Cami Anderson, a prior state-appointed superintendent.

“The other part is to not to do reform to them — but to be a part of the work with them,” he said, referring to community members. “That’s how change and sustainability happens.”

change is coming

City may consider more than just test scores in controversial Upper West Side integration proposal

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul, right, has proposed a middle school integration plan.

This week’s meeting to discuss an integration proposal for Upper West Side middle schools was already expected to be controversial. But it could get even more heated, with the city planning to present an alternative approach, leaders said.

An education department spokeswoman said a “new scenario” for integrating District 3 middle schools will be presented at a Community Education Council meeting on Wednesday. Under the current proposal, which has drawn scorn from some parents, a quarter of seats at every middle would be offered to students who earn low scores on state tests.

The city may add other factors to mix, including whether a student is poor or attended an elementary school with many other needy students, according to Kristen Berger — a parent who has been leading integration efforts as a member of the local education council. Some of the changes were first reported by NY1. 

“The goal is to refine the plan so that it can be the best one,” she said.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness declined to release any details about the potential changes, saying, “To send it out wide — without any context, or information, or ability to take questions — I don’t know that’s helpful.”

The debate in District 3 has captured nationwide attention after a viral news video showed a crowd of mostly white, middle class parents angrily pushing against the plan at a meeting last month. Since test scores are often tied to a students’ race and class, the proposal has the potential to integrate schools racially, economically, and academically.

It is unclear if adding other factors to the formula would quiet that furor — or how it would impact the plan’s goal of integrating starkly segregated Upper West Side middle schools.

Despite the controversy, there have also been plenty of supporters, including many principals in the district. It’s not known whether school leaders and parents will back the latest changes — especially since a previous proposal to integrate district middle schools based on students’ economic status died after a public backlash.

Though city officials have stressed all along that the outlines of the proposal could change, parent leaders on Monday said they are worried about the murky process and short timeframe. Officials hope to have a plan in place by June, when entering fifth grade families start planning for middle school.

“We are extremely concerned about the timing of this last-minute change,” the local Community Education Council wrote Monday in a joint letter to city officials.

Still, the council notes it is broadly supportive of the city’s diversity goals.

The education council doesn’t have a formal role in proposing or approving any changes to the middle school admissions process, but members have played a leading role in pushing the city to address stark school segregation in an otherwise diverse district. In the council’s letter to the chancellor, parents call on the city to take a more holistic approach, such as providing anti-bias training in District 3 schools and more academic supports, including social workers and bilingual teachers.

“We have a genuine interest in moving the initiative forward,” said Kim Watkins, president of the council. “But we very strongly believe it’s missing some important implementation pieces.”