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"Promoting Diversity and Reducing Racial Isolation in Ohio,"

by Stephen Menendian July/August 2012 issue of Poverty & Race

Last May, the State Board of Education of Ohio adopted a new, forward-looking Diversity Policy that will improve student performance and potentially affect the lives of every child in the state. Over the last three years, staff from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State worked very closely with the Board and Ohio Department of Education (ODE) staff to develop this Policy. In this article, I will share the positive results and key elements of the new Policy, but more importantly, I will discuss the process of developing this Policy in order to offer valuable lessons for advocates and researchers in other states, particularly for those struggling to create effective and progressive policies in fiscally and politically challenging environments.


In 1980, the State Board of Education of Ohio adopted a broad and sweeping guide for school districts designed both to promote diversity and reduce racial isolation throughout Ohio. The Policy emphatically reaffirmed the state goal of promoting diversity and alleviating racial isolation in Ohio schools. This impressive Policy touched on virtually every relevant educational issue, from curriculum and instruction to test-taking and transportation.

The core element of the Policy was a monitoring mechanism designed to ensure that no school population varied more than 15% from the demographics of the respective school district as a whole. These data were collected into reams of 1980s-style dot matrix continuous feed printer spreadsheets. ODE staff reviewed these spreadsheets for compliance with the demographic variation standard, regardless of whether the variation was a result of intentional de jure segregation or simply a result of de facto patterns of residential segregation. However, districts that were suspected of having this variation result from de jure segregation were immediately requested to appear before the Superintendent of Public Instruction to explain the situation.

The astute reader will recognize that this demographic percentage band is essentially the same numeric band that both the districts in Seattle, Washington and Jefferson County, Kentucky employed before the Supreme Court found them constitutionally infirm in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. For that reason, even though the policy did not clearly violate the Parents Involved ruling, the State Board of Education of Ohio suspended the 1980 Policy following the Supreme Court’s decisions in those cases, pending the development of a new Policy.

The State Board of Education asked the then-Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute, Prof. john powell, to present to the Board on the Parents Involved decision, and to highlight national best practices on student assignment policies and diversity initiatives. Under the leadership of Prof. powell, we had already advised a number of other districts across the country, including Jefferson County, on how to revise their policies in light of the Supreme Court’s decisions while maintaining hard-won gains with technical support. The Board asked ODE staff to work with the Kirwan Institute to create a process for developing a new statewide Diversity Policy.

Over the next three years, we worked very closely with various ODE staff to develop a set of recommendations that would inform the development of a new policy. Once the recommendations were accepted by the Board last September, we were asked to help ODE draft a Policy under the direction of the Board’s various subcommittees. On May 15 of this year, the full Board unanimously adopted the new Policy.

The Diversity Strategies Policy

The new Diversity Strategies Policy is far more than top-down oversight of districts.
Rather, the Policy seriously attempts to create an infrastructure for best practices to be lifted up and shared, and to empower districts with the tools and resources to promote diversity and reduce racial isolation. The Policy does this in several ways. It sets out the demographic challenges in the state and the myriad forms of diversity throughout the state. One such challenge is the growing income segregation across neighborhoods that reduces the number of mixed-income environments and promotes the clustering of poor and wealthy families, with stark educational outcomes. The Policy also emphasizes the importance of diversity and explains the relationships between diversity, racial isolation and student performance. In addition, the Diversity Strategies Project envisioned a more active role for ODE in not only facilitating the guidance, but in helping to disseminate and share proven practices and improve awareness of what works.

Most importantly, however, the Policy provides guidance to school districts. The guidance comes in the form of principles announced by the State Board; identification and elaboration of activities furthering those principles; encouragement to pursue specific activities consistent with those principles; specific requirements to take actions consistent with those principles; and specific reporting requirements to the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The guidance itself includes twelve elements directed at school districts. The elements of guidance range from encouraging student assignment policies that promote diversity to staff recruitment to curriculum and discipline. The Policy also encourages districts to reduce concentrated poverty within school buildings by, for example, capping enrollment for students receiving free or reduced lunch per building. The guidance requires districts to report to the Superintendent of Public Instruction on various matters, such as the diversity impact of potential new school sites. The guidance is applicable both to public and non-public schools, including charter schools.

The focus on school districts means that larger, structural inter-district aspects of school diversity were not specifically addressed. Ohio’s system of school funding has been held unconstitutional on multiple occasions by the state’s Supreme Court. However, the Ohio Assembly has never seriously tackled all aspects of the state’s educational deficiencies. More critically, the greatest degree of racial isolation is inter-district rather than intra-district. The 1980 Policy spoke almost exclusively to the latter. Given the fact that the new Policy is directed at school districts and other non-public schools for whom the State Board prescribes minimum standards under state law, this Policy is only marginally better at addressing this problem.

Given this overarching reality, it should not be surprising that the recurring refrain from local administrators were the demographic limitations of promoting diversity within their districts. Rural and suburban districts expressed concern that they did not have sufficient numerical diversity to meaningfully address the issue. Stakeholders with institutional memory recalled that attempts to integrate were met with white flight on the one hand, and charter schools, private schools and school vouchers on the other. Attempts to diversify school buildings often had to overcome community opposition, parental biases and perceptions, and even personal threats.

The only solution to inter-district segregation is regional. In an attempt to deal with a deeply entrenched structural limitation, the Policy encourages districts to participate in regional magnet programs and support and fund inter-district transfers. Ohio has enjoyed great success with both arts and STEM-focused magnets, especially regional magnets. These magnets, which use lottery or talent screening for admissions, award seats proportionally to participant districts.

The most important successes of the Policy, however, are less direct, but perhaps more influential than a more traditional heavy-handed top-down Policy. First, the Policy directs each district to develop a statement on diversity. While the State Board reaffirms its commitment to promoting diversity and reducing racial isolation through this Policy, having each district adopt its own such statement will provide the critical foundation for all other local policies. It will bring directly into the conversation at the level of Policy the issue of diversity.

In focus groups with local administrators, we found a deep and broad understanding of both the benefits of diversity and the need to find ways to prepare students, even in racially isolated environments, for living and working in a diverse society. Requiring local districts to develop such a policy statement will help local leaders connect diversity to their own pedagogical goals and educational needs. At the same time, it will provide a necessary foundation for all other future programming, activities, outreach and policies. Districts will be forced to explicate not only their own diversity values, but also to bring the issue of diversity into the ongoing community conversation. The benefits of this potentially go far beyond what would be practically achieved from any particular state-imposed mandate.

Secondly, and perhaps most critically, many of the reporting requirements function in practice as soft mandates. The 1980 Policy required districts to provide data to ODE for monitoring compliance with the parameters of that Policy. The new Policy requires districts to report to the Superintendent of Public Instruction on a variety of matters. For example, the Policy requires districts to report the diversity impact of potential new school sites or school closings to the Superintendent of Public Instruction. While the Policy does not prohibit opening or closing a school site that would have an adverse effect on school diversity within a district, that is its practical effect. By forcing districts to consider the diversity impact of a new school site or school closing (a practice explicitly endorsed by Justice Kennedy in Parents Involved), we believe that local communities will take this information into account. In addition, the State Board and the Superintendent of Public Instruction will have critical information for crafting future state policy. If it turns out that districts are consistently opening new schools in racially isolated environments, with negative consequences for other schools throughout the district, the State Board can craft new policies to address this issue.

There is perhaps no single issue that has a more significant and long-lasting influence on student body diversity within a district than school site selection for new schools or school closings. Since most schools draw students from nearby neighborhoods, the site of a new school will have ramifications that reverberate throughout the entire district. Neighborhood schools have the potential to draw students out of more diverse educational environments into racially isolated environments. Integrative school site selection also serves as a deterrent to white flight within a district, and will improve the diversity within a district as a whole, by making each school more diverse.

In evaluating the 1980 Policy, we were struck by many of the limitations in its implementation. We designed the new Policy to overcome many of these implementation challenges, but also to be proactive and forward-looking. The new Policy does not rely entirely on ODE or Board oversight for implementation, but offers immediate guidance and resources to districts. Moreover, the new Policy brings into focus the issues of diversity and racial isolation, and prompts a conversation within local districts where administrators are both tasked with and empowered to build solutions to local and regional problems. As Ohio, like the nation, continues to experience dramatic demographic change, educators and administrators will have the resources, knowledge and experience to proactively and collectively address our many looming challenges. I believe this Policy will serve the state for more than a generation to come.

Lessons Learned

Ohio, with this progressive and forward-looking Policy, is now a national leader in promoting diversity and reducing racial isolation. But the critical question is how other states and districts may learn from Ohio’s success. While recognizing that every state has a different political climate and structure, I believe there are three critical lessons to be learned from the hard, slow and often difficult process of developing a new Policy for the State of Ohio.

Lesson 1: Go Grassroots

The Diversity Strategies Project was initiated during the previous governor’s administration. The 2010 election meant not only a shift in Board priorities, but also less familiarity with the work undertaken so far. As a consequence, the DSP was returned to Committee. The new Committee Chairman sent a letter to districts asking for feedback on the Report we had submitted so far.

As part of this project, we held four regional meetings throughout the State of Ohio in the Spring of 2010. We selected the regions, identified district participants, planned the itinerary, and were responsible for facilitating the meetings and participant workgroups. The meetings were designed to obtain feedback from districts throughout the entire state on their experience with diversity and the principles and strategies that would guide the new State Board Diversity Strategies Policy.

Because of accessible facilities, we were limited to around 50-60 participants per region. Recognizing that many invitees would be unavailable, at least 50 districts in each region were invited to participate. Districts were selected according to a mixture of geographic and demographic criteria. A representative mix of urban, suburban and rural districts were selected for invitation, and every one of Ohio’s 88 counties had at least one district selected. Typologies based on geographic, racial and SES characteristics were developed to ensure diverse representation.

The workgroup feedback was compiled into the Recommendations Report. The feedback was summarized by question and issue and became an important basis for the development of the new Policy. The feedback was particularly important for revealing the limitations of the previous Policy, understanding the current educational realities and challenges, and for reaffirming for the State Board the importance of having a diversity policy.

Over and over again, workgroup participants strongly affirmed the value and importance of diversity in relation to a wide range of pedagogical goals. When the Committee chairman solicited further feedback from districts, the workgroup and grassroots participation that we had already solicited proved invaluable, for it allowed us to speak with the confidence and voice of local leaders, communities and their administrators.

The process developed for the State of Ohio grew out of workgroups we had developed for Montclair, New Jersey and other districts where we had conducted focus groups to gauge community views on the importance and value of diversity and integration, and asked folks to define both, and weigh in on strategies designed to promote them. The workgroups in Ohio were designed not only to collect similar information, but to also impart information on the current demographic challenges and national best practices.

The workgroup report provided the foundation for the recommendations to the State Board, out of which the new Policy was derived. Just as importantly, they provided a critical grassroots backstop against criticism of any of the recommendations. Having this foundation proved essential to weathering any potential political concerns that may have been raised during this process. The workgroup feedback provided an incontrovertible foundation for continuing this work and the necessity of doing so.

Lesson 2: Be Creative

Concerns about unfunded mandates, “one-size-fits-all” rules and budgetary constraints were central to the development of the new Policy. Even before the new administration arrived, we were concerned that many strict, top-down mandates would alienate Board members and local communities alike. Even if such a Policy was put in place, meaningful implementation would be a challenge without constant oversight by an understaffed ODE.

It became clear that framing many of the elements of guidance as either reporting requirements or in ways that give local administrators leeway to tailor the spirit of the guidance to their local needs was not only more practicable, but possibly more effective in the long run. Ohio’s educational leaders are people of good conscience striving to do the right thing for their students. Requiring districts to attend to issues of diversity and racial isolation by developing a policy statement and reporting on various matters to the Superintendent of Public Instruction would put these questions into the public conversation, increase public awareness, and generate data and other information from which key decision- makers may make more informed and better decisions without alienating local leaders and their communities.

In sum, we sought to turn many of the constraints of the current political and budgetary environment into strengths by focusing more on how the Policy might be implemented in practice rather than designing the ideal mandate.

Lesson 3: Be Reasonable

Throughout the project, Board members expressed particular concerns about various aspects of the Recommendations Report and the Policy. The DSP went through three different Board committees and through the full board multiple times. From the across the political spectrum we heard concerns over almost every aspect of the Policy, and worked closely with Board members and the Board’s committees to create the best possible Policy.

In the final stage of the development of the Policy, concerns were raised by the President of the Board about the Policy’s treatment of gifted education. Other Board members raised similar concerns. The research on tracking and instructional grouping is decidedly mixed. Some researchers and academics believe that schools should be de-tracked: that both ability and other forms of instructional grouping can harm many students, especially students of color. Black and Latino students are disproportionately referred for special or remedial classrooms and dramatically underrepresented in gifted education. Questions of tracking, ability grouping and instructional grouping were intense in the development of the Recommendations Report, and many of our initial recommendations on this issue were muted or heavily revised in 2010.

Just before the full Board was to consider the final diversity policy draft, the Director for the Ohio Association for Gifted Education testified that the Diversity Policy could do significant harm to gifted education in Ohio. In particular, it was suggested that if gifted education would reduce the diversity of non-gifted classrooms, then it should be avoided. Further research showed that many students, but especially African-American youth, may choose not to participate in such programming even when they meet minimum qualifications. Qualitative studies on gifted education suggested that black students have much to gain from gifted education, including exposure to highly skilled teachers and more stimulating environments. Rather than suggest that the State should discourage gifted programming that may lead to more racially isolated classrooms, we instead emphasized research highlighting the potential benefits of gifted programming to non-white students, while focusing more on educating these students and their parents on the benefits of gifted education and while paying closer attention to referral rates.

The Director for the Ohio Association for Gifted Education even recommended a provision requiring districts to monitor the racial and ethnic representation of students in ability-grouped courses, and to also report this information to the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Attending to the concerns that were raised and being willing to switch tracks has produced a stronger policy. Ultimately, the Director for the Ohio Association for Gifted Education publicly endorsed the revised Policy, which was instrumental to receiving unanimous support by the full Board.


Advocates, researchers and educators nationwide are often struggling to do the right thing in increasingly challenging political and budgetary environments. Rapidly changing demographics and a bifurcating economy pose serious educational challenges moving forward, especially since most educational inequality is now inter-district and inter-state. Ohio has moved into the vanguard for promoting diversity and reducing racial isolation by using creative methods to foster empowering solutions to intransigent, long-term challenges. There are many lessons to be learned that could be applied elsewhere to achieve similar successes.

Stephen Menendian is the Assistant Director/Policy Director of the Haas Diversity Research Center at UC Berkeley and a Board member of the American Values Institute. Previously, he was the Senior Legal Associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, where he carried out work for the new Policy described here

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