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"Learning from Inter-district School Integration Programs,"

by Kara S. Finnigan & Jennifer Jellison Holme July/August 2015 issue of Poverty & Race

Across the U.S., urban school districts are in a deepening state of crisis. Problems of academic failure, financial debt and enrollment loss have been reported in many of the nation’s largest cities, including Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington, DC, Newark and Philadelphia. Such problems prompted Education Secretary Arne Duncan to label the Detroit Public Schools a “national disgrace,” and Kansas City’s schools as “among the worst in the nation.”

In local and national policy debates, there are two distinct explanations about the reasons for these crises. One explanation—for which there is some consensus on both the political left and right—attributes these problems primarily to the failings of the districts and schools themselves, particularly a lack of fiscal and academic accountability. The solution, according to this narrative, is to inject the system with competitive market forces; raise standards; improve accountability systems; tie teacher pay to student achievement; re-staff and “turnaround” schools; or pool failing schools into a state-run “Recovery School District.” This narrative, therefore, treats the educational crises as a technical problem—and the solution, the narrative goes, should come in the form of a “technical fix,” through an improved mixture of incentives, sanctions and supports for schools.

Another, largely different, explanation for school failure comes from outside the mainstream education policy discourse. This narrative attributes the struggles faced by urban districts to decades of discriminatory policy decisions that created deep inequities between urban school districts and their surrounding suburbs. Such policies include discriminatory government and banking policies and real estate practices that promoted white flight to suburbs while locking families of color into urban cores, or in some contexts, into isolated inner-ring suburbs. The damaging effects of these practices were compounded by the powers state legislatures delegated to suburban municipalities to incorporate into autonomous legal entities, with their own tax bases, school systems and land use policies. Together, these policies and practices promoted economic competition between cities and suburbs (and between suburbs themselves) that fueled residential racial segregation, tax base inequalities, and—for those districts on the “losing” end—poor educational performance. Policy solutions emerging from this diagnosis focus on addressing the inequality and inefficiency created by multiple, competing jurisdictions within metropolitan areas through “regional” policies that aim to connect cities and suburbs on issues such as transit, housing, air quality and land use. These policies include strategies to reduce racial and economic segregation between jurisdictions, such as housing vouchers and strategic siting of affordable housing that move people across city and suburban lines. Unfortunately, these policies have rarely been implemented at any significant scale.

Educational policies have also been adopted to address these same issues: For over five decades, there has been a long-standing yet little known type of school choice policy designed to promote racial and economic integration across district lines. These policies are commonly referred to as inter-district school integration policies and have been adopted in 13 metropolitan areas in 10 states in the US, beginning in the 1960s through the 2000s. They are premised upon the idea that segregation and racial isolation between school districts are a fundamental cause of educational inequality. They seek to address this root cause of failure by allowing students to move across the boundaries of districts, both to create more integrated learning environments and to provide students the opportunity to access greater resources, academic and social opportunities, and networks. Over the past five decades, tens of thousands of students have participated in, and graduated from, these programs. These are the types of policies recently pointed to by a New York Times editorial as a way to address growing segregation in New York State’s schools. Based on our research in this area, we take a closer look at these long-standing inter-district desegregation policies in eight metropolitan areas: St. Louis, Hartford, Minneapolis, East Palo Alto (and the surrounding region) CA, Rochester NY, Boston, Omaha and Milwaukee.

Description of Programs and Research on Outcomes

Inter-district desegregation programs, while less well known than other types of choice policies like charters and vouchers, are voluntary school choice programs that have been adopted and implemented in metropolitan areas in the U.S. over the last six decades. The first policy was adopted in the 1960s in Rochester, during a difficult time of race riots, with the most recent policy enacted by the Nebraska state legislature in 2007 during controversial discussions about how to solve metropolitan inequities in the area. Unfortunately, no reliable numbers exist as to the number of students who have participated in or graduated from inter-district desegregation programs. Even current enrollment and retention in these programs can be difficult to determine, as many programs do not track these numbers or report them annually. We estimate, based upon most recent numbers from each program collected through our study, that approximately 40,000 students participate each year across these eight metropolitan areas in either urban-suburban transfer programs or inter-district magnet schools.

These programs vary in size and structure, from nearly 600 students in Rochester (the oldest program) to more than 6,000 in Omaha (the newest) to nearly 19,000 in Hartford (the largest). Some districts have required enrollment numbers through court settlements while others accept students based upon projections of “space available” each year. Enrollment goals also vary across programs, with some focusing on race and others on SES, and some using a lottery, with others using a complex interview process. All of the programs provide students with transportation and many provide additional resources to suburban schools that participate. Some also provide “hold harmless funding” to schools that send students under these programs. Several plans incorporate regional magnet schools, and some incorporate counseling and student supports.

Overall, these programs are highly popular with parents. Indeed, most of these programs have waitlists of families vying for seats. In 2011, approximately 900 students waited for kindergarten in Boston’s METCO, with an additional 1,200 for first or second grade. In Rochester, there is no waiting list, but only approximately 10% of applicants are placed each year.

While features of these specific programs vary, research on integration programs more broadly has found consistently positive benefits for students: improved achievement scores; reduced dropout rates; increased graduation rates; and improved racial attitudes. School integration has also been found to yield long-term educational and social benefits, such as increased college-going, employment and earnings. Similar benefits have also been found in studies specifically focusing on inter-district desegregation programs. Quantitative studies have found positive test-score gains for participants in math, reading, social studies and science, as well as long-term benefits such as improved occupational attainment. Qualitative studies have found that students who participated in these programs often experienced short-term social and academic challenges, but they benefitted from significant long-term gains, including better preparation for college and improved comfort in diverse settings. Thus, although research on educational reforms often yields mixed and contradictory evidence, the research evidence on inter-district desegregation programs consistently finds that such programs yield significant academic, employment and social benefits for participants.

Key Features in Promoting Educational Opportunity Across Metropolitan Areas

Our research has suggested that to promote greater equity between school districts and to reduce economic and racial isolation, these policies must evolve to focus more comprehensively on regional equity. In essence, these inter-district desegregation policies should be expanded and incorporated within a broader strategy to promote greater equity and reduce inequality across metropolitan areas through a combination of choice and place-based investment in high-poverty schools. We have identified three core policy components of what we call Regional Educational Equity Policies that, in combination, have the likelihood of enhancing educational equity and academic achievement for all students across metropolitan areas. We briefly describe these areas, drawing attention to the places in our study that illustrate the different components.

1) Regional equity choice programs. As discussed above, inter-district desegregation policies have been one of the only policies to successfully tackle regional equity in education. These programs offer important lessons for crafting school choice policies that are designed to promote diversity across districts in a region: First, it is critical that students are able to participate in a lottery and are placed for the duration of their educational career, as occurs in the Tinsley program in CA. This ensures fairness of treatment both in access and upon entry similar to any resident child. Second, transportation must be provided both for regular schooling and for extracurricular activities to ensure that students are able to access the wide-ranging opportunities in their schools. In Rochester, transportation is provided for all students and some districts have worked to provide buses before and after school. Third, it is important that programs provide additional supports to transfer students, whether academic or social-emotional. For example, the METCO program provides counselors in receiving schools. Additional supports could be provided through reading or math specialists and social workers, as needed. Fourth, professional development is critical, as many schools do not have experience with the diverse populations or may not understand the challenges students face crossing racial barriers. Both Minneapolis’ and Hartford’s programs provide professional development to educators across the region to help them better understand racism and poverty, and become more engaged in how their teaching might privilege white middle-class populations. Finally, determination of available seats should be set according to equity targets rather than “space available” each year.

2) Place-based reforms. Most current equity strategies focus on either improving urban districts through urban renewal approaches or increasing mobility across boundaries, but do not pay attention to the interconnections between these approaches. To ensure viability and metropolitan equity, it is important to develop regional strategies comprised of both mobility and place-based (urban) investment. One promising strategy is to invest in a handful of the most challenged neighborhoods—e.g., as Omaha has done through its Elementary Learning Centers, or through comprehensive strategies in targeted neighborhoods involving housing, education and health. Another is to (re)invest in urban districts by targeting funds, including school turnaround funds, as was recently proposed in New York State, toward redesign of failing schools with specific educational approaches— e.g., through STEM, early college, pathways to technology (P-Tech) or other approaches, and requiring that seats are set aside to serve students from other districts to increase racial and socioeconomic integration within urban districts.

3) Regional governance. Within metropolitan areas, cities and suburban districts often “compete,” resulting in policy choices that worsen inequalities between districts. Thus, with respect to either school choice or place-based reforms, it is important to have a regional governing body that includes representatives from across the region, to ensure that decisions about programs are made with regional equity goals in mind and with the input of all stakeholders. This group may be either appointed or elected, and must determine an equitable voting process— e.g., by weighting voting by numbers of students involved or resident population of that district, to ensure that urban district priorities are not overlooked. The regional governance board should administer programs resulting from the Regional Educational Equity Policies, including outreach or processing applications, as in Hartford, or marketing/advertising and evaluating programs, as in Omaha. In our study, county or intermediary offices of education, such as the BOCES system in NY and countywide offices in CA, were also serving in this role, given the infrastructure that already existed that could be built upon for these regional equity purposes.

State and Federal Policy Targets and Resources

In this section, we share recommendations for policymakers who are interested in creating Regional Educational Equity Policies with these three critical components. For such policies and programs to be spearheaded and sustained, given the competing political and educational pressures within metropolitan communities that reduce the likelihood of addressing these long-standing inequities, state and federal action is more critical than ever before.

Funding: A primary barrier to participation in Regional Educational Equity Policies is funding. State and federal policymakers must consider reallocating resources or using existing resources in the following ways:
  • Regional equity school choice programs: Several key financial supports should be in place to support these programs:

    • To create an inter-district choice program to foster diversity in today’s policy context, funding is necessary to incentivize districts to enroll students from other districts– whether urban or suburban. In some places— e.g., CT—legislation provides additional per pupil funding once certain thresholds are met and at additional levels. These financial incentives have had a positive impact on the budgets of many suburban schools.

    • Targeted funding is also needed for additional costs—e.g., for transportation costs, capital improvements, professional development and student supports. These funds could be allocated on a per pupil basis or in grant allocations for participating districts to ensure that the key features described above are met.

    • In at least the first few years of policy implementation, sending districts, particularly urban districts, should be “held harmless” on current funding levels as the system begins to be put in place to promote regional equity. This requires financial setasides to maintain state funding levels.

  • Place-based investments: Targeted funding—aligned with regional equity goals—is needed to strengthen and support urban districts. For example, in Omaha, a small regional tax is levied across all property in the metro area to fund targeted programming and early childhood services in the highest-poverty areas of the city. Furthermore, for regional equity choice policies to be most successful, they should be two-way, meaning both urban and suburban districts send and receive students. Since most urban districts have a number of schools that have been targeted under sanctions for years, this is the opportunity to truly invest in “turnaround” by changing some of these into high-priority inter-district magnets (this approach is now being piloted in New York State). Funding stipulations relating to diversity targets would be necessary to ensure these magnets are aligned with regional equity goals and can attract families from outside the city—for example, by setting enrollment goals linked to metropolitan area demographics and withholding funding if these goals are not met.

  • Beyond state funding allocations, legislation could allow for (or require) a small regional tax to support these efforts, as has occurred in Omaha, which, as noted, funnels a small tax from across all districts in the metropolitan area into regional and place-based programming. In essence, Omaha has been at the forefront in recognizing that since the whole region gains from reduced inequality the whole region must pay into these efforts.
Accountability. Beyond funding, an additional barrier relates to accountability for both schools and teachers, which has the potential to undermine regional educational equity, given the high stakes involved for districts and educators.
  • A number of suburban educators told us that the accountability systems created disincentives for diversity transfers, as educators were reluctant to enroll students who count as a “subgroup” or would be perceived as having greater academic needs, thereby subjecting their schools (or themselves) to lowered ratings. To reduce this barrier, schools and teachers could be “held harmless” if they open seats to students who change the demographics of the classroom or school. This concern could also be diminished if No Child Left Behind requirements continue to be weakened or if the reauthorization of ESEA focused more attention on diversity goals.

  • Rather than the current punitive labels, accountability systems could reward districts and schools for taking steps to becoming more diverse and improving regional equity. This may mean providing some reprieve for districts and schools that receive students in terms of labeling and sanctions or it could mean providing schools that have intentionally targeted attracting diverse populations with a special designation as a “Diversity School.” Providing this designation on students’ high school transcripts may provide an advantage in an increasingly competitive college admissions environment and could potentially attract both urban and suburban families.

Concluding Thoughts

The programs that we studied have worked hard, often against strong political and educational pressures, to reduce inequities related to educational access and opportunity in their metropolitan areas, though none have been able to stem the tide of growing racial and socio-economic inequality. As a result, at this point in time, state or federal policy action is critical to not only support these policies across the country but also to foster the creation of similar efforts in other metropolitan areas. Importantly, it is only with the intentional focus on policies that foster regional educational equity both through schooling as well as through broader policies to reduce racial and socioeconomic isolation of families (i.e., through affordable housing, equitable transit and workforce development) that the urban school “crisis” can be addressed, and that opportunity can be improved for all youth.

This article is drawn from a three-year study funded by the Ford Foundation.


Robert Bifulco, Casey Cobb & Courtney Bell, “Can Interdistrict Choice Boost Student Achievement? The Case of Connecticut’s Interdistrict Magnet School Program,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31 no. 4. (2009)

Susan Eaton & Gina Chirichigno, METCO Merits More: The History and Status of METCO. (Boston: Pioneer Inst., 2011)

Susan E. Eaton, The Other Boston Busing Story: What’s Won and Lost Across the Boundary Line. (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2001)

Susan Eaton, The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007)

Kara Finnigan, Jennifer Jellison Holme, Myron Orfield, Tom Luce, Sara Diem, Allison Mattheis & Nadine Hylton (in press). “Regional Educational Policy Analysis: Rochester, Omaha, and Minneapolis’ Inter-district Arrangements,” Educational Policy (online Jan. 30, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0895904813518102)

Kara Finnigan & Burke Scarbrough, “Defining (and Denying) Diversity Through Interdistrict Choice,” Journal of School Choice 7 (2013)

Jennifer Jellison Holme & Kara Finnigan, “School Diversity, School District Fragmentation, and Metropolitan Policy. Teachers College Record 115 (2013): 1-29

Sean Reardon & Ann Owens, “60 years after Brown: Trends and Consequences of School Segregation,” Annual Review of Sociology, 40 (2014)

Heather Schwartz, Housing Policy is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland. (New York: The Century Foundation, 2010)

Amy Stuart Wells, Bianca J. Baldridge, Jacquelyn Duran, Courtney Grzesikowski, Richard Lofton, Allison Roda, Miya Warner & Terenda White, Boundary Crossing for Diversity, Equity, and Achievement. (Cambridge: Charles Hamilton Houston Inst. for Race and Justice, 2009)

Amy Stuart Wells, Jennifer Jellison Holme, Anita Revilla & Awo Korantemaa Atanda, Both Sides Now: The Story of Desegregation’s Graduates (Berkeley: The Univ. of California Press, 2009)

Amy Stuart Wells & Robert L. Crain, Steppin’ Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools. (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1999)

Kara S. Finnigan is Associate Prof. of Education Policy at the Univ. of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.
Jennifer Jellison Holme is Associate Prof. of Educational Policy and Planning in the Dept. of Educational Administration at UT-Austin.

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