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"Regional School Desegregation and the School-Housing Relationship,"

by Genevieve Siegel-Hawley July-September 2016 issue of Poverty & Race

Last August, about nine minutes apart, North Carolina’s two premiere newspapers published editorials with a remarkably similar message. It boiled down to this: school officials in Raleigh and Charlotte, districts that once gained national recognition for path-breaking regional school desegregation plans, need to revisit and reinvigorate those efforts—even as they must expand to incorporate inclusive housing policy.

The Raleigh News and Observer’s editorial board wrote:
In the 1970s, leaders with vision saw the moral rightness, the educational value and the economic power of a racially and economically balanced school system. They led the merger of the mostly white county school system with a city school system marked by many overwhelmingly black schools. The result was a well-funded school system in which all the county had a stake… The hour has arrived for Wake County to have a hard and honest conversation with itself. Does it want to be distinctive in the diversity and broad success of its schools? Or will it go with the tide, let segregation return and accept that some Wake schools are excellent and many are so burdened by poverty that the culture of learning devolves into a daily scramble to cope? This is not a conversation for the school board alone…it must have the help of other local elected officials in addressing the housing patterns and transportation issues that are cleaving the county school system into two worlds (Editorial Board, 2015).
And from Rev. John Cleghorn, in the Charlotte Observer:
Once a national model for school integration, Charlotte schools have regressed perhaps more than any other major city in the U.S…The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education is working on a new student assignment plan, an effort that will last well into 2016. Solutions aren’t easy or obvious. They will need funding and support for high quality choices for all, inclusive housing policy and courageous, sustained civic leadership across all our county’s municipalities and elected bodies (Commentary: An Elephant Our City Needs To Talk About, 2015).
These forceful assertions are based on growing evidence that: 1) regional, or city-suburban, school desegregation is the most meaningful and stable way to address the geographic scope of segregation; and 2) housing policy can be school policy—and vice versa. On some level, both of these arguments are intuitive. People generally understand that that the lines separating one school district from another also tend to separate children along racial and economic lines, so it follows that a district covering a larger part of a region would bridge those divides. People also understand, often from personal experience, that school decisions factor into family housing choices. Numerous real estate practices are geared toward providing prospective buyers with racialized information about local schools. Any recent familiarity with smartphone applications like Zillow or Trulia illustrates this relationship. Site users can easily maneuver between home information and value, school attendance boundaries, the racial and economic makeup of the assigned school and test scores—and make decisions accordingly. The human element also bolsters this information. According to a 2006 report on real estate sales from the National Fair Housing Alliance, 87 percent of testers were steered into specific neighborhoods, with agents using the racial makeup of school districts as a proxy for neighborhood demographics. Because providing direct information about the racial composition of a neighborhood is illegal, housing agents discuss school demographics or quality (which is often conflated with racial composition or test scores) with prospective buyers. Yet most of us take these two major contributors to segregation—district boundary lines and the school-housing relationship—as a given, without looking closely at what happens when law or policy helps to overcome them. One reason for our offhanded assumptions: law and policy have often worked in the opposite direction from integration, hardening district boundaries and hailing the school-housing relationship as a product of individual choices rather than as a complicated interplay between public and private actions.

In 1974, a newly conservative Supreme Court handed down Milliken v. Bradley, a decision that made it very difficult—though not impossible—to overcome the boundaries dividing city and suburban school systems through court-ordered desegregation remedies. Throwing out the

careful reasoning of the lower courts, along with extensive evidence pointing toward the culpability of an array of state and local actors in fostering residential and school segregation across the Detroit metropolitan area, the Court splintered along ideological lines. A bare majority of justices agreed to shield Detroit’s white suburbs from the mandatory school desegregation, and accompanying dismantling of the social order, that they ordered in the predominately Black central city.

More than 40 years later, Milliken’s bitter limitations on the scope and meaning of school communities are still with us. The stakes are rising. Educational inequality and segregation are intensifying at the same time that racial diversity in our public schools is blossoming. Separating students of different racial and economic backgrounds is damaging for everyone. It cleaves the interests and resources of families who, by dint of our long history of racial discrimination, have wildly unequal access to political power and social capital. Communities fragment, and children in middle-class, predominately-white schools benefit from more stability and additional human and material resources than children in high-poverty, minority-segregated schools—the very children who need more, not less. This yields uneven outcomes for our rising racial majority, which damages the economic vitality of the nation’s workforce.

When we do bring children together in schools, especially in ways that attend carefully to equity, cooperation and inclusion, powerful possibilities occur for learning writ large. Back in Charlotte, the words of James Ford, recent teacher of the year, and a Black graduate of an integrated arts magnet program in another state, offer a glimpse of what school integration can foster:
In [my creative performing arts high school] space, I was allowed to be me— to rap, to dance, to joke, to have fun without being seen as different by my peers. I imagine this is what integration is supposed to feel like. Today, I consider my educational environment and the relationships born from it part of my wealth. My classmates helped to shape my being, by doing nothing more than being themselves. It was a cultural exchange. I didn’t have to bend or shapeshift when I was around them. Because of my schooling, there is rarely a space in which I feel out of place, even when others try desperately to put me there (Ford, 2016).
Another perspective, from a white graduate of Raleigh-Wake County’s school system under the former voluntary integration plan, makes the case for why affluent families should seek out diverse schools:
I graduated among the top of my class. I got into every college I applied to and was offered several scholarships. I was more than well prepared for college, and continued to receive grants and scholarships once I was there. I exhibit my artwork and publish my writing. To top it all off, I have my dream job…To make a long story short, I think I turned out pretty good. I know for certain that as a student in integrated schools, I learned lessons much more important than any content found on a test (Meeks, 2016).
In the long shadow cast by Milliken, these two testimonies were made possible by advocacy, law, and policy actively geared toward allowing students from all walks of life to learn alongside one another. To think about how we might create and expand more opportunities for integrated schooling today, we need to take a closer look at the places that overcame Milliken’s limitations.

Four southern communities with differing approaches to regional school desegregation provide a contemporary, comparative illustration of the dynamics at work when cities and suburbs join together to confront school segregation. As it happens, Charlotte is one of them. Raleigh is not—when the study took place there was so much upheaval in the desegregation plan it would have been impossible to see a clear trend. The other three places are Louisville, Kentucky; Richmond, Virginia; and Chattanooga, Tennessee. All four are roughly similar in size and demographic makeup, with a shared history of de jure segregation. Yet all diverge along key dimensions. While all considered a regional pursuit of school desegregation, only Charlotte, Louisville and Chattanooga actually engaged with it. The Richmond area, like Detroit, came to characterize the more typical metropolitan landscape after higher courts rejected a consolidation plan, leaving the urban school division distinct from its two surrounding suburban counterparts. The other three metros represent a range of impetuses for city-suburban mergers across different time periods. In Louisville, a 1975 court-ordered merger took place for the purpose of school desegregation. In Charlotte and Chattanooga, state laws around annexation and school district governance helped promote consolidations in 1959 and 1997, respectively, with desegregation as one factor among several motivating the mergers. Likewise, school desegregation policy in the four communities unfolded, evolved, and, in the case of Charlotte and Richmond, ended, in distinct ways.

The basic story of these four metros is that efforts to eliminate the walls between city and suburban school districts, especially when they are accompanied by strong desegregation policy, bear important fruits. Regional school desegregation works by defining community broadly and spreading opportunity across it. It overcomes district boundary lines and brings together students from various corners of a region, which in turn brings together the interests and resources of many different families and stakeholders. Critically, evidence—from this study and elsewhere—indicates that the plans lead to stably desegregated school systems after a year or two, and help decouple school and housing choices in dramatic fashion. Families understand that they can move to any community across a broad expanse of the metro and still be linked to schools that are roughly similar in demographic makeup and quality. Case in point: the Louisville area’s regional approach to school desegregation was connected to far faster decreases in housing segregation between Blacks and whites than the nonconsolidated Richmond area where desegregation was limited to the central city. Even when school and housing choices remain largely entangled, as with Chattanooga’s more recent city-suburban merger that occurred alongside a modest school desegregation policy, swift progress on residential and school segregation was evident.

Two of the four metros also displayed a rare—if short lived—commitment to explicitly linking school and housing desegregation efforts. Louisville incentivized integrating housing choices by offering exemptions from the transportation required to desegregate schools. Charlotte, on the other hand, tried to ensure that public housing was distributed in a way that would foster school desegregation, rather than exacerbate segregation. While those efforts were not maintained, they offer a reminder that it is powerfully possible to coordinate school and housing policy to promote integration.

At the same time, the successful example of city-suburban desegregation in Charlotte eventually came to represent the challenges of sustaining support for the policy in a nationally hostile political and legal climate. After court-ordered desegregation was lifted, the once-friendly business community, worried that turmoil would detract from Charlotte’s desirability, turned against pursuing a voluntary policy. Those actions turned out to be shortsighted. Evidence from the years since regional school desegregation ended tells an unforgiving story of resegregation and diminished opportunity for Charlotte’s schoolchildren. As underscored by the recent editorial, however, the Charlotte community recently began to revisit issues of student assignment and diversity.

In Richmond, after the higher courts rejected a much-needed metropolitan remedy for discrimination in the former capital of the Confederacy, the failure to erase the lines separating the predominantly Black urban school system from its white suburban ones accelerated an existing pattern of white and middle-class flight. Today, evidence of that earlier default on the vision of Brown can be seen on a much larger scale. Schools in the city of Richmond remain heavily segregated by race and class; the two overwhelmingly white suburban school systems originally slated for consolidation are coping with rapid increases in student poverty and have either reached or are close to reaching majority minority status; and Richmond’s outer exurbs are experiencing significant white population growth.

Though many places around the country have taken Richmond’s path, doing little or nothing to advance regional cooperation around educational equity, an opportunity to reignite such efforts now presents itself. Linking the current regional agenda, which emphasizes fair housing policies, inclusionary zoning, accessible transportation, reinvestment in closer-in communities, limits to sprawl, and revenue sharing across the metropolitan landscape, among other crucial issues, to education represents an absolutely critical way forward.

It is easy to see how existing components of the regional agenda lend themselves to supporting the goal of spreading equal educational opportunity across broadly defined communities. Opportunity-based housing policies and enforcement of fair housing laws offer a critical long-term path to inclusive communities and schools.

Accessible regional public transportation systems would make it easier—and less expensive—for students to get to metropolitan schools. Land use policy limiting the sprawl that makes it more difficult for students to come together is just good sense. And a strong regional jobs training program can help foster social mobility for residents who have aged out of the K–12 public education system. Yet despite the obvious benefits that these policies would have for promoting equity and opportunity, a regional vision for K–12 schooling is still imperative. Public schools in our metropolitan areas reach the overwhelming majority of the next generation of Americans. Strong systems of public education prepare students for tomorrow’s economy and offer an important path to greater mobility. Weak systems of education represent dead ends and stunted growth.

In many instances, early efforts in Charlotte and Louisville notwithstanding, school desegregation policy bore the full weight of responsibility for interrupting underlying patterns of residential isolation. Given the lack of examples, it is perhaps difficult to comprehend the power of a joint school and housing desegregation strategy. Yet there are a number of well-researched policies in both spheres that can promote such a strategy. Lessons from Charlotte and Louisville, along with a small handful of other places, suggest that voluntary school integration plans should offer transportation exemptions for families making integrative moves, in addition to providing exceptions for students living in stable, diverse communities. These school plans would require an awareness of underlying demographic trends and be developed in collaboration with housing officials.

Desegregative school policies should be accompanied by desegregative housing policies. On the housing side, subsidized efforts to provide housing for low-income families should be guided by school considerations. Scattered site housing proposals and planning for new mixed- income communities must prioritize proximity to high- opportunity schools that offer a realistic path to higher education. Likewise, Section 8 housing choice vouchers and the Low Income Housing Tax Credits should be disbursed to promote affordable housing in high-opportunity areas—attached to high-opportunity schools—throughout a region. Such actions would represent a marked departure from the segregation these low-income housing subsidies have traditionally reinforced. All new developments in metropolitan areas also should be required to provide a certain percentage of affordable housing to low-income families.

Within metropolitan communities, there is a basic need for expertise in the areas of housing and schools to flow across districts and agencies. Local housing programs develop and shift—as do student assignment plans and building and rezoning decisions—with little knowledge or discussion about the two related processes within the different sectors. And community planning and development often occurs without input from school systems that need to consider how resulting changes might impact school capacity. Local governments should position and empower public officials to bridge these gaps. These officials should convene regular, data-driven meetings between regional school and housing stakeholders with an eye toward creating and implementing joint plans for growth, development, and revitalization. In San Francisco, for example, former mayor Gavin Newsom created a special advisor in charge of education and families. She sat on the school board and helped coordinate communication between school and housing officials, keeping them abreast of new housing developments that would present opportunities to create more successful and diverse schools.

San Francisco aside, very few examples of sustained coordination between school and housing officials exist, making it is difficult to know how to proceed. A few more steps in this direction, in a few key places, could help build our knowledge base and offer models for the future.

Such policy ideas are increasingly gaining federal support. Since the publication of those two North Carolina editorials, we have seen a push for cross-agency collaboration across education, housing and transportation diversity and opportunity issues. In June 2015, the U.S. Departments of Education (ED), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Transportation (DOT) partnered to host a listening session for leaders to hear about the benefits of diversity and various ways to promote it. The same day, the three departments issued a “Dear Colleague” letter, nonbinding but representative of the Obama Administration’s opinion, on the importance of working together to tackle unequal access to opportunity across metropolitan areas. The departments specifically identified the community engagement and planning process under the Affirmatively Further Fair Housing rule (AFFH rule) as an avenue to coordinate across the spheres of housing, education and transportation to promote mobility and opportunity.

The largely symbolic but nevertheless significant joint actions came on the heels of individual federal agency efforts to call attention to desegregation. In addition to the AFFH rule last summer, HUD issued a detailed report in May 2015 describing the link between neighborhoods of opportunity and schools of opportunity—and outlining numerous possibilities for strengthening access to high opportunity schools through subsidized housing programs. Meanwhile, the Department of Education has asked applicants for its Investing in Innovation grants to focus squarely on diversity, even as it has requested more funding for magnet schools, a longstanding desegregation strategy, in the 2017 budget. With its Stronger Together proposal, the Obama Administration also requested $120 million in 2017 funding for a new planning and implementation grant focused on promoting voluntary school integration efforts— which can be regional in scope. The funding has since been authorized through a bill introduced by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH). All of this has been accompanied by the increased use of the bully pulpit to underscore how valuable integration is for children. The 2016 election will be pivotal in terms of whether or not we continue this incredibly important, long-needed momentum—in the executive and legislative branches, as well as in the judicial branch.

Federal attention to diversity and opportunity obviously should flow down to state, regional and local levels. Advocates need to be on the lookout for upcoming policy decisions involving the structures that contribute to educational and societal inequality. Conversations about where new schools are built or where older buildings are closed, how school boundaries are drawn and which communities they include or exclude, various ways in which students are assigned to schools and classrooms, changes to or expansion of school accountability or choice policies, where to build and how to distribute low-income housing throughout a region, and how to zone land (e.g., multifamily housing units versus single- family housing units) in existing and developing communities are all central to creating or blocking opportunity. All such decisions should be closely monitored for their impact on racial and economic stratification.

For too long, we have ignored the deeply rooted and complex structures and systems that lock unequal educational opportunity in place. The hopeful turn toward both dialogue and initial action at the local and national levels is based in decades of research documenting the harms of segregation and the benefits of integration—as well as the most effective ways of producing stable, comprehensive integration. We must focus squarely on growing these budding conversations and efforts and support communities who commit to expanding access to high opportunity, diverse schools.

References: Regional School Desegregation

Editorial Board, “In Wake County, A School Crisis and A Choice About Our Direction,” North Carolina: The News & Observer, 2015,

Commentary: “An Elephant Our City Needs To Talk About,” North Carolina: The Charlotte Observer, 2015,

Ford, James E., “What School Segregation Looks Like,” North Carolina: 2016,

Meeks, Katherine, “Why Affluent Parents Should Demand Diverse Schools for Their Children,” New York: The Huffington Post, 2016,

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley is Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership, Virginia Commonwealth University. Portions of this article are excerpted from Siegel-Hawley’s new book, When the Fences Come Down: Twenty-First Century Lessons from Metropolitan School Desegregation.

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