By John Brittain, Larkin Willis, Peter W. Cookson, Jr., & Michael Alves (click here for the PDF)
“Despite a growing awareness of the problems facing urban communities, there is a lack of a broader framework or clear policy approach to address the underlying regional dynamics that drive segregation, concentrated poverty, and racial isolation. Broader approaches must include multiple school districts across a region, and integrate or align educational policy with housing, transit, economic development, and health.”
— Jennifer Jellison Holme and Kara S. Finnigan, Striving in Common:
A Regional Equity Framework for Urban Schools
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that it is unconstitutional to establish and maintain “separate but equal schools,” cities, states, and regions have experimented with a suite of racial integration policies and attendance strategies designed to integrate public schools. Most racial and ethnic segregation in American public schools occurs between, not within, school districts. (Clotfelter, 2004). This finding leads us to consider potential desegregation opportunities through regional interdistrict racial integration and fiscal equity plans (Holme & Finnigan, 2018). What if student attendance policies and school finance policies were not confined to individual school districts but were thought of as crossing and uniting districts in a region? What if districts were to share resources and collaborate to create a system of desegregated public schools designed to meet the needs of racially diverse students and families? What if state policies supported regional integration plans and provided resources to ensure successful implementation? What if housing policies and school policies were aligned and supported integration instead of segregation? Interdistrict desegregation plans have three common features (Brittain et al., 2019):
• Plans are founded on voluntary cooperation.
• Because segregation is strongly associated with concentrated poverty and a lack of adequate resources within schools, successful interdistrict plans require regions to coordinate the movement of resources, as well as of students, across school boundaries.
• Regional plans take local context into consideration; no two plans can be exactly alike. The goals and context determine what kind of approach can succeed.
This article draws on two examples of regional interdistrict desegregation plans—Hartford, Connecticut, and Omaha, Nebraska—to illuminate and compare how interdistrict desegregation plans have been designed, financed, and implemented.
A major civil rights case, Sheff v. O’Neill, established that de facto segregation between Hartford and suburban districts violated the education and equal protection clauses of the state constitution. The voluntary settlement, reached in 2003, set a 4-year timeline to meet the goal of placing 30% of Hartford students of color in “reduced isolation” settings, defined as schools in which “minorities” constitute less than three-fourths of the student body (Sheff v. O’Neill, Stipulation and Order, 2003). In service of this goal, the Sheff reforms encouraged two-way transfers into and out of schools in Hartford and the surrounding area districts. The Open Choice program allows Hartford students to enroll in schools in the surrounding suburbs, and a set of regional magnet schools incentivizes both urban and suburban families to cross district lines.
Schools in Hartford have made progress toward achieving reduced-isolation settings as a result of the interdistrict transfer program, which uses a lottery system to randomly select Hartford and suburban applicants for placement (Capitol Region Education Council, n.d.). Data from the 2012–13 school year show that enrollments in magnet schools in the Greater Hartford region were more equally distributed across racial groups than statewide enrollments, with Black, White, and Hispanic students each comprising roughly one-third of the overall magnet enrollment (Ellsworth, 2013). A report by the Civil Rights Project demonstrated that, for that same year, rates of exposure to students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds were higher in magnet schools than in non-magnet schools in the city and suburbs (Orfield & Ee 2015).
In 2015, the Connecticut Department of Education reported that more than 9,000 students were enrolled in reduced-isolation settings, with interdistrict magnet schools serving 6,564 students and Open Choice programs serving roughly 2,000 students (Connecticut Department of Education, 2015). Updated enrollment data from October 2015 show that nearly half (45.5%) of Hartford-resident pre-k–12 students of color were enrolled in reduced-isolation settings within or beyond the district borders (Connecticut Department of Education, 2015).
The Connecticut Department of Education commissioned the development of a new Controlled Choice “multifaceted” socioeconomic interdistrict student assignment plan in August 2018 that was approved by the state court in 2020. The plan was based on a 6-month diagnostic review of the efficacy of the race-conscious procedures and processes that were being used to accept or reject Hartford and suburban students into magnet schools in the Sheff regions. The review resulted in the formulation and extensive beta testing of a multifaceted socioeconomic controlled choice assignment methodology that categorized the magnet applicants into three socioeconomic tiers: low, medium, and high. The three SES tiers were based on a combination of the demographic characteristics, each applicant’s home address, U.S. Census “block group,” and applicant’s parents’ self-reported highest educational attainment level. As demonstrated by a series of beta tests or simulations, the new Controlled Choice SES plan worked to achieve the racial desegregation goals of Sheff without admitting or rejecting students based on their race.
As a result of the new school assignment plan and other remedies, the plaintiffs and the State of Connecticut agreed to a landmark settlement of the Sheff case in January 2020. A lawsuit filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which challenged certain race-focused elements of the lottery system for magnet schools in the Hartford region, was voluntarily withdrawn and dismissed by the court. The new Sheff plan based upon the three socioeconomic tiers made the alleged racial claims moot.
A 2009 study explored the relationship between attending the less racially and economically isolated interdistrict magnet schools and academic achievement. Using pretreatment scores and random lottery assignment to eliminate selection bias, the study found that attending an interdistrict magnet high school had positive effects on both the mathematics and reading achievements of central city Hartford students (Bifulco et al., 2009).
These early findings are corroborated by the 2013 achievement data from the Capitol Region Education Council, which operates 23 Hartford area magnet schools, demonstrating improved scores for all student groups on state mastery and performance tests, as well as smaller achievement gaps between racial groups as compared to state averages (Ellsworth, 2013).
Omaha’s experiment with interdistrict student assignment plans represents another community’s concerted effort to provide all students in a metropolitan region with a quality education. In January 2006, State Senator Ronald Raikes introduced legislation that proposed three major changes to promote more equitable public education in the region: regional governance, tax-base sharing, and resource redistribution, and a socioeconomic diversity plan (Eaton, 2001,2013). The “Raikes Plan” established a regional governance system for the 11 Omaha metro-area districts—the Learning Community Coordinating Council (LCCC)—and granted it authority to distribute a common levy (NE LB 1154 § 2 2008). The legislation also included a two-part economic “diversity plan” that tasked the LCCC with creating Elementary Learning Centers to support high-poverty districts and establishing a choice-based school mobility program to deconcentrate high-poverty schools (Holme, et al. 2009).
Under the Raikes Plan, transportation costs were covered for students who contributed to the diversity of their school. The state supplied funding for districts to establish “focus programs, focus schools, or magnet schools pursuant to the diversity plan.” By the 2012–13 school year, there were 19 magnet schools in Omaha Public Schools offering priority enrollment to students receiving free and reduced-price school meals (FRL). Of the 15,231 students enrolled in magnet schools that year, the majority (72%) received FRL. In addition, overall participation in the Open Enrollment program expanded from 4,334 students in 2011–12 to 7,826 students in 2016–17, 40% of whom qualified for FRL. Approximately 35% of the Open Enrollment students were enrolled in schools that followed the intention of the diversity plan (Brittain et al., 2019). However, in 2016, Nebraska lawmakers rewrote the transfer law and reinstated the older Option Enrollment program, which encourages diversity but provides transportation to fewer students (only those who are eligible for FRL) and has stimulated far fewer transfers (Dejka, 2017).
Three years of LCCC evaluations compared the performance of Open Enrollment students on third to eighth-grade reading and mathematics assessments to their resident counterparts. In low-poverty schools, FRL-eligible Open Enrollment students scored dramatically higher than peers in high-poverty schools in both reading and mathematics in all tested grades (Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, 2014). In schools with less than 44% of students eligible for FRL, Open Enrollment students scored dramatically higher than students in FRL schools in both reading and mathematics in all tested grades (Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, 2014).
Lessons for Policymakers
These cases offer educators, policymakers, and the public valuable lessons in developing regional desegregation and fiscal equity plans. To promote and support racial desegregation, particularly as we consider how to move past traditional plans and incorporate cross-sector policy solutions, these case studies suggest that policymakers take the following steps.
Secure a metropolitan-wide agreement. Successful desegregation plans require the collaboration of urban and suburban districts in a comprehensive regional policy that creates opportunities for genuine cross-school and cross-district collaboration and financial incentives to help receiving schools cover the cost of student transfers. The case studies described above underscore the importance of state leadership in regional planning in terms of policy framing, finance, and political consensus building. Cross-district agreements need to identify housing inequities and build in housing/school planning and incentives to ensure they promote integration and equal access to high-quality educational opportunities. These agreements are more likely to be sustained if states take an active role in supporting them.
Establish a clear vision for educational equity. To anchor collaborative work for advancing racial and socioeconomic equity, state policymakers, educators, and communities need a collective understanding of what equity means in their state and region. This vision includes several components: goals for achieving both greater diversity and greater educational quality and equity for targeted student groups in the region; a measurable definition of and a means to reduce “racial isolation” at the school and classroom levels; goals and benchmarks for greater diversity; and a recognition that without aligning housing and school policies that promote integration educational equity is likely to fail.
Sustain efforts with equitable resources. Equitable and adequate resources are needed to sustain desegregation plans. For example, with regionally based finance reform, additional funds can be allocated to the schools and students who will benefit most. Investment in regional magnet programs, capital improvements, and teacher professional development will raise the quality of schooling options available in all districts. State and regional affirmative marketing campaigns can build strong and accessible systems of public information around schooling options. Services for transfer students and families might include transportation, school counseling, and family liaisons.
Create a strong evaluation and data plan. Data monitoring allows practitioners and policymakers to test, evaluate, and adapt interdistrict plans to serve all students best. A strong state and regional data plan includes specific criteria for determining racial isolation or segregation and targets for reducing these conditions. It monitors these goals by tracking and understanding multiple measures of student success and disaggregating all data across student groups. It ensures that data collected are visible in the community, with opportunities to incorporate stakeholder feedback seriously and in a timely manner. In addition, data plans need to include up-to-date information about housing trends, affordability, and fair access to ensure school segregation is not divorced from housing segregation.
Ensure housing and school policies reinforce equitable access and promote integration. To create the conditions where racially exclusionary housing and educational policies are at last abandoned, it is essential to view state-supported fair housing policy and access to high-quality educational opportunities as inseparable. To overlook the close connection between housing and schooling undermines the opportunities for creating integrated communities and schools.
Experience shows that regional, state, and local policymakers interested in advancing equity through interdistrict desegregation plans must persistently engage in ongoing problem-solving. Progress requires an authentic commitment to equitable outcomes that responds to inevitable roadblocks with continued effort. ▀
John C. Brittain (email@example.com) is a tenured professor at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. He writes and litigates on issues in civil and human rights, especially in education law.
Larkin Willis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Research and Policy Associate at the Learning Policy Institute.
Peter W. Cookson, Jr. (email@example.com) is a Senior Researcher at the Learning Policy Institute.
Michael Alves (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an educational planner and President of the Alves Educational Consultants Group, Ltd. He currently serves as a desegregation expert for the Connecticut Department of Education.
Bifulco, R., Cobb, C. D., & Bell, C. (2009). Can interdistrict choice boost student achievement? The case of Connecticut’s interdistrict magnet school program. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(4), 323–345. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25621589
Brittain, J., Willis, L., & Cookson, P. W., Jr. (2019). Sharing the wealth: How regional finance and desegregation plans can enhance educational equity. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/sharing-wealth-regional-finance-desegregation-plans-report
Capitol Region Education Council. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions. Hartford, CT: Author. http://www.crec.org/about/docs/press/CREC_FAQ.pdf
Clotfelter, C. T. (2004). After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Connecticut Department of Education. (2015). Summary of Hartford-resident minority students enrolled in reduced-isolation settings (PK–12). Hartford, CT: Author. https://assets.documentcloud.org/
Dejka, J. (2017, September 29). Fewer students transfer between school districts under the ‘option enrollment’ system. Omaha World-Herald. http://www.omaha.com/news/education/fewer-students-transfer-between-school-districts-under-option-enrollment-system/article_6127f998-7cdf-54bc-b198-3e9df51e1980.html
Eaton, S. (2001). The Other Busing Story: What’s Won and Lost Across the Boundary Line. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Eaton, S. (2013). Upstream People: Can Nebraska Show a Separate, Unequal Nation a Better Way? One Nation Indivisible. https://www.onenationindivisible.org/our-story/upstream-people-can-nebraska-show-a-separate-unequal-nation-a-better-way/
Ellsworth, S. S. (2013). CREC student achievement overview. Hartford, CT: Capitol Region Education Council. http://sheffmovement.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/CREC-Student-Achievement-Overview-2013.pdf.
Holme, J. J., & Finnigan, K. S. (2018). Striving in Common: A Regional Equity Framework for Urban Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Holme, J. J., Diem, S., & Mansfield, K. C. (2009). Using regional coalitions to address socioeconomic isolation: A case study of the Omaha Metropolitan Agreement. Cambridge, MA: Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, Harvard Law School; NE LB 1154 § 5 (2008). https://charleshamiltonhouston.org/research/using-regional-coalitions-to-address-socioeconomic-isolation-a-case-study-of-the-omaha-metropolitan-agreement/
Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. (2014). 2012–2013 annual evaluation report. Omaha, NE: Author. https://learningcommunityds.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/EducareOmaha2012-13EvalReport.pdf
Orfield, G., & Ee, J. (2015). Connecticut school integration: Moving forward as the Northeast retreats. Los Angeles, CA: Civil Rights Project. https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/connecticut-school-integration-moving-forward-as-the-northeast-retreats
NE LB 1154 § 2 (2008). https://nebraskalegislature.gov/FloorDocs/100/PDF/Slip/LB1154.pdf
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