At first glance, the charter school movement might look to be a modern-day model for racial diversity. Our first African-American president praised innovative charter schools before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Korean-American Michelle Rhee — noted charter school champion and chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s predominantly black public schools — brashly posed on the cover of Time with a broom in front of a chalkboard and the forceful headline "How to Fix America's Schools."
The hard evidence, though, reveals that whatever else charter schools have accomplished, they haven't alleviated school segregation. Earlier this year, a study from UCLA's Civil Rights Project found that American charter schools are even more racially segregated than traditional public schools. Some 70 percent of black students who attend charter schools attend "intensely segregated" schools — that is, schools with a nonwhite population greater than 90 percent. The study revealed that, in fact, education reformers who tout charter schools have actually moved away from enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education. In doing so, they ignore research dating back to the 1960s showing that black and low-income students benefit from being educated in an environment that includes students of varying race and socioeconomic backgrounds.
"Kids who are in integrated schools are much more likely to graduate, much more likely to go to college and more likely to feel comfortable working in an interracial world," explains Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota Institute on Race and Poverty. "No one disputes these findings."
Just the same, the focus from President Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan — former head of Chicago Public Schools — and other urban education leaders is on accountable teachers and schools. There are reasons for that focus, including school integration's fraught history and sensitive nature, as well as a Supreme Court decision that limits race-based school admissions policies. But for whatever reason, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of several books on education and civil rights, "the whole question of school integration has been off the radar screen in Washington."
Some school districts, however, have not given up on integration as a pathway to improved education. Since 2001, the Minneapolis Public Schools and surrounding suburban school districts have taken part in the voluntary "Choice is Yours" program, in which the government pays to bus low-income Minneapolis students to suburban schools. This mixing of urban and suburban students appears to have produced some positive educational results. It might even provide a way to catapult school integration back into the national education debate.
Choice is Yours sprang from a 2000 settlement of a five-year legal battle between the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP and the state of Minnesota. In 1995, the Minneapolis NAACP filed what it called an "old fashioned" lawsuit that claimed Minnesota was violating an early 1970s court order to desegregate its public schools. A radical change in city demographics was taking place — in the early 1970s, Minneapolis was just 14 percent nonwhite, but by 1995 the Minneapolis Public Schools student body was majority minority. The city was also becoming increasingly poor. So the NAACP argued that in order to prevent low-income, minority kids from being concentrated in a few inner-city schools, Minnesota ought to allow these students to attend the school, and school district, they wanted — with the state footing the transportation costs. This would mean busing poor, black students to schools in affluent, mostly white suburbs like Edina.
The mid-'90s, though, was a terrible political moment to call for more busing. The conservative politics that had swept up Washington with Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" were infiltrating school boards across the country that wanted court-ordered desegregation ended. Even in liberal Minneapolis, a 1995 public opinion poll showed that 75 percent of the public supported sending students to their neighborhood school — that is, the school nearest to where they live — regardless of that school's racial balance. In a 1995 interview, NAACP Minneapolis President Bill Davis admitted that his organization was "swimming against the tide."
In that context, the settlement that created Choice is Yours was surprisingly favorable to the NAACP. The group's attorney, John Shulman, hailed the agreement as a "huge change, a radical departure from business as usual." Choice is Yours would use a federal grant and state cash to bus low-income city students who want to attend one of the eight participating suburban school districts. The agreement took advantage of the fact that Minnesota is one of the few states with an open enrollment policy — meaning students can attend a public school outside their district. The Minneapolis NAACP figured that because the vast majority of the low-income students were black or Latino, class would, in effect, act as a proxy for race. So far, this has been mostly true. Around 6,000 students participated in Choice is Yours between the 2001-02 and 2007-08 academic years; 66 percent of these students were black, 16 percent were white and 9 percent were Hispanic.
A study released in November by Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice took a look at eight major inter-district integration programs across the country and concluded that Choice is Yours had "perhaps the most impressive system of outreach for students and families crossing school district boundaries — as well as racial, social-class and cultural boundaries."
The study's authors — a group of academics in favor of more robust school integration policies — came away impressed with the state's information campaigns in the largely black neighborhoods of north Minneapolis. The data, though, suggest that outreach is less effective in Hispanic neighborhoods.
How do Choice is Yours students fare once they're in the suburban schools?
The record is generally positive, but mixed. "The glass is a little bit more than half full," says Neil Kraus, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls who has written on Choice is Yours. After the 2004-05 school year, Choice is Yours looked like it could do no wrong — the math and reading scores of program participants were much higher than low-income students who chose not to be bused to the suburbs. Over the next two years, though, the achievement gap between the bused students and their peers in urban schools became less pronounced. Duane Reed, the current president of the Minneapolis NAACP, even denounced the program as "not working" in 2008, leading to a rebuttal from the former director of school of choice programs, Morgan Brown (now assistant education commissioner to Arne Duncan in D.C.), that the program is doing what it's supposed to do, "providing equal access" to school options.
In 2007-08, Choice is Yours test scores rebounded, particularly for elementary students. Aspen Associates, a consulting firm based in Edina, has commissioned comprehensive yearly reports on the program for the Minnesota board of education. In the latest study, lead author Elizabeth Palmer concluded that Choice students were doing better on math and reading tests compared to low-income students who weren't bused.
For now, Choice is Yours is one of several "choices" provided to Minneapolis students; the others are charter schools, magnet schools and inter-district magnet schools. Each of these programs serves a limited number of kids; the Choice is Yours 2007-08 enrollment is 2,000, a fraction of Minneapolis's low-income student population. When I asked Glory Kibbel, the head of the School Improvement Division of the Minnesota Department of Education, about expanding Choice is Yours, she resisted differentiating the program from other options. "The goal is to move students from low-performing schools to high-performing schools — and if that meant expanding Choice is Yours to 10,000 students, that would be fine," she says. "It gives students another choice. Charter schools give students another choice." This philosophy was crystallized by Joe Nathan, director for the Center of School Change at Macalester College in St. Paul. "School reform is like a toolkit," Nathan argues. "No one strategy is going to get us where we need to be."
There are, however, compelling reasons why Choice is Yours could be a model for integrating schools. The Harvard Law School study found that these types of programs in eight cities — ranging from Boston to St. Louis to Palo Alto, Calif. — accomplished the immediate goal of integration. The majority of the programs also narrowed the achievement gap between races and socioeconomic groups. "The programs clearly offer some of the most hopeful models for the future of U.S. education policy," the study concluded. "Unfortunately, these programs are currently politically and legally fragile."
That even pro-integration academics tiptoe around issues of feasibility shows the success of their political and legal foes from the mid-1990s to the present. But are these political and legal hurdles really that hard to overcome? Let's deal with the legal issue first: Choice is Yours is actually not legally fragile because it is the only one of the eight studied programs that uses socioeconomics, rather than race, as a criterion. As a result, Choice is Yours doesn't appear vulnerable to legal challenge in the wake of the 2007 Supreme Court case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District. In that case, the court ruled that Seattle could not use race as a tiebreaker in school admissions — a decision that has jolted school boards across the country, casting constitutional doubt on any admissions policy that involves race. "If challenged, these other programs are likely to be struck down as unconstitutional," the Century Foundation's Kahlenberg says. "In that sense, the Minnesota program is ahead of the curve."
Where Minnesota is also ahead of the curve legally is in its ability to move students in segregated, inner-city schools to the suburbs through an open enrollment policy. This sets Minneapolis apart from other cities with high concentrations of minority and low-income students. For example, education reformer Joel Klein heads the New York City schools, which have 74 percent low-income and 63 percent minority students. Michelle Rhee heads a Washington, D.C., public school system that has 63 percent low-income and 94 percent minority students. The public school student body in Chicago is 85 percent low-income and 92 percent minority.
These schools — be they neighborhood, charter or magnet — must be filled with minority students, low-income students, or, typically, both. There are simply too few white students to go around.
Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer Ron Huberman was recently challenged about this demographic dilemma during a school board meeting at which Chicago was unveiling its own new school admissions policy. The antithesis of the gruff, mustachioed Chicago pol, the smooth Huberman follows both stylistically and substantively in the footsteps of his predecessor, Arne Duncan. Huberman calmly responded that Chicago schools — following policies that he and his predecessor had laid down — would make all schools excellent by pouring money into charter schools, teacher recruitment and evaluation, and by shutting down low-performance schools. In fact, Huberman said, the plan is that Chicago would make its schools so good that they will attract white and affluent students — luring them from private schools and suburbs.
As he recited it, Huberman's plan almost began to make sense, but the demographic reality is that it's practically impossible to integrate the Chicago public schools — or similarly constituted urban school districts — one white convert at a time. "Segregated school attendance patterns ultimately mirror residential patterns that are highly segregated," says Sean Reardon, an education professor at Stanford University. Reardon argues that urban-suburban district integration programs are important in enabling public schools to draw their student body from a more diverse set of communities.
That brings us to the matter of political viability: Is it possible for Minneapolis to ratchet up the Choice is Yours program to serve more students and for other cities to adopt similar programs that feature urban-suburban busing? Kahlenberg believes it is, stressing that busing programs of today are voluntary.
Reardon says: "The inter-district desegregation plans in communities like Boston and Palo Alto have had a lot of public support. In several cases when there've been proposals to do away with those plans, community members have fought to save them."
But voluntary busing eventually runs into a problem: If you take low-income students out of their neighborhood school, what happens to that school? Here, the people I spoke with offered the partial solution of more city magnet schools that bring students from the suburbs. Kahlenberg cites the Hartford, Conn., school system, which has successfully used magnets to bring white students into the inner city. Minneapolis has an inter-district magnet school program but has yet to aggressively recruit suburban kids into the city.
An ambitious next step after inter-district programs and magnet schools — indeed, what some see as the logical endpoint of these programs — is, in essence, doing what the NAACP wanted when it sued Minnesota 15 years ago: the combination of urban and suburban school districts into the "mega-district."
To be sure, such a redrawing of district lines would constitute a radical change — and be accompanied by a political firestorm — in many metropolitan areas. But in some places, districts have already been combined. In Wake County, N.C., which includes Raleigh, and Jefferson County, Ky., which includes Louisville, district lines have been drawn to include both urban and suburban students. Both districts have received national praise for using class as a basis for integration. "It's very encouraging how those counties have minimized high-poverty schools," Wisconsin scholar Kraus says.
For now, these combined urban-suburban districts are on the margins nationally. But the same could have once been said of charter schools and voluntary busing programs that do not require redrawn district lines. If the current education reforms of the Obama administration prove unsatisfactory, there are new programs waiting in the wings. What's more, these programs tackle school desegregation, the largely unremarked elephant standing in front of any policy that aims to improve the educational performance of low-income and minority students.