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October 01, 2010

School Integration Efforts After Parents Involved

by Erica Frankenberg, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Adai Tefera

More than three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007) ruling, a 5−4 decision striking down two districts’ voluntarily implemented school integration plans. The Supreme Court decision subsequently threatened many integration efforts across the country. Today, a host of constraints—legal and otherwise—help shape the contours of the post−Parents Involved landscape.

Paradoxically, as school districts grapple with these varied constraints, we know more than ever about the importance of preventing racially segregated schools and the benefits that students—and society—receive from diverse schools. In fact, the Supreme Court, in its 2007 decision, acknowledged this evidence as producing “compelling” reasons for districts to adopt policies to further integration.

We tracked media accounts of school districts’ policies related to diversity, nearly 600 articles in thirty-nine states during the course of one year. Though not an exhaustive review, this article synthesizes major themes in policymaking, beginning with an overview of some of the ways the federal government is influencing districts’ school diversity efforts. We then describe more local developments across the country, as school districts continue to grapple with legal and economic limits on strategies aimed at creating diverse schools.

Federal Role in Desegregation: Enforcement, Oversight, and Incentives

Desegregation Orders and Unitary Status

School districts with court-ordered desegregation plans or negotiated settlements were not directly impacted by the Parents Involved decision. Only once the court declares a district “unitary,” signaling that its system of segregated schools has been fully eradicated, is it subject to the legal restrictions of Parents Involved.

Districts under federal desegregation oversight might decide to (or not to) press ahead for unitary status as they observe the evolution of how unitary districts are affected by the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision. Interestingly, in a switch from the federal government’s position during the Bush administration, the federal government has recently opposed unitary status motions by several districts. One such example is in Decatur, Georgia, where the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) joined the plaintiffs in opposing the district’s petition for unitary status.

On the other hand, during the past year a number of districts were declared unitary, extending a trend that began nearly two decades ago. Many of these districts are located in the South. They include Orange County, Florida; Burlington, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Vermillion Parish, Louisiana; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Crosby Independent School District (ISD), Texas; Galveston, Texas; Ector County ISD, Texas; Memphis-Shelby County, Tennessee; Bertie County, North Carolina; and Little Rock, Arkansas.

A handful of districts have continued to work to comply with prior school desegregation cases. In some places, the courts are granting districts partial unitary status for certain desegregation factors, while requiring continued oversight of others. Other districts are developing post-unitary plans, which they agree to prior to being released from court oversight. Tucson, Arizona, was declared unitary after developing a post-unitary plan that district officials believed would help them continue integration efforts. Plaintiffs question whether the district will continue desegregation efforts without court enforcement.

Voluntary Integration Efforts and the Courts

In addition to districts that are implementing desegregation to comply with remedial court requirements, a handful of school districts have worked to implement policies to comply with legal decisions or to defend their current integration efforts when challenged in court.

In 2009, a new student assignment plan was implemented by Jefferson County (metropolitan Louisville), Kentucky, to comply with the Parents Involved decision. A legal challenge to the plan last year was eventually dropped by the plaintiffs, although a recent lawsuit has challenged the plan under state law. The district engaged in extensive outreach, allowed some students to remain in their previously assigned schools, and educated the community about the new plan and its rationale.

In June 2010, a district court judge ruled in favor of Lower Merion, Pennsylvania’s redistricting efforts. The district argued that race was only one of several factors that the district considered in reassigning a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and therefore complied with Parents Involved. More recently, the Legal Defense Fund and the DOJ filed amici briefs supporting the judge’s final decision to uphold Lower Merion’s use of race in the redistricting process, but finding fault with the judge’s reading of Parents Involved.

Finally, in summer 2009, the California State Supreme Court allowed a lower court decision to stand regarding the legality of Berkeley, California’s voluntary integration plan, ending several years of litigation to defend the race-conscious plan in a state that has banned the use of racial preferences in governmental decision making.

Charter Schools Interfering with Desegregation Efforts

Dangling millions in funding before cash-strapped states, the Obama administration pressed for the expansion of charter schools last year. However, some communities were reluctant to sign on to the recent push for charters, citing potential conflicts with desegregation goals.

Arkansas state law prohibits the approval of charter schools that may delay, hamper, or undermine desegregation efforts in a school district. In the midst of Little Rock and nearby Pulaski County’s unitary status proceedings, several district officials protested the establishment of new charter schools because such action would interfere with efforts to gain unitary status.

Five school districts in Georgia were suing the state and the Georgia Charter Schools Commission over the establishment of charter programs. Several of the school systems filing to block charter programs raised questions about potential conflicts with desegregation mandates. Likewise, in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, the district court recently approved the opening of a charter school in the district, which is still trying to comply with the court’s desegregation order. The charter school will be required to report the composition of students and faculty to ensure compliance with the desegregation efforts.

Office of Civil Rights/Federal Investigations

Traditionally, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has been a major part of the federal government’s efforts to enforce school desegregation. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced in 2010 that he would reinvigorate OCR, which, in recent years, had brought few cases.

Last summer, OCR found that a new charter school in Beaufort, South Carolina, was disproportionately white compared to the surrounding district. Beaufort County has operated under a negotiated settlement with the Department of Education since 1970 and requires OCR approval whenever a new school is opened. To get approval, the charter school offered admission to any nonwhite students on the waiting list, and by 2011−12 needed to have a school enrollment much closer to the district’s composition.

In December 2009, the DOJ filed charges against the Walthall County, Mississippi, school district, which had been operating under a negotiated settlement with the federal government since 1970. The DOJ found that the district permitted student transfers—primarily to white students—which led to racially identifiable schools. The district was largely prohibited from granting transfers and required to implement a random assignment of students to schools.

Federal Incentives for District Integration Efforts

Less-noticed federal funding opportunities from the Obama administration—and with fewer resources—were two competitive grants related to furthering school integration. The first was a program to provide school districts with technical assistance to help devise student assignment policies that complied with Parents Involved. In fall 2009, eleven districts were awarded funding over a two-year period. Orange County, Florida, for example, is using the grant funding to develop a post-unitary plan, while Jefferson County, Kentucky, will augment its efforts to develop a new student assignment plan.

The second federal funding opportunity came with the new Magnet Schools Assistance Program funding cycle. The Obama administration reemphasized reducing racial isolation as a funding priority for grant recipients. To enhance their eligibility, several districts adopted changes in terms of new magnet schools and broader district policy. In Minnesota, a Twin Cities−area district is developing plans for three additional magnet schools. Champaign, Illinois, adopted a voluntary desegregation policy to demonstrate its commitment to integration in the hopes of gaining additional funding to develop magnet programs in three elementary schools.

Community Mobilization

During the past year, communities across the country have raised their voices about school integration. Parents, community groups, activists, and voters mobilized in an effort to preserve, promote, or do away with student assignment plans seeking to achieve diverse schools. Community sentiment ran the gamut from Seattle, Washington, where parents reacted somewhat negatively to a new neighborhood-based assignment plan to Wilmington, Delaware, where members of the black community marched for more local control of schools.

One of the most widely publicized community protests occurred in North Carolina. Last year’s hotly contested school board election in Wake County resulted in the election of four Republican-backed candidates who ran on an antidiversity platform. The new five-person majority swiftly moved to dismantle the district’s longstanding efforts to maintain diverse schools over the vocal opposition of community and civil rights leaders.

After voting to strike down the socioeconomic status−based assignment policy, the school board crafted a plan that prioritizes neighborhood schools. Potential legal challenges to the school board’s neighborhood plan loom large and community outcry continues. Encouragingly, the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce suggested a new assignment plan that seeks to balance the number of high- and low-achieving students at each school. There is some evidence that the school board and community may coalesce around this new plan.

The Continued Impact of the Economic Crisis

Of the hundreds of news articles we examined during the past year, nearly one-third dealt with budget issues faced by school districts. The economic collapse of 2008 led to shrinking state budgets, which in turn forced many school districts to make cuts in transportation to magnet schools and prompted school closures and district consolidation. Cutting programs such as magnet schools and/or limiting transportation may hamper the effectiveness of school integration efforts.

Magnet Schools: Cuts and Closures, but New Possibilities

Magnet schools continue to be the largest set of choice-based schools in the country and are pivotal to many school districts’ efforts to create desegregated, high-quality educational options for students and their families. While research continues to show numerous positive academic benefits for students attending magnets, magnet schools are among districts’ programs threatened by decreasing budgets. Magnet programs sometimes incur additional costs beyond regular schools because of unique offerings or extra transportation expenditures.

Districts such as Arlington, Virginia, and Aldine ISD in Texas debated cutting magnet programs, while Ware County, Georgia, voted to close one of the state’s best magnet programs. These decisions mobilized parents in support of the magnet schools and against the districts’ proposed cuts. In Hartford, Connecticut, two interdistrict magnet schools faced the loss of state desegregation funding because they had too many urban students, which could force the schools to cut programs and/or students.

Seattle, Washington, and Albany, Georgia, are making efforts to open new magnet schools to attract students from across their respective districts by utilizing unique themes. Furthermore, districts in Louisiana and Indiana increased funding for new schools, including new magnets in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana.


Transportation is a key component to racial integration efforts, especially in districts with highly segregated housing patterns. Transportation is especially critical for the success of magnet schools, which are designed to attract students from across a district. Yet, school districts are making cuts to transportation. In what is partly an effort to quell rising transportation costs amid declining budgets, districts have also considered moving away from student assignment plans promoting integration and toward the promotion of neighborhood schools. Neighborhood school policies typically have detrimental effects because of increased levels of school segregation in areas displaying high residential segregation.

The school board in Bibb County, Georgia, tentatively approved a budget for 2011 that ended bus travel for 350 magnet school students, a decision that may disproportionately harm low-income and African-American students and reduce the diversity of magnet school programs. In Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Fairfax, Virginia, school boards considered eliminating transportation for magnet school students and students attending schools outside their attendance zones. Critics suggested that such plans would undo the gains of the last two decades.

The school board in Lee County, Florida, agreed to conduct a study on how to cut transportation costs for students under the district’s school choice plan, in which thousands of students participate. The superintendent has said he won’t reconsider neighborhood schools because they would tear the community apart and could lead to a civil rights lawsuit.


Finally, the most common budget theme during the past year dealt with district consolidation. Proponents of consolidation often argued that it would not only save money, but also streamline district processes to be more efficient. Importantly, consolidated school districts that encompass a larger share of the metro’s student enrollment may have more opportunity to craft stable, diverse schools. Districts under court order must also demonstrate that such efforts will not harm desegregation compliance.

A number of states considered school district consolidation in response to budget deficits, including Michigan, Kansas, and Mississippi. In Tennessee, the Memphis School Board voted to surrender the school system’s charter and consolidate with Shelby County, its neighboring suburban district. The vote was prompted by Shelby County’s decision to seek “special school district status,” effectively preventing future efforts to consolidate the city and suburban school systems and cut the funding Memphis currently receives from the county’s tax base. Shelby County officials are currently looking toward the state legislature to prevent the merger.


The Parents Involved decision reflected a deeply divided Supreme Court, with four justices strongly supporting voluntary integration efforts and four justices strongly opposed. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion decided the issues and explicitly accepted some kinds of desegregation strategies. Yet, the divided decision confused many educators about what did remain legally permissible.

In 2008, the Bush administration sent a letter to school districts inaccurately interpreting the Parents Involved decision in a way that suggested only race-neutral means of pursuing integration would be legal. As President Obama took office, civil rights groups and other stakeholders anticipated that his administration would be more supportive of integration efforts, including issuing new guidance to replace the previous 2008 letter. In the third year of the Obama administration, however, no such guidance about voluntary integration has been issued.

This overview of the continuing impact of Parents Involved suggests an urgent need for financial support and clear federal guidance outlining what is allowable for districts interested in promoting voluntary desegregation.

For more information and citation, please see the memo that this article is adapted from at


Erica Frankenberg is an assistant professor of education at The Pennsylvania State University, where her research focuses on racial desegregation and inequality. She can be reached at [email protected]. Adai Tefera is a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Education Fellow in Congressman Chaka Fattah’s office in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at [email protected]. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a research associate with the UCLA Civil Rights Project. She can be reached at [email protected].