Voluntary Integration in Uncertain Times: Many District Leaders Would like to Promote Greater Diversity in Their Schools, but When It Comes to Voluntary Efforts to Integrate Public Schools, the Law Can Be Confusing

By Anderson, Jeremy; Frankenberg, Erica | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2019 | Go to article overview

Voluntary Integration in Uncertain Times: Many District Leaders Would like to Promote Greater Diversity in Their Schools, but When It Comes to Voluntary Efforts to Integrate Public Schools, the Law Can Be Confusing


Anderson, Jeremy, Frankenberg, Erica, Phi Delta Kappan


The U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education--declaring state laws segregating students by race to be "inherently unequal"--stands as one of the most important decisions in the nation's history. Over the following 15 years, and with help from other branches of the federal government, courageous Black lawyers and plaintiffs, and Black educators working behind the scenes (as Vanessa Siddle Walker describes in this issue of Kappan), the South's schools were transformed. Despite initial protests and fierce resistance in many local communities, the region's public school systems became the most integrated in the country and remained so for several decades.

Since the 1990s, however, many judges have chosen to release school districts from court-ordered desegregation plans, which has prompted a wave of resegregation, especially in the South (Freeman, 1992). Further, the decline in court supervision means that any new integration efforts must be carried out voluntarily by school districts. However, even voluntary school integration has been dealt a setback, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1, which limited the ways in which districts can choose to promote diversity and reduce racial isolation.

On its surface, the Court's decision in Parents Involved seems paradoxical: It invalidated two districts' integration plans because some assignment decisions were made on the basis of an individual student's race and/or ethnicity, but at the same time, the Court also affirmed the importance of voluntarily creating diverse schools and reducing racial isolation. In effect, and in a sharp departure from its earlier role as champion of desegregation, the Court decided that schools should now try to achieve racial integration using policies that reduce the reliance on an individual student's race or ethnicity as a factor in school assignments.

This seeming reversal of Brown comes despite growing evidence that students from all backgrounds, White students included, tend to benefit both academically and socially from racial integration (Hanushek et al., 2009; Kahlenberg, 2016). Additionally, students who have attended desegregated schools tend to be more comfortable with those of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, and better prepared to participate in our increasingly diverse democracy (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012) than those who were educated in more racially isolated schools (Wells et al., 2011).

Convinced of these benefits, many school district officials continue to pursue school integration even though they are not legally required to do so, and even though it can be very challenging politically for them to change existing student assignment policies (Eaton, 2012; McDermott et al., 2015). However, since the Parents Involved decision, those officials have received mixed and confusing signals about which methods of voluntary integration they are and are not permitted to use.

In 2009, recognizing that many district leaders were confused about their options, Congress authorized a small grant program to provide some districts with assistance. Further, in 2011, the Obama administration published additional legal and policy guidance including examples of ways in which schools could legally pursue voluntary integration and methods that incorporate race as a factor in school assignment decisions alongside those that use methods not involving race (U.S. Departments of Justice & Education, 2011). And in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education proposed a larger program to assist districts in designing or implementing voluntary integration strategies. However, that program was cancelled by newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in March 2017. (A similar bill was introduced in September 2018.) Finally, in July 2018, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education rescinded the 2011 federal guidance. …

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