Schools Pursuing Diversity Face Numerous Challenges
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A report by Erica Frankenberg, assistant professor of education, and her colleagues shared insights about a federal program that aimed to help school districts increase diversity. The report, titled “The Changing Politics of Diversity: Lessons from a Federal Technical Assistance Grant,” revealed that a number of factors, including legal uncertainty and political pressure, affected how districts pursued that goal.The group, which included Kathryn McDermott from the University of Massachusetts and Elizabeth DeBray and Ann Blankenship from the University of Georgia, was researching the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) 2009 program called Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans (TASAP). Through TASAP, the ED distributed $2.5 million awarded through a competitive grant process to 11 school districts to help them design student assignments that were both legal and racially diverse.
TASAP came after the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (PICS) case. This decision struck down two districts’ voluntary integration policies. This was after earlier Court decisions that relaxed what was required of districts to remedy prior segregation.
“I knew that there was a lot of misunderstanding when it came to diversity,” said Frankenberg. “And it was really encouraging that we had new federal funding, really for the first time in 40 years, that tried to help districts make sense of how to pursue diversity. We wanted to understand whether TASAP was making a difference and, if so, how.”
Frankenberg said that the researchers also chose to study the TASAP schools because the districts, which varied demographically, could offer understanding about the local responses to the decision, policymaking and also how the federal role can have an influence around diversity.
“The Supreme Court said you can't consider an individual student's race to create diverse schools because such consideration would harm the student,” said Frankenberg. “You could, however, take into account the racial composition of neighborhoods.”
According to Frankenberg, officials in the 11 TASAP schools were looking to increase diversity in their districts, but many were uncertain as to how to go about it.
“There were a number of race-conscious ways that a majority of justices said that school officials could use race,” said Frankenberg. “In fact, when we looked at the proposals of what the districts in TASAP said they were going to do, a number of them said they were going to use race.”
But very few actually did use race.
According to Frankenberg, people in several districts indicated that they had been advised not to use race in their student assignment plans.
Besides legal ambiguity, political pressure was a key issue when it came to student assignments, said Frankenberg.
“We saw in a lot of these districts that local politics pushed diversity to the back burner.”
Frankenberg added that even though districts were redesigning student assignments that were supposed to be pursuing diversity, it was difficult to maintain that commitment when there were competing political goals. For example, during TASAP, districts were experiencing budget cuts due to the recession of 2008. In some districts, transportation for diversity goals was cast as an added expense at a time of austerity.
According to Frankenberg, it is too early to determine whether TASAP was a success or not.
“We still don’t have a lot of evidence about whether it's working out,” said Frankenberg. “I think that's the next logical follow-up now that there have been several years of students being assigned to schools under the new policies.”
Frankenberg added that society appears to be retreating from desegregation.
“Now it is more difficult to even voluntarily integrate,” said Frankenberg. “If we believe in local control and the locally elected school board leaders have decided this is a value of the community, then why are we not allowing them to pursue it?”
One positive to TASAP that Frankenberg said she saw is that districts were interested in diversity and that, even though this is a challenging time for integration, TASAP was an example of doing something to help diversity rather than nothing.
Frankenberg said she would like to see another round of more-focused technical-assistance funding, particularly given the federal government’s guidance in 2011 affirming how race-conscious policies could help districts pursue integration, which the government strongly endorsed as a goal for districts.
“I think education efforts for districts about what's legal and what's effective could be really helpful,” said Frankenberg, “not just for districts but for those working with districts like lawyers and other experts, too.”
By Kevin Sliman (December 2014)