Panel Paper: Boundaries of Diversity: How Advantaged Parents Put Limits on Student Assignment Policies

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kathryn McDermott, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Elizabeth DeBray, University of Georgia, Erica Frankenberg, Pennsylvania State University and Maylene Rodriguez Scott, University of Massachusetts

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under most circumstances, school districts’ policies for assigning students to schools could not use individual students’ race as a criterion for determining which schools they would attend. This ruling created political and legal uncertainty in districts that considered students’ race in order to maintain diverse schools. The Council of Great City Schools led a successful effort to get a small federal grant program, Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans (TASAP), into the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act. The premise of TASAP was to provide districts with funds they could use to hire experts or pay for public engagement exercises so that they could modify or enact diversity-promoting student-assignment policies that would be consistent with the 2007 decision. Eleven districts received funds through TASAP, and 6 of these sought to enact entirely new student-assignment policies. Of these 6, only Champaign, Illinois actually came up with a new policy that incorporated a new definition of diversity. Of the other 5, one essentially abandoned its TASAP project. Four enacted new SAPs, but instead of incorporating new approaches to diversity, they emphasized getting more students into schools closer to their homes. This priority was in part driven by fiscal pressures, amplified by what middle-class and White parents said they wanted. In this paper, we begin by explaining the political considerations that pushed the four districts (Boston, Massachusetts, Portland, Oregon, Rockford, Illinois, and St. Paul, Minnesota) to emphasize proximity to home and reverse their earlier intentions to include diversity considerations in their assignment policies. The second part of the paper outlines the effects of the new policies, which district leaders believed would reduce transportation spending, reverse White and middle-class flight from district schools, and create a catalyst for increased neighborhood participation in school improvement, all without harming low-income students of color. The results differ across the four districts, but on the whole evidence suggests that students in low-income neighborhoods have lost access to schools in more advantaged neighborhoods, which often are the better-performing schools. Students whose neighborhoods include better public schools have more predictable access to those schools, which removes one of the major reasons why gentrifier families might want to move to the suburbs when their children reach school age. Families with more economic and political power, sometimes backed by real estate interests, used their power to set the agenda of local politics and their implicit influence on property markets to generate policies that compound other families’ educational and financial disadvantages.

Full Paper: