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Through Integration

By providing poor and minority students access to suburban schools, the nation's remaining "inter-districts" have achieved better outcomes
The first comprehensive study of the nation’s eight remaining inter-district school desegregation programs—which were expressly created to enable disadvantaged, black and Latino students cross school district boundary lines and attend affluent, predominantly white suburban public schools—has found that these programs help close black-white and Latino-white achievement gaps, improve racial attitudes and lead to long-term mobility and further education for the students of color who participate.
“Despite the fact that these programs are out of sync with the current political framing of problems and solutions in the field of education, the research suggests they are far more successful than recent choice and accountability policies at closing the achievement gaps and offering meaningful school choices,” concludes the study, “Boundary Crossing for Diversity, Equity and Achievement: Inter-district School Desegregation and Educational Opportunity,” which was led by TC’s Professor of Sociology and Education Amy Stuart Wells; Wells is also Director of the College’s Center for Understanding Race and Education (CURE).
The study was recently presented at a November conference in Washington, D.C., Reaffirming the Role of School Integration in K–12 Public Education Policy: A Conversation Among Policymakers, Advocates and Educators, convened by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice (CHHIRJ) at Harvard Law School ( with the goal of restoring a desegregation focus to U.S. education policy. Speakers included Ted Shaw, formerly of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President’s White House Domestic Policy Council; Gary Orfield, Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA; and William Taylor, Chair of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights. The Houston Institute also commissioned the research led by Wells.
Among the most striking findings of the study—the sources of which include studies by other researchers, newspaper articles and court documents—is that suburban residents, educators, school officials and students grow to appreciate these programs more the longer they continue. In fact, many former opponents are now defending the programs against threats of curtailment, even when continuation would entail reduced funding.
“The separateness and inequality that characterizes U. S. education along racial/ethnic and social class lines is increasingly circumscribed by school district boundaries,” the authors write, noting the finding of other researchers that “a full 84 percent” of racial/ethnic segregation in U.S. public schools occurs between and not within school districts. They note that while racial segregation remains high, Americans are becoming increasingly segregated by income, with more affluent people living close together, divided spatially in urban and suburban areas from those with less.
Yet educational policies addressing segregation and inequality have generally been limited to within-district solutions, beginning with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1974 ruling in Milliken v. Bradley that federal judges could not order desegregation remedies that send students across urban-suburban district boundaries without substantial, hard-to-document evidence that the suburban districts created the racial segregation. The central policy focus in education has since shifted to the use of standards, tests and accountability systems to improve student achievement, along with school choice policies that allow alternative, private providers to compete for students and their public school funds.
The authors assert these strategies have not delivered, and inequality has grown in many states. “Reams of social science evidence suggest that unless we address the separateness and inequality in which students are being educated, we will never significantly narrow achievement gaps across race and social class lines,” they write.
The inter-district programs (which are voluntary for students) are also school choice plans, in that they all allow students to choose to transfer from one district to the other. Yet, they differ markedly from more recently created school choice plans because of their history and mission to provide viable choices to the most disadvantaged students.
Of the inter-district programs studied, three (Hartford, Minneapolis and Tinsley) were formalized via state court rulings grounded in state constitutional guarantees of equal educational opportunities; three (Indianapolis, Milwaukee and St. Louis) were codified in federal court orders and two (Boston’s METCO and Rochester) were supported by state legislation and local policies to create more racially diverse public schools.
Among the study’s findings about what the inter-districts have achieved:
•In Hartford, Project Choice (formerly Project Concern), a 1970 report found that randomly selected African American students who transferred out of the Hartford Public Schools and enrolled in suburban schools had significantly higher test scores than students from similar backgrounds remaining in the urban schools.
•More than half of Project Choice students are performing at or above proficiency on state standardized tests in both math and reading. In fact, the Project Choice students’ test scores and proficiency rates are higher than their Hartford Public School peers and black and Latino students statewide.”
•In a study of the St. Louis program, African American students who transfer to suburban schools and remain there over time far outperform their peers in the city’s magnet or neighborhood schools by the time they reach 10th grade.
•A 1995 report on the St. Louis program found that African American students in the urban-suburban transfer program and city magnet schools were graduating at twice the rate of their peers in the regular, non-magnet city schools.
•An analysis of the college-prep curriculum in urban (non-magnet) versus suburban schools in St. Louis found that the city schools teach fewer foreign languages, have fewer counselors, and offer fewer advanced courses in math and science. They also lack music programs and up-to-date science labs and libraries.
•In St. Louis, 16 of the suburban school districts involved in the program recently voted unanimously to extend it for five years after the federal judge in the case decided they could no longer be ordered to participate. Furthermore, 13 of these 16 districts voted to continue accepting new African American transfer students during this extension even though the state funding for each transfer student was reduced from the districts average per pupil expenditure to a flat rate of $8,000.
The benefits of the inter-district programs program hold up over the long term. Black students who attended suburban schools through Project Concern were more likely to graduate from high school and complete more years of college than members of the control group who remained in the Hartford Public Schools.

Policy Recommendations
The Wells study of Inter-Districts recommends that any new federal or state policies to foster inter-district public school choice must have the following characteristics to support a non-competitive, but equity-minded framework for school choice policies:
1.       Target and Support Meaningful School Choices for the Most Disadvantaged Students;
2.       Foster and Support Significant Participation of Suburban Districts; and
3.       Further the Goal of Equity in Urban and Suburban Public Education.
The inter-district study co-authors are Bianca Baldridge, Jacquelyn Duran, Courtney Grzesikowski, Richard Lofton, Allison Roda, Miya Warner and Terrendra White. To view the full study, visit  

Published Monday, Jan. 11, 2010