An IFAJS Q&A
While the recent vote by the Wake County, N.C. school board to overturn the system'seconomically based school assignment policy may scuttle that novel effort to narrow the black-white achievement gap in public education, it leaves unanswered the question of whether such an approach is constitution.
Under the Wake County policy, which was implemented in 2000, no school could have a student body with more than 40 percent of it students on free or reduced lunch. The assignment policy was an attempt to change the racial composition of the county’s schools without using “race” as an overt factor in deciding which schools students attended.
Although Wake County’s new school board has rejected this approach, can it be used elsewhere to help close the achievement gap? That probably will depend on whether it can withstand a Supreme Court challenge.
Dalia Colón, on special assignment for the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies (IFAJS), put this question to Dr. Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Dr. Orfield, and is co-edited the book School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back? (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), which includes a chapter on Wake County.
Colón - Since economics are in a lot of cases akin to race, how long can Wake County's economic-based policy stand up?
Orfield - There's no constitutional problem at all with those. There's nothing in the Constitution that says you can't assign students by income. As a matter of fact, it's the dominant way we assign students in the United States -- by income and race, since that's how we organize our housing. The only thing that you can't consider is race. The only thing you can't use to integrate your schools is thinking about the students' race. That's the irony of the Supreme Court decision. You can look at language, you can look at location, you can look at anything else. And you can look at race in certain ways, but they were radically limited by that decision.
Colón - A lot of times, economics are almost a euphemism for race.
Orfield - That's not true. We've looked at it across the country. There's very few places where if you actually assigned students by economics, you'd get a high level of racial integration. There's a big overlap in income, and there's also a pretty wide range of housing values in most school attendance areas. There aren't very many places where race and economics are sharply enough related, and there's only two racial groups, that the Wake County kind of plan really works. It does work in Wake. The Supreme Court has not said anything about any other thing, even if it's related to race. And of course many of the things that we use to assign students in neighborhood schools are related to race because our neighborhoods are related to race, both in terms of the history and in terms of current patterns of discrimination in housing, including publicly run housing.
Colón - So Wake County Schools shouldn't be concerned about the policy being found unconstitutional.
Orfield - No. In fact, even considering a neighborhood's race appears to be constitutional. You can't consider the race of an individual in an assignment. That's what the Parents Involved decision says. But if you're in Berkley, for example, we did a study of a plan that they've come up with in Berkley, which considers the race of a neighborhood among other things in their choi ce plan. That's been upheld by two levels of courts here in California.
Colón – How do they consider the race of a neighborhood? Is there a certain threshold?
Orfield - They've divided their whole city into several hundred small neighborhoods. ... They use those as a factor in deciding who gets which choice. That's not illegal. In fact, the Supreme Court said in the decision that pursuing integration is a valid -- and actually compelling -- interest for school districts,and that they can consider changing boundaries. They can consider where they locate schools. They can consider a number of things that are relevant to the neighborhood's race. What they did in Berkely was to look at their neighborhoods very closely and use that as a factor in their assignment plan. It's not at the individual level. So if a white person lives in a black neighborhood, for example, they would get the same rights.
Index of Black-White Achievement Gap Stories