sorting the students

On the Upper West Side, a radical plan to desegregate schools faces an uphill climb

On the Upper West Side and in southern Harlem, like in most parts of New York City, students are matched with an elementary school based on their address. While that system lets students attend school close to home, it also can also reproduce a community’s housing segregation in its schools.

But some parents and educators in Manhattan’s District 3 have a bold plan to fix that: They want to erase the zone lines around those schools, letting parents apply to anywhere in the district. Then a computer algorithm would match students with schools by factoring in their choices, but also their demographics, so that students from different backgrounds are spread evenly across the district.

On Tuesday, the district’s Community Education Council will host the first of two information sessions about that style of admissions, known as “controlled choice.” Another Manhattan district and one in Brooklyn are also exploring such systems, and education department officials watching closely to see what they come up with.

But the prospect of District 3 adopting a controlled choice system anytime soon appears slim.

Families who live near one of the district’s highest-performing schools recently lashed out at a proposal to alter its zone, and families at other top district schools would most likely oppose any plan to abolish the zones that guarantee them spots in those schools. Meanwhile, several members of the CEC, which must approve zoning changes, have expressed skepticism about controlled choice.

Theresa L.C. Hammonds, a CEC member who is part of a parent group that drew up a controlled-choice plan for the district, said she strongly believes that enrollment system would be an improvement over the current one. However, she said it must come with greater city support for the district’s lower-performing schools so that they are attractive to a range of parents, who must also be willing to give those schools a chance.

“If a family perceives a school across the street to lack quality because of test scores,” she said, “it doesn’t matter what kind of choice system you have in place, the family’s not going to send their child to that school.”

District 3, which is home to luxury high-rise buildings alongside public housing developments, is filled with students from a mix of backgrounds, and yet many of its schools are largely divided along race and class lines. While the district is 36 percent white, a number of schools are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.

That segregation came into sharp focus this fall when the city proposed redrawing the zone lines around P.S. 199, a sought-after school on West 70th Street with outstanding test scores and a student body that is two-thirds white and only 8 percent poor. The rezoning would have shifted some would-be 199 parents to P.S. 191, a low-performing school just nine blocks away, whose student population is 85 percent black and Hispanic and primarily low-income.

Following fierce resistance from families in P.S. 199’s zone, the city agreed to table that proposal. Now, parent leaders on the CEC are working with education department planners to come up with new ways to alleviate the intense overcrowding at popular P.S. 199, while perhaps also boosting diversity in the district.

Parents have come up with at least two proposals. One would create a single zone around P.S. 191 and 199, while the second plan would have students attend one school for the early grades and the other for subsequent grades.

However, P.S. 199 parents and faculty members have rejected both plans, according to CEC members and minutes of CEC meetings.

“There’s still significant pushback from parts of the 199 community,” said CEC member Noah Gotbaum, who has championed the shared-zone plan.

A more radical option would be to scrap the zones entirely and adopt a controlled-choice admissions system.

That’s the plan promoted by the District 3 Task Force for Equity in Education, a small group of parents and educators that has been searching for solutions to the district’s divisions and disparities since 2012. This past December, the parent association and school leadership team at P.S. 75 wrote the CEC asking it to explore a controlled-choice system for the district.

Ujju Aggarwal, a task force member and researcher at the CUNY Graduate Center, said removing the zones could help curb the practice of wealthy families moving into expensive neighborhoods in order to nab a seat at the top schools.

“It takes away the ability to create your gated enclave,” she said, “and says, Let’s make sure all our schools are great schools.”

The community education councils in District 1 in Manhattan and District 13 in Brooklyn are both using state grants to explore diversity-oriented admissions systems like controlled choice. However, those districts have an advantage over District 3: their elementary or middle schools are already “unzoned,” meaning families can apply to anywhere they choose.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has said she is open to locally generated plans to increase school diversity — as long as parents are on board. But controlled choice could be a tough sell in District 3.

At public meetings and interviews, several CEC members raised concerns about such a system. They said it could lengthen students’ travel time without addressing the disparities in funding and test scores that lead some schools to become so much more desirable to middle-class parents than others.

“If what we want to achieve is a level of equity,” said Kim Watkins, chair of CEC 3’s zoning committee, “controlled choice isn’t going to do that — it isn’t what changes a school.”

A representative from District 1 will speak at Tuesday’s forum at 6:30 p.m. at P.S. 145, as will Michael Alves, a consultant who has helped many districts design controlled-choice systems.

Watkins emphasized that the council has not yet taken a stance on controlled choice. She said the meeting is intended to provide parents with information on that model and to gauge their interest.

“A lot of people don’t understand it and a lot of people don’t want it,” she said. “Whether or not they don’t want it because they don’t understand it is the question.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”