April 15, 2007

Desegregation consternation

UPDATE: Perfect timing. The News Journal has a lengthy article today about how busing hasn't worked, and about calls for a renewed Wilmington-based school district.


The issue of desegregation has once again reared its head in New Castle County, Delaware, this time in regards to the Christina School District's decision to close three schools in the city of Wilmington proper. Many of the same issues about desegregation have once again come to the fore: Should children go to schools close to their homes, how will the ratios of race/ethnicity be affected in schools, is the decision in violation of law?

To analyze the situation in Christina, it helps to take a look back at how desegregation came about in Delaware in the first place, and the effects of the [quite radical] busing plan that affected New Castle County in the late 1970s. To do this, I got the permission of University of Delaware Thomas Muncy Keith Professor of History Raymond Wolters (now currently on sabbatical) to publish a report he issued at the request of several state legislators regarding a possible [busing] consent decree back in 1993. This consent decree was seriously considered by the state legislature (and then-Governor Carper) as a means to avoid further litigation as the late-70s federal busing mandate was being reconsidered. Wolters offers a brief history of Delaware (and New Castle County) desegregation before analyzing the consent decree. As most Delawareans know, the consent decree was never agreed to, and Judge Sue Robinson in 1996 overturned the federal busing mandate that began in 1978.

The landmark Brown v. Board of Ed. in 1954 affected Delaware as it did schools across the country. As Prof. Wolters notes, Delaware's smaller districts desegregated immmediately, and the Wilmington District "proceeded in stages" with grammar schools in 1954, junior highs in 1955, and finally high schools in 1956. Of course, the racial composition of neighborhoods was pretty much homogenous at this time (mostly all-white or mostly all-black). As Judge Caleb M. Wright stated in 1962, "Discrimination is forbidden, but integration is not compelled." He continued,

Brown held only that a State may not deny any person on account of race the right to attend a public school. Chief Justice Warren, speaking for the court, said, "To separate them (Negroes) from others ... soley because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in a community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." The clear implication of this statement is that if races are separated because of geographic or transportation considerations or other similar criteria, it is of no concern of the Federal Constitution.

"What happened to turn things around?" Wolters asks. The political -- and judicial -- climate shifted, mainly. Judges began to go beyond the stipulations of Brown of maintain that "desegregation" meant actual [mandatory] "integration." Judges, who relied in part on the testimony of sociologists (including, mainly, James Coleman), believed that mandatory busing plans "offered the best solution to the problems of urban education."

In interviews, depositions, and courtroom testimony throughout the country, Coleman and other liberal sociologists and educators touted the benefits that black children would receive if they were dispersed and educated in predominantly white classrooms. It was partly on the basis of Coleman's testimony that Judge J. Skelly Wright in Washington DC, in 1967, concluded that "Negro students' educational achievement improves when they transfer into white or integrated educational institutions."

Nevertheless, this belief was not actually a determining factor in deciding the New Castle County busing case. (That sociologist Coleman had actually changed his position on the effects of "white institutions" on black achievement, notwithstanding.) Instead, Judges Gibbons, Wright and Schwartz based their busing plan on the need to provide a remedy to past "official racial discrimination." They held that "the public schools of New Castle County had never been properly desegregated after Brown."

1971 saw the reopening of the Evans v. Buchanan case, Delaware's "consolidated" desegregation lawsuit. The basis for the reopening was the 1968 Educational Advancement Act which served to consolidate many school districts across the entire state. This Act reduced the number of statewide school districts from 49 to 26, and was specifically designed for districts whose population was between 1,900-12,000 students. Most of this district consolidation occurred in the southern part of the state. The News Journal noted that the Wilmington School District (primarily black) was "specifically excluded" from the Act. Then-Editor John Taylor repeated this claim in a disingenuous editorial. The contention is true. But the News Journal wasn't giving its readers the entire story. (It probably didn't fit their agenda.) The Philly Inquirer outright lied at the time writing that the EAA "excluded only one district from the mergers: Wilmington, home to most of Delaware's black students." Professor Wolters, however, sets the record straight:

Because the Wilmington public schools already enrolled more than 12,000 pupils, they were prevented from joining with other districts during the year of grace (meaning, they had to wait one year -- Ed.) -- as were two large suburban districts, Newark and Alfred I. DuPont. The pro-busing plaintiffs complained that the Educational Advancement Act "was designed to perpetuate and has in fact perpetuated [a] racially discriminatory dual school system."

My emphasis. Wolters goes on to note that the pro-busing camp's claims were "far from incontrovertible" (again, my emphasis):

The sponsors of the EAA had maintained that it was intended to facilitate the consolidation of small, rural districts that had too few students to afford expensive scientific equipment.

Hearings on the EAA were held throughout Delaware, and "at no time was integration or racial composition discussed or any figures having to do with race called to our attention ... It was taken for granted that integration of the schools had been completed."

The EAA did not change the boundaries of the Wilmington public schools ... not did it prevent Wilmington from coalescing with other schools districts. It simply exempted Wilmington (and [the] two other school districts) from the temporary interval when this could be done without a referendum. The 12,000 student limit (which also applied for only one year) was included in the education act because Wilmington had traditionally been the largest school district in a small state, and because in the 1960s there was much talk about the importance of community involvement in the public schools. (Link.)

Wolters goes on to note that "no one of prominence" wanted a merger of the large school districts -- not the Wilmington School District Board of Education, "nor any black organization in Delaware." The four African-Americans in the state legislature voted for the EAA. Most of the Act's opposition came from downstate because many there "feared a loss of local control."

In 1974, the US District Court ordered the state to submit desegregation plans. Then-News Journal Editor John Taylor again misinformed his readers when he wrote

The remedy phase of the court suit was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Murray Schwartz, who sincerely believed the Delaware General Assembly would approve a desegregation plan. But the Legislature refused to even consider one.

My emphasis. But Taylor obviously didn't get together with others at his paper, for a month and a half prior, the News Journal printed a "desegregation timeline" which clearly notes "U.S. District Court rejects state desegregation plans and says plan must include Wilmington and its surrounding districts." (This was in 1976.) Then, in 1977, the timeline says "State devises plan for busing black students out of Wilmington." If memory serves (from past reading, and I was a middle school student in northern DE schools at the time), this was a voluntary busing plan that the state legislature devised. Nevertheless, Judge Schwartz rejected the 1977 plan. Did Taylor outright lie or was he merely woefully ignorant?

Schwartz ordered a "9-3" plan to begin in 1978. Suburban students would attend city schools for three of their twelve years, while city students would attend suburban schools for nine of their twelve years. The first year witnessed substantial upheaval -- "white flight," bureaucratic confusion, and a two month-long teachers' strike. The strike was not due to the deseg. order itself; it was due to the fact that, although all New Castle County schools were now consolidated into one large single district, the state wanted to continue paying teachers at their old, now-defunct district salaries! Old Wilmington District teachers collectively had the highest salaries at that time; now-county district teachers wanted to utilize that pay scale for the new New Castle County School District.

And so it went for almost 20 years. The only substantive change since the original 1978 order was that the single county-wide district was permitted to truncate into four smaller districts (in 1981) which exist to this day: Brandywine, Colonial, Red Clay and Christina. In the early 1990s, the judicial atmosphere had changed and the US Supreme Court had made it "easier" for districts to get out from under court-ordered desegregation. Delaware took advantage of this in 1993 when the Delaware State Board of Education petitioned the District Court to declare that New Castle County schools had achieved "unitary" status -- that is, they were successfully desegregated. A group called the Coalition to Save Our Children had taken up the mantle, so to speak, on behalf of city children and opposed the State Board's request. The Coalition threatened further litigation if the Board went ahead.

The Coalition (and others) pointed out the "disproportionately large number of black students who have been subjected to disciplinary actions, and to the continued lagging of black scores on standard tests, as evidence that, despite busing, the public schools of northern New Castle County have not eradicated some important vestiges of discrimination." (Link.) Judge Schwartz ordered the State Board of Education and the Coalition to attempt ot reach a settlement. They crafted a Consent Decree in November of that year.

The state legislature was wise to reject the Consent Decree. I happen to have a copy of the Decree from back then, as well as then-Governor Tom Carper's (favorable) statement regarding it. (He called it "fair and equitable.") Prof. Wolters notes, the Decree was

... an amalgam of legalese, educatorese, and social science. There is talk about "minority enrollment ratios," "school paramaters," [sic] and "culturally-sensitive performance based assessment systems."

Wolters dissects the Consent Decree (also here) to a degree that the News Journal would be (was) loathe to do. Included in the Decree were:

  • The requirement of teachers to "fill out numerous forms" and "attend several conferences" before any suspension of a disruptive student could take place.
  • Suspensions in the primary grades are to be used "only as a last resort and only after and in consultation with the District Supervisor."
  • Teachers are urged to "develop greater sensitivity" to the "supposedly different cultural styles of troublesome students." Sounds an awful lot like what's going on in Seattle public schools right now.
  • Special -- "culturally sensitive" -- exams for minority students.
  • An "integrated assessment system" that provides "culturally sensitive assessments," "alternative assessments," and "performance-based assessments" that "allow students to demonstrate proficiency in different ways."
  • All teachers should develop "nonconfrontational" methods for resolving conflicts with students.
  • As an incentive for teachers to "revise their tests and approaches to teaching and discipline," a provision for a "Parent/Student Advocate" (at $175,000 per year) whose office is to be in Wilmington city limits.
  • $220,000 for "intervention specialists" whose purpose is to "support youths who come into conflict with authorities at their schools."
  • Establishment of a benchmark of "reducing by 10% the number of minority students who drop out of school."
  • Recommendation of $58,000 be spent each year for a Future Educators of America club in each middle and high school with "at least one minority teacher" as an advisor.

Further, on page 14 of Prof. Wolters' report,

  • A call for "twenty renewable State scholarships of $1,000 per student to oustanding high students." However, at least half "must be black or Hispanic students who agree to teach after graduation in DE public schools for a minimum of four years."
  • The State Board promises that "at each school where there is more than one administrator, at least one must be either an African-American or an Hispanic and another must be either Caucasian or Asian. (I never could understand why Asian. It's probably because in the eyes of the multi-cultis they're not "true" minorities. Asians represent only approx. 1-2% of the student pop. in New Castle County DE. -- Ed.)
  • Calls for the State Board to "establish a lower passing score on the teachers' certification examination for prospective black and Hispanic teachers than for others."

My emphasis. The Consent Decree was to be in effect for only four years; however, the Coalition to Save Our Children "demanded that the governance of the school districts be changed so that the policies [noted above] would be perpetuated." A compromise was reached over Thanksgiving weekend of 1993 that would have changed how school boards are elected, thereby virtually guaranteeing minority representation on school boards.

Wolters' recommendations to the legislature are on pages 15, 16 and 17 of his report. Nevertheless, the Consent Decree was not agreed to by the state legislature. They were quite confident that they would prevail in court, and indeed, the Coalition had threatened further litigation anyway after the four-year limit on the Decree if New Castle County's districts went too far astray from what they deemed as "racially balanced."

Their confidence paid off for in 1996 Judge Sue Robinson declared the New Castle County school districts had achieved "unitary" status. Judge Robinson did not buy the Coalition's contentions that, although there was racial balance in the schools, discrimination was nonetheless pervasive due to imbalances within the schools. She wrote in part (my emphasis):

First, although the district court's findings of classroom racial balance exclude special education classes, there is no clear error. In our 1978 desegregation order we expressly excepted "students presently attending and who in the future may attend . . . special education school facilities and such other similar special school facilities as presently exist or may be hereafter established . . . ." JA 128 (Evans v. Buchanan, Civil Action Nos. 1816-1822, Order at 11 (D. Del. Jan. 9, 1978)). The rationale for this exception is obvious and compelling: students -- black or white -- should not be mainstreamed (i.e., denied special education meant to address special learning needs and problems) merely to effect a racial balance.

Appellant is also unpersuasive in asserting that students are placed in special education programs (such as "intensive learning centers") simply because they are black. Although in each of the four districts the percentage of black students in special education programs exceeds the percentage of blacks in the overall student population, the record demonstrates that the school districts classify students based on neutral, non-discriminatory state and federal criteria. Additionally, the districts make periodic re-evaluations of special education students to determine when they can return to regular classes. Id. Placement is not mandatory, because at several junctures, parents are empowered to reject the school's recommendation to place their child in special education classes.

Perhaps most telling, at least from my perspective, is Judge Robinson's noting of the following (again, my emphasis):

Although the Constitution requires that all of its citizens have equal access to the pursuit of education, and that they be given equal breaks while attending school, it does not insist that they all finish even. The proper test under the Constitution is equality of opportunity, not of results. On this point we would do well to recall Edmund Burke's pithy formulation: "[A]ll men have equal rights, but not to equal things." And indeed, Appellant articulated its commitment to this principle at oral argument: "[w]e have never suggested that the measure here is ultimate equal outcomes."

It is well worth reading all of Judge Robinson's opinion since she carefully and meticulously dissects, and then dismantles, the Coalition's contentions. It was my belief then, as it is now, that too much of the Coalition's arguments were based in emotion rather than fact, law and logic. As anyone who happened to watch former State Rep. Al Plant's Sunday night discussion show on local cable channel 28 back then, Coalition member (and present-day New Castle County Councilman) Jea Street would regularly appear and consistently utter the most caustic and derogatory comments at those with whom he disagreed. Yet, actual facts always seemed to elude his protestations.

In 1997, a federal appeals court upheld Judge Robinson's decision, and that was pretty much that regarding the desegregation order that had once held New Castle County in its grip. That is, until 2000 when the state legislature passed the Neighborhood Schools Law which mandated that school districts send children to schools closest to their homes. Former House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith was the bill's primary sponsor. As could be predicted, the News Journal was critical of the bill claiming it would lead to "resegregation" in the county's schools.

Attorney George Evans at the time said, "Probably, what's going to result ... is we're going to, no doubt, end up resegregating schools ... and you're going to have litigation." He was right, but not exactly in the way he expected. More on that in a moment. Now-former Coalition to Save Our Children member Jea Street called the Neighborhood Schools Law an example of "new millenium racism." In the 2006 State House campaign, a hastily-organized group dubbed "Delaware Clean Sweep" (which numbered approximately three people!) listed as one of Smith's "negatives" his sponsorship of the bill because it "would guarantee heavily segregated public schools."

In the News Journal article Wayne Smith retorted, correctly in my view, that racial identifiability is neither good nor bad, and the law he wrote is not unconstitutional. "What matters is quality education, parental satisfaction and the ease with which parents get to participate in a school," he said. Indeed, Brown, as originally decided, was not argued as an effort to forcibly integrate children in schools via specific mathematical ratio. It was intended to -- and did -- break down the walls of legal segregation that prevented black children from attending schools with white children, especially ones closest to their homes. This is why Smith's bill is clearly consistent with the concepts laid down in Brown. In addition, with school choice law in the state of Delaware, and the incredible growth of charter schools, "forced resegregation" was (and is) not much of a legitimate argument. More on that later, too.

Even with the implementation of the Neighborhood Schools Law, the "Big Four" districts in New Castle County as a whole changed their existing feeder patterns only marginally. Colonial District complied with the law most stringently, changing feeder patterns to reflect attendance zones. Red Clay District mostly reconfigured elementary grade feeders, whereas Christina modified feeders to a moderate degree, and the Brandywine District claimed "hardship" status and didn't change feeder patterns at all.

Now, still in the news today, is the largest (population-wise) school district in the state, Christina, and its decision to close three schools within the boundaries of the city of Wilmington. Ironically, after many apparent spokespeople (like Jea Street) and outlets like the News Journal scoured the Wayne Smith-sponsored Neighborhood Schools Law, the very city of Wilmington itself, in conjunction with two parents of children attending one of the affected schools, is suing to keep their school (and the others) open because to allow their closure ... would violate the Neighborhood Schools Law!

The city and Southbridge parents Annette Harden and Rose Thomas contend that the district's plan to close the school during the next school year is "in willful violation" of the Delaware Neighborhood Schools Act, which the suit says aims to provide fair and equitable education to all northern New Castle County children. The state law requires that certain districts, including Christina, assign children to the school closest to their homes, the court filing says.

How about that? I wonder what the spokespeople like Street, Evans and others, to whom the News Journal devoted so much space to criticize the bill when it was first being debated, would think of this? Wilmington city government itself -- saying that the law "aims to provide fair and equitable education to all northern New Castle County children"! The irony has come full circle, it seems.

And back to charter schools -- the News Journal, still as race-conscious as ever, recently lamented how Delaware charter schools are "resegregating" the state's schools (again). But Newark Charter School head Gregory Meece hits the implication of the term "segregation" where it hurts (my emphasis):

Delaware Charter Schools Network leaders challenge the assertion that their schools are causing "resegregation." They called the term misleading and inflammatory because of its association with segregation and desegregation, saying those are forced conditions.

"We're talking about voluntary choice here," said Board President Gregory Meece, who is principal of Newark Charter School.

"It is significant that there are six charter schools out of 17 that serve mainly African-American populations," he said. "This report never really asks any parent why they choose those schools."

"Forced conditions" is the heart of the matter. There is no compulsion for "resegregation" with regards to charters. People -- black and white -- are free to choose the school they wish, which, by the way, is the case with virtually any Delaware public school due to the state's school choice law. This, once again, is quite different from the mandate of Brown. Brown overturned compulsory segregation in schools. Recall Judge Caleb M. Wright's statement: "Discrimination is forbidden, but integration is not compelled." But over the decades, "desegregation" has transformed into "diversity" which has come to be synonymous with "good (or at least "better") education." This is an erroneous assumption.

So, where do we now stand? Those representing [black] students' interests have had their contentions [legally] defeated by Judge Robinson which effectively dismantled forced busing in New Castle County. A decade later, these same interests are back in court -- utilizing a law they once damned to make their case for what would be primarily African-American schools. Many of the former Coalition's arguments before Judge Robinson appear to have actually made some headway in the state of Florida. There, the "achievement gap" between majority and minority students is the subject of a class-action lawsuit:

... in a class-action lawsuit that has Pinellas County's top educators on the defensive, the plaintiffs say the policy of equal access has failed the school district's 20,000 black students.

Black kids, they contend, will need uniquely tailored programs if the district ever hopes to erase an education gap that has them lagging behind every other ethnic group in school performance.

The case of William Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board - seven years old and finally headed for trial - may be the only one of its kind in the nation.

It is my opinion that if this suit is decided favorably for the plaintiffs, it will be a disaster for minority (black) children. First, it relies on pseudo-science that blacks, collectively, "learn differently." Second, its belief is that the achievement gap is essentially based on past de jure discrimination. But in that regard, I'd be most curious as to what the "gap" was when segregation was legally sanctioned. It's almost a double-edged sword for the plaintiffs, regardless of what these statistics mights show. If the gap was greater in the days of official segregation, then the subsequent shrinking of the gap shows that the broken segregation barriers have worked -- and are working. Still, the argument for special programs tailored specifically for black children might still be persuasive (aside from their specific racial components, that is, which unfortunately seem to be part of the plaintiffs' contention). On the other hand, if the gap was less in the days of the legal segregation, then the legal argument becomes much more problematic: How do you explain how [black] children are doing worse academically with no racial barriers to impede their academic progress? The obvious thing that comes to mind is that maybe the problem is not the schools, nor the law.


Professor Wolters' full 1993 report can be viewed here. (.PDF file.)

Posted by Hube at April 15, 2007 09:20 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Excellent summary as usual Hube. The full circle use of Neighborhood Schools Law is classic interpretation! I still can't believe that the Brandywine District is still able to snuff their nose at this law by not changing patterns?

Posted by: cardinals fan at April 15, 2007 06:26 PM

"The obvious thing that comes to mind is that maybe the problem is not the schools, nor the law."

This might be the obvious answer to someone who hasn't seen many of the schools that majority black students end up attending.

If you saw the over crowded classes, life weary teachers, 10+ yr old books and learning conditions you might just understand why it could be a little hard for any kid let alone a black one to learn.

I will say that you need caring parents who are willing to take advantage of free tutoring and will help their kid focus on school but it is indeed a two part problem (home and school).

Posted by: T at April 24, 2007 09:12 PM

T: I am specifically addressing the New Castle County schools in this case, none of which possess the attributes you note. Nor do many other schools. Nevertheless, there certainly ARE schools that do possess them.

But, being acquainted with real 3rd world poverty, I've seen schools that'd kill for the infrastructure and materials that even the worst urban schools have. And with a fraction of what even those schools have, they get results. So, IMO, home is the MUCH bigger factor in the equation.

Posted by: Hube at April 24, 2007 09:17 PM