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School Integration after Parents Involved: Constitutional race-based approaches to school diversity

June 29, 2016

Shajuti Hossain and Will Reed

Educational Opportunities Project Intern


After the initial resistance against Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, school integration efforts in American K-12 schools saw some success but have since then eroded in many places.[1]  Brown called for the end of state-sanctioned school segregation.[2] However, many legal challenges require schools to ensure that voluntary racial and socioeconomic integration efforts are narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest.

Increasing Racial and Socioeconomic Segregation

Sixty-two years after Brown, many schools remain racially and socioeconomically isolated.[3] Racial isolation and concentrated poverty are especially intertwined in the school setting because the two reinforce each other. For instance, middle-class black and Hispanic children are more likely than poor white children to attend high-poverty schools that have fewer resources and high teacher turnover rates. [4] Therefore, students who attend these schools have fewer opportunities to succeed. A study by the Stanford School of Education Policy finds that about half of local achievement gaps strongly correlate with racial and ethnic disparities in socioeconomic status. Students who are both poor and black face double segregation on the basis of race and class. Students who are poor, Hispanic and first or second generation American often face triple segregation because of race, class, and language. However, socioeconomic disparities alone are not determinative of achievement gaps between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The study finds that racial segregation is a chief factor in generating these gaps.[5]

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that when education officials take action to improve racial and socioeconomic integration, all students benefit. However, from 2000 to 2014, the percentage of K-12 public schools that are concentrated with poor and black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent. These schools offered fewer math, science, and college preparatory classes and had higher rates of suspensions, expulsions, and 9th grade repeats. The GAO report also highlights patterns of discrimination and disparities. For example, the report mentions instances of greater punishments for black students than for white students who engaged in the same offense. The findings also show that low-income and minority students improve academically when they attend higher resourced, integrated schools that set high expectations for all.[6]

Benefits of Integrated Learning Environments

Many students from low-income or minority backgrounds who attend high-poverty, racially isolated schools are aware that they have fewer resources and opportunities. They often carry internalized stigma or trauma associated with this awareness.[7] Although it is clear that these students will benefit from integrated learning environments, a report by the Century Foundation highlights the benefits racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity in schools provides for all students. Exposure to different cultures and perspectives prepare students for employment in an increasingly global economy. Employers look for skills such as “creativity, motivation, deeper learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving,” all of which result from meaningful exposure to diversity. Almost half of the Fortune 100 companies search for a diverse array of employees to succeed in the global economy. Brown University and other elite schools find that “diversity encourages students to question their assumptions…and to gain an appreciation of the complexity of today’s world.” Another benefit of racially, ethnic, and socioeconomic diverse learning experiences is that they motivate engagement in civic and community activities. School diversity can also help diminish the implicit biases that have led to America’s recent racial tension by pushing individuals to appreciate differences from a younger age.[8]

Constitutionality of Voluntary Integration Efforts

In 2007, the Supreme Court struck down voluntary race-based integration plans in Seattle and Louisville in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 on the grounds that the two districts’ use of individual students’ race was not narrowly tailored to meet their school diversity goals.[9] The Court also argued that accepting racial balance as a compelling interest for race-based plans would prohibit America’s goal of eliminating race as a factor in government decision-making.[10] However, Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion stated that the Court’s decision still permits school districts to consider the racial makeup of schools and adopt generalized race-based policies to increase diversity, which is an appropriate compelling interest. “Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs should also be considered.” He states that school boards can constitutionally consider race in a general way without treating students differently based solely on race. He offers the following examples: strategic site selection, creation of attendance zones with an understanding of neighborhood demographics, special programs, targeted recruitment of faculty and students, and records of enrollment, performance, and other statistics by race.[11]

Federal Guidance in the K-12 Context

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice provides guidance on the constitutional methods of achieving racial diversity in schools. The Departments state that districts should first consider race-neutral approaches, such as socioeconomic status or parental education. Consideration of racial impacts is permissible. Approaches are unworkable if they will not effectively achieve diversity or if they require sacrificing particular educational missions or priorities, such as academic selectivity. If race-neutral approaches are unworkable, then districts may consider generalized race-based approaches which take into account racial composition of neighborhoods among other factors. Under these methods, all students within zones characterized by race, income, and/or parental education must be treated the same regardless of their race. If the generalized race-based approaches are unworkable, then districts may adopt race-based approaches if they are narrowly tailored to meet a compelling interest.

Figure 1. Framework for Constitutional Approaches to School Diversity



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Figure 2. Illustrative Examples of Constitutional Approaches to School Diversity

Fig 2.

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Magnet Schools

Magnet schools rely upon unique academic and extra-curricular programs to attract students from outside their attendance zones. Research confirms that many low-income and minority students at magnet schools perform better than their peers in traditional schools.[12] In 1977, the Wake County public school board in North Carolina created magnet programs to improve racial diversity. By 1999, only 21% of black students in the county attended predominantly minority schools compared to the national statistic of 70%. The county continued to consider race until 1999 when it was required to shift away from race. The county then focused on income and achievement diversity for all schools. Despite a new board’s efforts to switch to neighborhood-based assignments in 2010, community members spoke out against the proposed changes, convincing the board to revisit its decision and make compromises. Although Wake County’s magnet school system started out as a race-based approach, it became a race-neutral approach that community members continue to value.[13]


Another race-neutral approach is school district consolidation which is when two or more school districts join to create a larger district. One motivating factor for district consolidation is decreased costs but it can also increase the district’s abilities to integrate individual schools.[14] Consolidation is relatively non-controversial because it accomplishes other goals such as lower education costs. However, for strategic district consolidation to have desegregative effects, school boards and states must actively aim for diversity.[15]

Socioeconomic Status

Some schools are experimenting with another race-neutral approach, quotas that allocate a number of spaces for low-income students. One benefit of income-based quotas is that no single school has to bear the burden of providing adequate resources for low-income students. This methods follows the broader theory that diversifying by socioeconomic status will lead to racial diversity due to the strong correlation between poverty and race in America. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2015 the first plan in the nation to test out this method in seven New York City schools.[16] Schools in St. Louis, San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities have seen academic improvement among minority students who transferred to schools with more students of high-income backgrounds.[17] However, the success of such quotas is inherently tied to a continuation of the troubling correlation between poverty and race. Under this assumption, minority groups must remain the poorest groups in order for racial diversity to improve.

Siting and Zoning Decisions

Other race-neutral approaches focus on location. School districts can strategically site specialized academic programs in low-performing schools or areas. School districts may also adjust school feeder patterns. For instance, if there is a district with two elementary schools, one of which is predominantly white and the other of which is predominantly black, the district can turn one into a grade K-2 school and the other into a grade 3-5 school. This would inevitably create two racially integrated schools. School districts can also adjust attendance zones based on socioeconomic diversity while recognizing these zones will help improve racial diversity. These methods can all became generalized-race based approaches if districts consider the racial characteristics of the areas in question. In order to do so, districts must consider all students in the designated areas the same and may not use race as a student’s defining characteristic.[18]


While school diversity has faced many challenges over the past few decades, creative school districts, schools, and officials have shown that integration is an achievable and valuable goal. While each of the solutions above have limitations, more diversity-focused school assignment policies similar to them are needed to provide all students the opportunity to reach their full academic potential.


[1] Gary Orfield, Erica Frankenberg, Jongyeon Ee, and John Kuscera, “Brown at 60: Great progress, a long retreat and an uncertain future,” Economic Policy Institute (2014).

[2] See Brown v. Board of Educ. of Topeka, Shawnee Cty., Kan., 347 U.S. 483, 495 (1954) (holding that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”).

[3] Erica Frankenberg, Assessing the Status of School Desegregation Sixty Years After Brown, 2014 Mich. St. L. Rev. 677, 678 (2014).

[4] Motoko Rich, Amanda Cox, & Matthew Bloch, “Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares” (Apr. 29, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/29/upshot/money-race-and-success-how-your-school-district-compares.html?_r=0.

[5] Sean F. Reardon, et al. Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, “The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gaps,” https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/wp16-10-v201604.pdf.

[6] Government Accountability Office, Committee on Education & The Workforce Democrats, “K-12 Education: Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination,” (May 17, 2016), http://democrats-edworkforce.house.gov/imo/media/doc/Fact%20Sheet%20-%20GAO%20School%20Segregation%20Report.pdf

[7] Sen. Chris Murphy, Erika Frankenberg, Sarah Camiscoli, Congressional Briefing on Diversity and Opportunity (June 8, 2016).

[8] The Century Foundation, How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students,  https://tcf.org/content/report/how-racially-diverse-schools-and-classrooms-can-benefit-all-students/

[9] Parents Involved in Cmty. Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 728 (2007).

[10] Id. at 731.

[11] Id. at 788-98 (Kennedy, J. concurring).

[12]  Ashley Higginson, Abbott Gets an F, Courts Can Provide Extra Credit, 16 Rutgers Race & L. Rev. 289, 322 (2015);  Brittany Beth, Connecticut Magnets Offer High-Quality Education, U.S. Dep’t of Educ., http://perma.cc/87DW-7CY9 (describing the benefits magnet schools have for all students).

[13] Dana Russo, School Desegregation: From Topeka, Kansas to Wake County, North Carolina, 19 Geo. J. on Poverty L. and Pol’y 535, 543-55 (2014);

[14] Sarah Diem, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Erica Frankenberg, & Colleen Cleary, Consolidation Versus Fragmentation: The Relationship Between School District Boundaries and Segregation in Three Southern Metropolitan Area, 119 Penn St. L. Rev. 687 (2015).

[15] Diem, supra note 15, at 691-92.

[16] Ben Chapman and Lisa Colangelo, “7 Schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan to set admission quotas,” http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/7-schools-brooklyn-manhattan-set-admission-quotas-article-1.2441554

[17] Regina Rosenello, School Integration in the Wake of Parents Involved and Meredith, 40 Rutgers L.J. 535, 547-53 (2009).

[18] U.S. Dep’t of Educ., Office of Civil Rights, Dear Colleague Letter on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity in Schools (Dec. 2, 2011).

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