In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, millions of Americans are thinking, reading and talking about race and how to dismantle racism.
In that spirit, one Seattle Times reader emailed me about a column I wrote four years ago, in which I ranked the diversity of all public schools in the Seattle area. Many parents are concerned about issues around equity and the racial opportunity gap in Seattle public schools, which is among the worst in the country.
So I thought I’d take this opportunity to update that column with new numbers for the 2019-2020 school year, and take a new look at the issue of public school diversity in Seattle.
As I did four years ago, I used demographic enrollment data to create a “diversity index” — a commonly used calculation that measures the degree of diversity on a scale from 0 to 100. The higher the number, the greater the school’s diversity.
Taken as a whole, the Seattle School District’s enrollment (about 55,000 kids) has a very high diversity score of 71.4. That reflects that fact that, districtwide, no single racial group holds a majority.
But the enrollment data for individual schools tell a different story. Most are a lot less diverse than the district as a whole, and more than half have a single racial group that represents the majority.
The most notable exception to this is Sanislo Elementary, which is in the Delridge section of West Seattle. With an index score of 79.9, this is Seattle’s most diverse school, as it was four years ago. Sanislo stands out for its remarkably even mix of Black, Hispanic, Asian, white and multiracial students.
The city’s least diverse public school has changed from 2016, but it’s still in the same neighborhood: Ballard. Whittier Elementary, which is 76% white, has the lowest index score, at 40.3. (In 2016, nearby Loyal Heights Elementary ranked as the least diverse.)
Whittier is one of 16 public schools in Seattle that are at least 70% white, which is significantly more white than the city’s population as a whole (Seattle is about 63% white, according to the most current census data). More than half of these schools are in North Seattle.
There also 14 schools where students of color make up at least 90% of the student body, and these are mainly located in South Seattle.
Seattle did attempt, at one point, to undo this racial segregation in its school system. Starting in the mid-1970s, the district voluntarily began busing students across the city. While this did increase integration, it was met with a great deal of resistance from parents. Many white families moved to the suburbs or put their kids in private schools.
With public support eroded, the city abandoned its busing plan in 1999. But that wasn’t the last blow to school desegregation in Seattle.
Students were allowed to attend any high school they wanted, but in cases where there were more applicants than spaces available in a school, the district instituted a “tiebreaker” system. One of the criteria that could break a tie was the race of the student. In a school that was mostly white, the tiebreaker would favor the student of color.
A group called Parents Involved in Community Schools sued over this, claiming it violated Washington’s voter-approved Initiative 200, which bans racial discrimination and racial preferences in public education, employment and contracting.
The case went to all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2007, the parents group won.
So what would it take, at this point, to increase racial integration, and equity, in the Seattle school district?
Schools, naturally, reflect the demographics of the neighborhoods they serve. The reason our school system is so segregated is because our neighborhoods are, too.
It’s a reminder that the legacy of redlining and racist property covenants remain with us. These insidious practices, which denied mortgages and housing to Black people and other minorities in certain neighborhoods, enforced segregation and widened the racial wealth gap across many big U.S. cities, including Seattle.
While redlining and racial covenants no longer exist, single-family home zoning does — and it covers most of Seattle’s residential land. This type of zoning bans all less expensive forms of housing, such as town homes, apartments and backyard cottages. The effect of this zoning is to exclude lower-income residents, and often people of color.
The only way our schools can become more integrated is if our neighborhoods do so first, and that would mean reforming our current zoning laws, as a first step. In recent years, there’s been a lot of resistance to changing those laws from neighborhood associations.
But things, it seems, are changing. There’s a tremendous amount of interest right now among white Seattleites in undoing systems that reinforce racial inequality. You certainly can find plenty of “Black Lives Matter” yard signs in some of Seattle’s wealthiest single-family home neighborhoods.
To what extent do those yards signs signal a willingness to act? That remains to be seen.