Seattle district leaders appear resigned to living with the resegregation that's occurred over the past three decades.
When it came to voluntary school-integration efforts in the late 1970s, Seattle Public Schools was at the forefront. In 1978, Seattle became the first large urban district in the nation to undertake a desegregation plan without a court order to do so.
Today, however, Seattle district leaders appear resigned to living with the resegregation that’s occurred over the past three decades.
Resegregation, they say, is a societal problem too big for the district alone to solve.
Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson hopes Seattle residents see the value of living and going to school with people from a wide mix of backgrounds. But she says she can’t change where people live. And as much as she values racial diversity, she values high-quality schools more.
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A quality education, she says, “trumps diversity.”
School Board Chairwoman Cheryl Chow puts it more bluntly: “It’s not my job to desegregate the city,” she said. “We serve the kids that come to our doors.”
Many districts are struggling with the issue, especially after last June’s ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, which involved Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky.
In that case, a narrow majority of justices said racial diversity in schools is important, but ruled the tools that the two districts used to achieve it were unconstitutional. (The ruling covers voluntary desegregation efforts, not the court-ordered plans still in place in a few hundred districts.)
The decision was hailed by those who favor race-blind policies, and sharply criticized by many civil-rights groups as a further erosion of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case that outlawed school segregation.
Seattle’s reaction to the ruling is very different from what’s happened in Jefferson County, where the School Board moved quickly to prevent resegregation of its schools. That district, which includes the city of Louisville, recently approved a new plan under which the district will assign some students to schools based on where they live.
Seattle stopped busing, designed to achieve integration, more than 10 years ago. Its latest effort at orchestrating school diversity — in which it based some school assignments on a student’s race — affected only a few hundred students each year. That was the so-called “racial tiebreaker” that the high court declared unconstitutional.
Over the past three decades, Seattle schools have steadily resegregated. Thirty schools — close to 30 percent of the district’s buildings — have nonwhite populations that far exceed the district’s average of 58 percent. In 20 of those schools, nonwhite enrollment is 90 percent or more.
More Seattle schools have a broader mix of races than they did back in the ’70s, but the district is still more racially divided than many people think — or would like.
The Seattle School Board is discussing how to overhaul the way it assigns students to schools. One of its goals is to place more students at a nearby, or “neighborhood,” school.
Board members are talking about reserving some high-school seats — anywhere from 5 to 15 percent — for students outside a school’s neighborhood, and perhaps making those available first to students from low-income families.
But such “set-aside” seats would be unlikely to achieve any more integration than the old racial tiebreaker. They also wouldn’t affect the segregation that exists in elementary and middle schools.
There’s some hope that the district’s efforts to strengthen all schools will, as a byproduct, lead to more diverse classrooms.
But integration is not a top priority.
“This is probably heresy and I’ll probably get in trouble for this,” says School Board member Harium Martin-Morris. As long as a school’s academic program is strong, he says, “I’m not so much worried about the ethnic makeup of a building.”
Fellow board member Michael DeBell, while troubled by the racial isolation in some schools, says it’s a national issue and a class issue that the School Board has few tools to address. His fallback position, he says, is “to make sure every child has as much opportunity for success as possible.”
Betty Howell Gray, a former teacher, principal and founder of the Seattle Alliance of Black School Educators, says that’s her focus now, too.
Gray went to segregated schools through college. She worked as an educator in Seattle schools for decades, and supported busing during that time. But now, she thinks the district should concentrate on ensuring every neighborhood has a strong school.
Some wish Seattle would do more.
Anurima Bhargava, of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, worries Seattle will lose sight of the importance of racial diversity. That organization, now separate from the NAACP, was the lead counsel for the Brown v. Board of Education case.
“We’ve got to do both,” Bhargava said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to do high-quality, inclusive schools.”
In the vast majority of cities in this country, she said, it’s difficult to achieve meaningful integration. But she stresses that they can’t stop trying.
“It’s important for Seattle to focus on the quality of its schools, but not to lose sight of how a diverse environment is part of what a quality education is,” she said.
In Jefferson County, Ky., where about 48 percent of students are minorities, there was never a doubt about whether to pursue a new diversity plan, said Pat Todd, the district’s executive director for school assignment.
But she also said it was clear there weren’t a lot of other districts trying to figure out new ways to integrate schools.
“The political climate right now is very challenging for most school districts to try to continue these efforts,” Todd said. “Seattle is more reflective of what’s going on nationally.”
Under that district’s new assignment plan, each school will have at least 15 percent and no more than 50 percent of its students from neighborhoods with lower-than-average income and educational attainment, and a higher-than-average minority population.
The district hopes that approach will pass legal muster, Todd said, since students will be assigned to schools based on where they live, not their race.
Jefferson County has some advantages over districts like Seattle, she said. Its school district encompasses Louisville and all the surrounding suburbs, she said, so families can’t just move a short distance to avoid integration efforts. The district also isn’t facing a financial squeeze that makes it want to save money on busing, as is the case here.
Most important, Todd says, Jefferson County is able to give 93 to 95 percent of parents their first or second choice of schools.
“I hate to say this. I want to say it’s all about the greater good,” she said. “But I don’t believe we could achieve the greater good if I wasn’t able to meet the needs of individual families.”
In Seattle, School Board members don’t like the racial isolation in many schools, and know that a move to more neighborhood schools may reinforce it.
Chow has reminded her colleagues that a vote for neighborhood schools means a vote for segregated schools in a city where many neighborhoods are segregated.
It pains her to think about it, she says, because public education is supposed to give students the opportunity to interact with classmates of different ethnic backgrounds. But she’s willing to tolerate it, she says, “as long as we are addressing issues of quality and leadership throughout the district.”
Goodloe-Johnson says she attended an all-black school in Omaha, Neb., and received a great education. What’s most important, she says, is that students receive high-quality, rigorous instruction, and whatever support they need.
She says she’d prefer to send her daughter to a racially diverse school when she is ready for kindergarten.
But she can teach her daughter the value of diversity in other ways, she says, so if the academics are strong, she would have no problem with a school that’s heavily minority — or heavily white.
“Not if it provides the quality that I want it to provide,” she said.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org