An End for Racially Integrated Schools?

November 20, 2008

Download Story
(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
For decades, Chicago Public Schools has operated under a legal decree requiring it to maintain as many desegregated schools as possible. But a federal judge may soon terminate the plan. In anticipation, school officials are already thinking about how they'll grant admission to the city's popular magnet schools. Some worry the court's decision could mean a curtain call for the district's racially integrated schools.

Chicago's schools aren't just segregated.

ORFIELD: Chicago has been at the epicenter for segregation for decades and decades and nobody's ever done anything about it.

Gary Orfield was commissioned by the state to examine segregation in the Chicago Public Schools in the 1970s. Turns out the federal government was investigating too. They sued.

ORFIELD: They had all kinds of evidence that Chicago had violated the Constitution, so a settlement negotiation was set up…

The consent agreement they signed did little to bring integration to most Chicago schools.

Thousands of white students have left the system over the years—they're now just 8 percent of the district. Today, more than 200 CPS schools—a-third of the total—don't have a single white student in them. But the consent decree did create some islands of integration—magnet schools. And many of them have become the jewels of the system.

Sound: Drummond Montessori Magnet School

The preschoolers at Drummond Montessori Magnet School in Bucktown sit on the carpeted floor or at low tables. Their porcelain and wood materials are out in front of them. Two teachers move quietly around the room.

Magnet schools like this one—along with Chicago's gifted schools, classical schools, and selective enrollment high schools—these schools have become the most coveted in the system.

Every year, thousands of parents put their kids' names into the lottery for a spot at a magnet school.

BARRETT: I knew there were magnet schools in the city and I thought, ‘Well, let me just apply and see if I get lucky and I get chosen and…'

Vivian Barrett got lucky. She didn't want her son to go to a predominantly Latino school the way she had. She thought a school like that would be the way hers was…

BARRETT: Under-resourced, where the books are very old…

Barrett likes the education her son is getting at Drummond. But she also likes the mix of kids here.

BARRETT: For me, that's important, diversity, racial diversity. And we're going to lose that without the consent decree.

Under the decree, Drummond and other magnets MUST use race to determine who's admitted, to create mixed schools. Barrett had to declare her son's race on the application she sent in. Schools follow a rule: a maximum 35 percent of seats can go to white students.

But if the decree is removed, a 2007 Supreme Court ruling will go into effect. And the district will be PROHIBITED from considering race in any way.

Barrett and other Drummond parents have begun taking action to make sure their school remains diverse.

BARRETT: So we're hoping to get the word out. We're looking at the Far North side, and the Far South Side and theWest Side.

Barrett says they're trying to alert black and Latino parents about the magnet process currently underway. They hope to offset interest by white parents moving in to the gentrifying neighborhood around the school.

ORFIELD: What tends to happen with magnet schools is they tend to racially polarize when there's not a desegregation standard.

Gary Orfield is now a professor at UCLA and about to release a study about how magnet schools re-segregate.

ORFIELD: Some of them become overwhelmingly white , others that were integrated become African American or Latino.

That could happen in Chicago's selective enrollment high schools as well, where competition for seats is fierce. Admission there is determined by test scores, but seats are set aside for students of different races.

ROCKS: Consent decrees come to an end. Patrick Rocks is general counsel for the Chicago Board of Education.

ROCKS: This consent decree is now 28 years old. The city of Chicago looks much different today than it did in 1980 or 1970 or 1960. The court is right. The time has come to ask the question, does this decree survive this hearing in January or does it terminate?

Rocks says CPS is already thinking about new ways to integrate students. That promises to be controversial. Districts nationwide have tried to use income to diversify schools when they're no longer allowed to use race.

Under one plan CPS is considering, students would be assigned an income based on the census tract where they live. Magnet schools would then try to enroll students from a wide range of incomes.

ROCKS: We want diversity across the spectrum.

Under the scenario, a millionaire and a public housing resident living side-by-side would be assigned the same income and be given the same chance at being admitted to a certain school—no matter the race or actual income of either family.

Would that plan preserve racial diversity in the CPS schools where it now exists?

ROCKS: We won't ultimately know the answer to that.

Rocks says the district spends about $100 million a year complying with the consent decree. Most of that goes to pay for additional staff, at magnet schools but also in racially isolated schools, as compensation to minority kids whose schools will never be integrated.

But the district has allowed white students to concentrate in schools too. Last year there were 17 majority-white schools—a violation of the decree.

Ricardo Meza wants to hold the district accountable for that.

Meza is an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

MEZA: I think it keeps the school district notice that they're not just going to have to answer to the parents, to the community organizations, or even the lawyers. They're going to have to answer to a federal judge.

The judge on the case has asked for public comment on whether the consent decree should be terminated. The deadline to sign up is December 1.