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New report examines the effects of local school diversity plans

Kathryn Kao

October 13, 2015

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Elizabeth DeBray, a professor in the department of lifelong education, administration and policy, recently co-published a new report analyzing the impact of a little-known federal grant aimed at promoting school diversity.

In 2009, the Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans (TASAP) program was created by the federal government in response to a Supreme Court decision that muddied many districts' understanding of school integration.

After observing several public meetings and conducting various interviews, DeBray and her three co-researchers concluded that the effects of the new technical assistance program on school diversity were mixed.

With 11 award recipients, DeBray focused her research on the School Board of Orange County in Florida, Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida and the Jefferson County Board of Education in Kentucky.

The report revealed that, "five districts represented examples of 'successful' implementation, using the grant funds in ways that prioritized diversity, while the other six demonstrated 'subverted' implementation, using funds in ways that met local needs, but moved away from the diversity goal."

"What's interesting is that there was such a range of different things the districts said they were going to spend the money on," said DeBray. "When we say they 'succeeded,' that means they went ahead and did it. But that doesn't necessarily mean they were putting in place race-conscious policies or enhancing school diversity."

Despite the study's mixed results, she lists Orange County, Jefferson County and Evangeline Parish School Board in Louisiana as "successful" examples.

All four of these districts used the funds to implement plans that were approved by the federal government. However, whether these plans will actually have an integrative effect on the districts is a separate question, said DeBray.

Some districts were more interested in looking at socioeconomic indicators rather than race. For example, Hillsborough board members viewed the grant as a way to broaden their definition of diversity. Instead of focusing solely on race and ethnicity, Hillsborough County expanded its attention to include the educational needs of students with disabilities, as well as English language learners.

With the grant, Hillsborough County developed a new multifactor index based on a variety of student characteristics, like home ownership and parental education level. With this new algorithm, the board can clearly demonstrate what the best options are for certain enrollment diversity scenarios.

Several school districts, such as Boston Public Schools and Champaign Community Unit School, District #4 in Illinois, fell short of their original plans by backing away from race-conscious policies.

The research team found that, in practice, other issues tended to "crowd out" diversity from the political agenda. Many of the districts were struggling with shrinking school budgets and faced pressure to reduce transportation costs.

Furthermore, "districts with current or past commitments to diversity could not necessarily sustain those commitments in the face of public indifference to diversity as a goal and of other pressing priorities, such as boosting test scores, implementing budget austerity and attempting to recruit or retain middle-class and white students."

Besides looking at how each district used the grant money, DeBray and the other researchers were also interested in analyzing how the federal government's new hands-off approach would affect school diversity efforts at the local level.

"We actually think there's a really exciting possibility for a federal role to foster local efforts in school diversity," said DeBray. "But what we learned from this program is that even with strong federal leadership, it's going to be a tough relationship to change because local boards, in general, are pretty resistant to changing student assignment policies."

DeBray, who teaches classes on both UGA's Athens and Gwinnett campuses, studies school desegregation, compensatory education and use of research evidence in policymaking. Her areas of expertise include federal education policy, national interest group politics and policy and politics in PreK-12 education.

She conducted the study, which was supported by the Spencer Foundation, with Kathryn McDermott from the University of Massachusetts, Erica Frankenberg from Pennsylvania State University and Ann Elizabeth Blankenship from the University of Southern Mississippi.