Ten years ago, on June 28, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS) v. Seattle School District No. 1 that limited school districts’ options for promoting racial integration in schools. The PICS decision threatened to be a huge blow to school integration efforts—and it has made the fight for racial integration in K–12 schools more challenging—but PICS did not spell the end of desegregation.
A decade after the decision, a growing number of school districts and charter schools are adopting policies to promote school integration. In a national climate in which federal support for integration policies is unlikely and the path to legal victories for desegregation is long, these locally-driven efforts may provide the best hope for reversing the trends of rising racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools.
New Restrictions on School Integration after PICS
The Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in PICS restricted the options available to school districts that are not under legal desegregation orders for voluntarily considering race in K–12 school integration policies. The decision examined enrollment policies in two districts—Seattle Public Schools in Washington State and Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky. In both cases, district assignment policies for some schools directly considered the race of individual students in determining who would attend which school. In a split decision, the plurality opinion by Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion, struck down both policies after finding that the districts’ uses of race were not narrowly tailored to meet their stated diversity goals.
PICS did not, however, close the door on all voluntary school integration strategies. Policies that consider only socioeconomic factors do not face the same legal challenges as race-based policies. And in his concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy indicated that school districts may consider racial factors as part of voluntary integration policies as well under certain circumstances.
Retreat or Adapt?
In a post-PICS world, school districts that want to make racial integration a goal are thus faced with a choice: admit defeat or work to find a legally permissible route to those ends. The different fates of Seattle and Jefferson County, the two districts named in the case, illustrate this divide.
In Seattle, the superintendent and school board declined to find alternate routes to integration after the court struck down their previous plan, citing residential segregation as a barrier. A year after PICS, the school board chairwoman told to The Seattle Times, “It’s not my job to desegregate the city.” While the district did make some efforts to consider socioeconomic factors when drawing school assignment boundaries, it later abandoned those efforts in subsequent redistricting, and schools saw a rise in racial segregation.
In Jefferson County, by contrast, district leaders, parents, and students rallied behind the goal of school integration and supported a new integration plan that combined neighborhood-level factors for race as well as socioeconomic factors such as family income and educational attainment. A revised integration plan is still in effect, and the district’s commitment to integration remains strong. In a 2011 poll, more than 90 percent of parents agreed that diversity provides educational benefits to their students and more than 80 percent supported continuing with some form of school integration policy. When a bill in the Kentucky state legislature requiring neighborhood school assignment threatened to end Jefferson County’s integration plan earlier this year, the community again rallied behind the goal of integration, and the legislation did not succeed.
One Hundred Districts and Charters Leading the Way
Jefferson County is joined by other school districts and charter schools across the country that are making important strides in promoting school integration, despite the restrictions imposed by PICS. In our latest inventory of socioeconomic integration policies, The Century Foundation identified one hundred districts and charter schools that directly consider socioeconomic balance in at least some of their student assignment decisions in an effort to create more integrated schools. Some districts have redrawn school boundaries to divide students more equitably, and others have created magnet schools or district-wide choice policies that assign students using algorithms that prioritize both family’s school preferences and diverse enrollment. Many of these districts and charters have integration goals that include both racial and socioeconomic diversity. And some, like Jefferson County, also directly consider race as one of the student assignment factors.
Locations of Identified Districts and Charters with Socioeconomic Integration Policies
While some of the districts on this list are under desegregation orders, most have voluntarily adopted these policies. Some, like La Crosse School District in Wisconsin, have had socioeconomic integration policies in place for decades. A number of districts, like Montclair Public Schools in New Jersey, had race-based integration plans that they modified to include socioeconomic factors after PICS. And some, like Dallas Independent School District in Texas, have launched new school integration efforts in the past few years.
A decade after PICS, school districts have fewer tools at their disposal to promote school integration and specifically to target racial diversity, but there is still much that they can do to create more racially and socioeconomically integrated schools and classrooms.
In order to move the needle on school integration, we need a combination of efforts: continued legal challenges to school segregation, federal encouragement and resources for integration efforts, state leadership (like the work being done in New York) to hold school districts accountable for diversity and promote inter-district integration, and voluntary district action to adopt better student assignment policies. A decade after PICS, school districts have fewer tools at their disposal to promote school integration and specifically to target racial diversity, but there is still much that they can do to create more racially and socioeconomically integrated schools and classrooms.