Promoting Diversity in Your Schools

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Arthur L. Coleman, Francisco M. Negron Jr., and Katherine E. Lipper

Education in the U.S. is at an important crossroads. Challenges abound -- ranging from our ability to educate students with the knowledge and skills required of a 21st century workforce to the ongoing challenges of budgets and the need to “do more with less.” Amplifying our collective national challenge is a demographic reality: Significantly larger segments of our emerging workforce will come in future years from low-income and racial and ethnic groups that often have been the least well-served by our schools.

With these challenges come opportunities. As a nation, we have clear national and nonpartisan agreement that education plays a critical role in ensuring that we produce citizens who can meet the challenges facing our nation -- and that we must invest, and invest wisely, for those aims to be achieved.

Part of that investment must include a focus on current resources and ways we can leverage those resources to benefit all students. We must ensure we are paying attention to a resource that is a given in many districts -- the diversity of the student population -- and capitalize on this resource to enhance learning, achievement, and success.

Successfully addressing student diversity in public schools is no more about numbers for numbers’ sake than it is about diversity for diversity’s sake. Meaningful strategies will, rather, focus on leveraging and enhancing existing diversity among students as part of the educational enterprise -- working to promote academic and educational outcomes that school district leaders seek through programmatic efforts inside and outside of the classroom.

We have co-authored a policy guide, Achieving Educational Excellence for All: A Guide to Diversity-Related Policy Strategies for School Districts, to provide school boards, district leaders and staff, community leaders, and parents practical guidance on policy issues associated with student diversity. It is designed to help you frame conversations around diversity, with a particular emphasis on education policy development and community engagement, so that you can help your district meet its educational goals.

Student diversity—then and now

In the two decades following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, school districts focused on curing problems of the past, acting to end legally imposed segregation of students on the basis of race. Federal courts consistently held that the districts’ remedial interest -- remedying the present effects of past discrimination -- could justify these race-conscious considerations in appropriate circumstances.

The most intensive period of school desegregation occurred from 1968 to 1972. During this period, the percentage of black students in severely segregated schools dropped from 64.3 percent to 38.7 percent. Later U.S. Supreme Court cases established scope and time limitations for these remedial policies. Once a district established that it no longer operated separate school systems for white and nonwhite students (achieving so-called unitary status), it had satisfied the remedial purposes of the desegregation order.

School districts are not required to exercise desegregation policies in perpetuity. Said differently, they are not obliged to overcome the legacy of societal discrimination, which is too broadly based for a single district to have a realistic chance of having a positive impact on it.

Perhaps more to the point, the concept of legally mandated racial integration supported by a historical, remedial rationale has significantly less relevance to districts now than in decades past. Much of district energy today focuses on the educational, civic, and economic benefits that often result from well-developed policies and strategies that are mission-focused and forward-looking.

This reflects a major shift in how education leaders think -- and act -- with respect to diversity issues. Notably, although legal issues are never far removed from the conversation (or so it seems), this shift reflects a move from an externally imposed set of obligations -- required by courts or federal agencies to correct for past wrongs -- to institutional choices.

Against this backdrop, districts should ensure that diversity-related policies and strategies are pursued as tools that promote core educational benefits -- not to achieve diversity for its own sake. By doing so, they can ensure that they are on solid footing -- both legally and practically.

Defining diversity

Diversity is a multidimensional, broadly inclusive concept that acknowledges and embraces the richness of human differences. As a practical matter, it is vital that a school board define diversity with sufficient clarity, given the inherent ambiguity of the term and the frequently ill-informed debates that surround it.

Properly understood and used, the term “diversity” is not code for race, ethnicity, or gender by themselves. While a school board’s concept of diversity may include these factors, it should be far more comprehensive, encompassing relevant attributes and experiences that can influence learning in and out of the classroom.

Indeed, when addressing the diversity of your student body, multiple factors may be considered. Many district policies across the country include, in addition to race, ethnicity, and sex, references to socioeconomic status, neighborhood, language status, special education needs, academic performance and potential, record of achievement, community or civic engagement or interest, and more.

In California’s Berkeley Unified School District, for example, elementary school students are assigned to schools based on parental choice, a diversity index of the student’s neighborhood (determined by the racial, socioeconomic, and adult education levels of all neighborhood residents), and priority categories that relate largely to the proximity of their school of choice and siblings attending the school of choice. For assignment to small, specialized programs at Berkeley’s one high school, the assignment policy also takes into account special education and English language learner status.

In San Francisco, student assignment factors include parental choice, geographical proximity to school, and a “diversity index” that measures socioeconomic status, academic achievement, home language, and extreme poverty of individual students. In St. Louis Public Schools, the district’s interdistrict assignment policy reflects consideration of parental choice, residential address, race, behavioral history, and special education status.

Further, the board’s concept of student diversity does not have to remain static. For example, after being released from a mandatory desegregation order, Texas’ Ector County Independent School District met the challenge of maintaining diversity head on by redefining it. Diversity now goes beyond traditional classifications such as white, black, or Hispanic to include giftedness, socioeconomics, primary language, special learning needs, and race.

As these examples make clear, a district’s definition of diversity should not reflect a one-size-fits-all model, but one that includes specific goals and needs, with consideration of history and present day realities. Ultimately, diversity-related policies should be framed in light of the educational objectives the board seeks to achieve, not around the attainment or maintenance of numerical population-related targets.

Changing the conversation

No serious discussion of diversity in our public schools can or should take place without community involvement. Perhaps more than any other governmental entity, school boards and their decisions directly affect a community’s citizens.

This role places your board in a prime position to enlist the input and support of parents and community leaders on a variety of issues, including advancing your district’s diversity goals. Community engagement and outreach requires that school boards carefully frame conversations about a diversity-related policy like student assignment so everyone understands its purpose, rationale, and substance.

For instance, the building of new schools and the drawing or re-drawing of attendance zones may elicit strong public comment that centers on the proposed action’s potential effect on personal interests. But this issue presents an opportunity for the board to lead the community by shifting the conversation to one about diversity as an educational value.

When established, diversity-related policies should be pursued to advance larger educational goals such as realizing higher student achievement, preparing students to be competitive in a global economy, and inculcating civic and democratic values. School boards must be clear about these larger goals, ensuring that educational and lay communities fully understand your purpose and rationale behind any diversity-related policy.

In the post-integration world, this means helping the public understand that a diversity program is not necessarily remedial and intended to correct past wrongs, nor is it about racial balancing, affirmative action, or special benefits to a particular group. Rather, diversity is about reaping the academic and educational benefits for all students that can flow from a diverse student body. Practices at the school complement and reinforce the policy through curricular and extracurricular offerings and student services that acknowledge and celebrate student differences.

Engaging the community

School boards routinely engage the public in a variety of ways, and many of those avenues of communication are assets for carrying out the diversity conversation.

Many districts conduct regular workshops and hearings with specific time slots on their agendas for citizen input. In fact, because state laws often govern local policymaking, many boards must conduct public hearings before policies are formally adopted. In policy development, boards often rely on citizen advisory committees, with members providing both lay and professional perspectives that can prove invaluable.

Community and business leaders are important voices in the discussion, often offering potential solutions that enrich the public debate and highlight the importance of diversity to the business community. After Wake County, N.C., changed a student assignment plan based on socioeconomic factors to one that favored assigning students to neighborhood schools, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce proposed an alternative that it felt would retain diversity. Instead of basing student assignment on socioeconomic status or race, the chamber’s plan proposed using student academic performance. According to the chamber president, diversity by achievement is good for business.

Similarly, citizen advisory committees, especially when a school board is addressing controversial policy areas, can help reduce tensions and garner support. In Rock Hill, S.C., the district sought to minimize racial isolation in its early grades through a student assignment policy targeting new elementary schools. The result was fierce debate, a lawsuit, and a new majority on the school board.

The school district, however, learned a valuable lesson in community engagement. When the board extended its diversity efforts to the high school level, a citizen committee was appointed to inform its work. The result was markedly different. Tensions were reduced, and the district educated community members about how changing the school boundaries would minimize student isolation.

In 2010, the Boston Public Schools faced a challenge when leading civil rights groups charged that the district was not engaging the community about its student assignment process. The group’s recommendations to improve engagement included creating a task force to address specific challenges, involving community organizations and local foundations in the diversity dialogue, and expanding media awareness. All of those suggestions are mechanisms that districts nationwide can use.

Additionally, it is a mistake to assume that communities -- particularly majority white communities -- naturally balk at the diversification of their schools. Earlier this year, affluent, predominantly white parents in suburban Fairfax County, Va., objected to the district’s proposal to rezone their children out of a highly diverse high school into a less racially and economically diverse one. Importantly, the parents opposing the rezoning cited the original school’s diversity as one of its positive influences. One said keeping the school diverse is “the right civic decision, the best policy for future generations.”

Legal considerations

School boards also must examine potential legal implications, particularly to the extent that the policies include consideration of race or ethnicity as factors in student assignment. Federal courts use different legal tests for policies, depending on whether the policy classifies persons on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin (which requires the most stringent test, strict scrutiny); sex and gender (which requires intermediate scrutiny); or other characterizations (which requires the lowest level of scrutiny, rational basis).

Strict scrutiny requires policies to serve a very significant educational end (a “compelling interest”), one vital to the district’s success in pursuing that goal. The methods used must be carefully calibrated (“narrowly tailored”) to achieve those ends.

When determining whether to include race and ethnicity as part of a diversity policy, race-neutral alternatives may merit consideration. These include assigning students based on their socioeconomic or achievement status, and establishing magnet schools, lotteries, or multifactor indexes to determine student placement.

Ultimately, your board can employ various means to pursue diversity-related goals that are aligned with evidence-based educational goals. In deliberating about how to properly design your student assignment policy, take these steps to ensure that it is legally sustainable:

• Connect the use of race to educational goals, not just district demographics (which could result in an impermissible quota system).

• Review social science research that examines the interplay between racial diversity and academic achievement or other educational benefits, and apply that research to the district’s context.

• Clearly articulate how and when race is employed to assign students. Avoid using blunt categories that ignore important racial and ethnic nuances within a student population, reflecting “a limited notion of diversity” (e.g., “white” and “nonwhite”).

• Ensure the use of race or ethnicity in student assignment is necessary to realize a discernable effect on student assignment.

• Consider and, where appropriate, try race-neutral alternatives first.

Remember, conversations around these issues will become part of the record in a legal challenge. Consequentially, the terms used and the purposes stated in meetings (including public meetings) are particularly important because they can demonstrate the board’s defensible intent. If questions arise about racial balancing in a discussion, those supporting the particular student assignment policy must be able to rebut racial balancing as a motivation. This shows the board’s real focus was not on conferring special benefits based on race, but rather on student achievement goals.

A student assignment plan may face the greatest risk of litigation, and a successful legal challenge, if the district can’t explain persuasively the connection between the policy’s race- and ethnicity-conscious means and the compelling ends sought. The plan may not satisfy legal requirements if you can’t show that race-neutral alternatives have been considered, if determinations are made on an individual (not system-wide) basis, or if the use of race and ethnicity is so minimal that other methods might be as or more effective.

Other considerations

Considering a new or revised student assignment plan also should entail a carefully deliberated process of evaluation. In other words, your board should “do its homework” to ensure the plan’s success and sustainability. Ultimately, diversity-related policies must be developed using a transparent process that is understood and followed by everyone.

Before establishing or refining a policy, a school board should gather relevant information about its context and history. This exercise may take weeks, months or, for some large districts, even a year or two. Specifically, the board should examine district demographic information (including race and socioeconomic status), any governing court orders, relevant local or state laws, the educational effects of any current or previous assignment plans (both race-conscious and race-neutral), and political structures. Also, you should give substantial consideration to community values and interests.

Ultimately, the board should scrutinize student assignment, both generally and within the context of its specific needs and circumstances. Public outreach can and should be informed by the background information you collect, and school boards should anticipate criticisms by preparing persuasive responses and by considering public messaging.

Finally, districts periodically must review and evaluate the design and operation of policies to ensure they are achieving the desired results. Periodic review is legally necessary for policies that are race- and ethnicity-conscious. This ensures any consideration of race and ethnicity continues to serve compelling interests in appropriately calibrated, narrowly tailored ways.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not specified how often periodic review should occur, but you should look at student assignment and other diversity-related policies every few years, and more often when necessary. Working with an interdisciplinary team of key district officials, knowledgeable staff, experts in research and evaluation, and lawyers, the board should examine all relevant data -- including student demographics and academic achievement over time -- to determine whether the policy is having its intended effect.

Also, talk to other school districts that have tried different methods, including race-neutral means, to achieve similar outcomes. Hold public hearings and be receptive to public feedback from the community as well as from students and families. Consider whether other design options (including race-neutral alternatives) would be as or more effective at achieving the district’s goals, and document the board’s rationale for discarding alternatives where appropriate.

Beyond the legal requirement of periodic review, this evaluation is critical in the successful development and implementation of any diversity-related policy. Meaningful evaluation helps your board improve, enhance, or initiate the conditions that must be in place for the policies to be effective, drive continuous improvement, and help you realize your objectives.

Ultimately, a school board must ensure that the goals of the diversity policy are reflected, complemented, and reinforced in the classrooms and hallways. Boards must work with schools to support their diverse student populations  through curricular and extracurricular offerings and student services that create a culture in which student difference is acknowledged and celebrated. 

Arthur L. Coleman is a managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel LLC, an affiliate of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. He served as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from 1997 to 2000. Francisco M. Negrón Jr. is associate executive director and general counsel of the National School Boards Association. Katherine E. Lipper is a policy and legal advisor for EducationCounsel LLC. This article was adapted from Achieving Educational Excellence for All: A Guide to Diversity-Related Policy Strategies for School Districts, a joint publication of the National School Boards Association, Education Counsel LLC, and The College Board. To download a copy, go to