Posted on UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies – See article in original source
By Chris Kenning, Louisville Courier-Journal on January 27, 2011
An overwhelming majority of Jefferson County parents say they want diverse public schools and support guidelines to ensure that happens, according to a survey conducted by a national expert on school integration.
“The survey results show a strong and durable commitment by parents to desegregated schools,” said Gary Orfield, the professor who conducted the study and who heads the non-partisan Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
However, parent satisfaction was less strong on the way Jefferson County Public Schools was implementing its current plan, with 54 percent saying they were happy — and large percentages expressing concern about the reliability of bus transportation, according to Orfield’s findings.
Orfield released his survey results during a packed meeting of the school board, which had brought him in to help them find ways to overcome lingering discontent with the district’s student-assignment plan.
“We wanted to know if we needed to design a whole new plan or fix up” the existing one, Orfield said. But the results show “we need a tune up rather than a new engine,” he told the board.
Orfield will spend another day interviewing staff and community members before weighing some changes suggested, but not yet disclosed, by a district task force. He will present the board recommendations in the coming months, but wouldn’t promise they’d be ready to implement for the next school year.
The survey was conducted in December and January by Louisville-based IQS Research, randomly sampling 1,852 parents and 1,095 high school juniors. That included a mix of parents from more and less affluent areas and education levels.
Eighty percent of parent respondents were female.
The results were sometimes contradictory — showing parents wanted access to neighborhood schools, diverse schools and school choice, which project associate Erica Frankenberg likened to parents wanting to “have their cake and eat it, too.”
For example, while many parents support diverse schools, almost 80 percent said children should be allowed to attend the closest school — even if it increases segregation.
Superintendent Sheldon Berman said the district’s job is to figure out how to balance competing priorities, but he said he was pleased that “most were satisfied with the plan.”
Board member Larry Hujo said they showed that the district shouldn’t abandon integration efforts.
“I don’t think we have a diversity issue as much as we have a logistical issue,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to make everybody happy, but I think we can minimize the disruption.”
Opponents of the district’s diversity plan greeted the survey results with skepticism, saying Orfield’s longstanding support of school integration made his findings suspect, and he didn’t ask enough pointed questions.
“Ask if you want diversity, and nobody in their right mind would say ‘No,’” said Deborah Stallworth, a longtime busing opponent. “But (the results differ) if you ask if they’d still be in favor if their children went to a lower-performing school.”
The hotly debated student-assignment plan was adopted after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the district’s old desegregation policy was unconstitutional. The new plan has been the source of several lawsuits and even state legislation to replace it in favor of neighborhood schools.
Attorney Teddy Gordon, who won the Supreme Court case that overturned the old plan, has filed suits on behalf of parents seeking to nullify the district’s new policy. He said the district’s only goal was to force children “into a prison of failed schools and long bus rides, just so a black child can sit next to a white child. … When will JCPS take a positive initiative to improve the education of all children in this community?”
Orfield testified on the district’s behalf during the lawsuit that led to the 2007 Supreme Court decision. He also consulted on the plan that replaced it, which relies on socioeconomics of neighborhoods, rather than individual students’ race, to assign students to schools.
It seeks to maintain diversity by requiring schools to enroll 15 percent to 50 percent of their students from neighborhoods where the average household income is less than $41,000; where average education levels are less than a high school diploma with some college; and where the minority population is more than 48 percent.
The board contracted with Orfield and Frankenberg last October after a troubled start to the 2010-11 school year, when first-day delays and confusion left some students on the bus for hours and led to a public outcry.
Despite a rough first day this school year, most of the district’s nearly 29,000 elementary bus riders now travel 30 minutes or less each way — a 70 percent improvement from the 2008-09, the year before the new student-assignment plan took effect, district officials have said.
Officials said that, as they fielded complaints, they wanted to see if the community’s interest in integrated schools was fading.
In 2008, a University of Kentucky and Georgetown College survey showed similar results. It showed that nearly 90 percent of parents said it’s important for students from diverse backgrounds to learn together, but that any changes to assignment rules should maintain family choice, minimize time on buses and ensure predictability.
Among the key findings from Orfield’s 2011 survey:
91 percent of parents believe that diverse schools have important educational benefits for their children, while 89 percent of parents think that the school district’s guidelines should “ensure that students learn with students from different races and economic backgrounds.”
90 percent of parents support a student-assignment policy that allows for family choice, but 79 percent said their child should be allowed to attend their nearest school, even if it increased segregation. Only 55 percent said they would send a child outside their neighborhood if it increased diversity.
90 percent said a student-assignment plan should minimize time on buses.
43 percent of parents believe that decades of integrated schools have improved the greater Louisville community.
Among high school juniors, 95 percent said they were prepared or very prepared to live and work in a diverse job setting. About 56 percent of blacks and 41 percent of whites said classes and activities at school had made them more interested in integrated living settings.
About 20 percent of students said the district should drop diversity policies, including one white student in four and one black student in nine.
Orfield said the seeming contradiction between many wanting diversity but also to get their personal school choices shouldn’t be seen as insurmountable, since 83 percent of families who get applications in on time get their first choice. And he said that while said the findings showed problems, it didn’t bear out the level of discontent some have portrayed.
“It would be a mistake to do major surgery” on the plan, rather than “correct more limited problems,” he wrote in his report.
Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP, said the survey was “very positive” and would bolster the case for those who fear that a return to neighborhood schools would bring re-segregation and harm student achievement.
Community activist Carmen Weathers, however, who listened to the presentation, said the district should focus on improving educational outcomes, not on shifting students for the sake of diversity.
“The achievement gap is still there,” he said.
Board members said they are awaiting Orfield’s report, which could come in a month or two. Most say they hope to consider changes that make the plan work better, not abandon it — a view supported by the survey.
“This is a start to more work we must do,” said board member Diane Porter.