Voluntary integration in uncertain times 



Many district leaders would like to promote greater diversity in their schools, but when it comes to voluntary efforts to integrate public schools, the law can be confusing.  


The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education — declaring state laws segregating students by race to be “inherently unequal” — stands as one of the most important decisions in the nation’s history. Over the following 15 years, and with help from other branches of the federal government, courageous Black lawyers and plaintiffs, and Black educators working behind the scenes (as Vanessa Siddle Walker describes in this issue of Kappan), the South’s schools were transformed. Despite initial protests and fierce resistance in many local communities, the region’s public school systems became the most integrated in the country and remained so for several decades.  

Since the 1990s, however, many judges have chosen to release school districts from court-ordered desegregation plans, which has prompted a wave of resegregation, especially in the South (Freeman, 1992). Further, the decline in court supervision means that any new integration efforts must be carried out voluntarily by school districts. However, even voluntary school integration has been dealt a setback, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1, which limited the ways in which districts can choose to promote diversity and reduce racial isolation.  

On its surface, the Court’s decision in Parents Involved seems paradoxical: It invalidated two districts’ integration plans because some assignment decisions were made on the basis of an individual student’s race and/or ethnicity, but at the same time, the Court also affirmed the importance of voluntarily creating diverse schools and reducing racial isolation. In effect, and in a sharp departure from its earlier role as champion of desegregation, the Court decided that schools should now try to achieve racial integration using policies that reduce the reliance on an individual student’s race or ethnicity as a factor in school assignments.   

This seeming reversal of Brown comes despite growing evidence that students from all backgrounds, White students included, tend to benefit both academically and socially from racial integration (Hanushek et al., 2009; Kahlenberg, 2016). Additionally, students who have attended desegregated schools tend to be more comfortable with those of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, and better prepared to participate in our increasingly diverse democracy (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012) than those who were educated in more racially isolated schools (Wells et al., 2011).  

Convinced of these benefits, many school district officials continue to pursue school integration even though they are not legally required to do so, and even though it can be very challenging politically for them to change existing student assignment policies (Eaton, 2012; McDermott et al., 2015). However, since the Parents Involved decision, those officials have received mixed and confusing signals about which methods of voluntary integration they are and are not permitted to use.   

Students from all backgrounds, White students included, tend to benefit both academically and socially from racial integration.

In 2009, recognizing that many district leaders were confused about their options, Congress authorized a small grant program to provide some districts with assistance. Further, in 2011, the Obama administration published additional legal and policy guidance including examples of ways in which schools could legally pursue voluntary integration and methods that incorporate race as a factor in school assignment decisions alongside those that use methods not involving race (U.S. Departments of Justice & Education, 2011). And in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education proposed a larger program to assist districts in designing or implementing voluntary integration strategies. However, that program was cancelled by newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in March 2017. (A similar bill was introduced in September 2018.) Finally, in July 2018, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education rescinded the 2011 federal guidance. The federal government’s current position encourages school districts to adopt race-neutral policies when considering diversity in student assignment.  

This back-and-forth over what is and isn’t permissible has had a chilling effect on school districts’ voluntary integration plans. While some districts have forged ahead, others have given up on their plans, fearing that whatever approach they choose would run into legal challenges. And to the extent that districts continue to pursue voluntary integration at all, they now tend to default to the use of race-neutral criteria, which, we argue, has made them less effective than race-conscious policies would be in creating racially diverse schools. (Note that this does not include the roughly 200 districts still under court desegregation orders.)  

In our own research, we’ve found that many district officials mistakenly believe that the Parents Involved decision made the use of race in student assignment illegal (Anderson et al., 2017; Frankenberg et al., 2015). In fact, it is still permissible to use race-conscious policies, and these policies are important because they benefit all students and society as a whole. To help teachers and administrators understand how they might achieve integration in a changed demographic and legal landscape, we provide information, below, about the number and types of voluntary integration policies that currently exist, as well as our assessment of their effectiveness.  

Defining diversity 

We compiled a list of 111 school districts, from across the country, that had previously been identified as having adopted voluntary integration policies designed to promote diversity in student enrollments (Kahlenberg, 2016; Potter et al., 2016; Reardon & Owens, 2014). We then took a closer look at those districts and identified 59 that don’t just have such policies on the books but actually have taken steps to implement them. These 59 districts, which tend to be relatively large, enroll a total of more than 3.7 million students. They are relatively similar in their patterns of residential segregation, and they tend to be considerably more diverse than the national norm: 38% of their students are Latinx, 26% Black, and 29% White, and 65% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.  

However, these 59 districts don’t all define diversity in the same way and, as a result, their efforts to promote integration have had varied effects. 

When making decisions about student assignments, some of these districts consider factors that don’t have to do with diversity at all (for example, asking whether a student already has siblings at the given school). Plus, when deciding how to integrate their schools, some of the districts consider factors such as students’ disability status, their eligibility for English language services, and their identification as gifted or talented. Generally speaking, though, when people talk about school integration, they mean an effort to bring together students from differing backgrounds. Although these efforts once primarily focused on bringing students from different racial backgrounds together, for a variety of legal and political reasons the focus has strayed from racial integration in recent decades. 

Among the 59 districts we identified as actively pursuing voluntary integration, 13 make an effort to diversify their schools by integrating students by race and socioeconomic status (SES). But most of these districts (46 of them) make enrollment decisions based only on students’ SES. Implicitly, then, they define a school as “integrated” if it enrolls children from a mix of lower- and higher-income backgrounds, even if those students are all of the same race. 

Putting aside, for the moment, the question of whether it makes sense to leave race out of the definition of diversity, SES itself turns out to be a tricky thing to measure. Typically, to determine how many of their students are living in poverty, school districts look to the percentage eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL). That data are widely available, so it’s a convenient indicator. In fact, it’s the only measure of SES used in 42 of the 59 districts we studied. (Another seven districts use multiple indicators of SES, including family measures — e.g., participation in means-tested governmental programs like Head Start — and U.S. Census data on neighborhood economic status, such as the percentage of single-parent households, median family income, percentage of household ownership, and educational attainment of adults.) 

However, using FRL as a measure of SES has significant and increasingly serious drawbacks. For one thing, participation in the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision — under which schools are not required to collect annual data on students’ eligibility for subsidized lunches (Food Research & Action Center, 2017) — has grown dramatically over the last few years. Already, 3,500 of the country’s 13,600 districts participate, meaning that for a large and fast-growing portion of our public schools, it’s no longer possible to say how many students are eligible for FRL. Further, eligibility for FRL is based only on household income, and it often fails to account for students’ access to other financial resources; roughly 20% of recipients are identified incorrectly (Harwell, 2018).  

Many school district leaders hope that if they diversify enrollments by SES, this will also result in other types of diversity, including racial integration. But, in fact, the 46 districts in our study that focus solely on SES have ended up with substantially lower levels of racial integration than the districts that take into account both SES and race. In short, if you want to promote racial integration, there’s no substitute for taking race into account when making student assignment decisions. 

Student assignment policies  

Among school districts voluntarily pursuing school integration, we see four main approaches to managing student enrollments: ensuring diversity in admissions to magnet schools, adjusting attendance zone boundaries, offering districtwide choice (with civil rights protections), and transferring students among schools. All 59 districts in our sample pursue at least one of these strategies, and some use a combination of them (for example, adjusting attendance zone boundaries while also ensuring diverse enrollments at magnet schools). In some districts, these approaches have been in place for decades, starting out as court-ordered policies and then being modified over time, typically to incorporate more family choice and/or to reduce the use of race-conscious student assignments in favor of decisions based solely on students’ socioeconomic status.  

Magnet schools  

Twenty-six of the districts diversify their student enrollments through their magnet school admissions process (the one type of integration policy that has received some federal financial support). Specifically, they admit students using a lottery system designed to promote socioeconomic and/or racial diversity. For example, lotteries for some Chicago Public Schools (magnet, magnet cluster, open enrollment, and selective enrollment) include a priority (the fourth of four priorities) for students in the school’s entry-level grade from differing socioeconomic backgrounds within each part of the city. This priority is calculated based on the given neighborhood’s median family income, adult educational attainment, percentage of single-parent households, percentage of home ownership, percentage of the population that speaks a language other than English, and a school performance variable (Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 2018). 

Attendance zone boundaries 

Twenty-three of the districts make periodic adjustments to their attendance zones, redrawing boundaries in ways that boost school integration — of the four approaches to student assignment, this one appears to have the fastest and most wide-ranging effect on enrollments (though boundaries need to be adjusted regularly for this mechanism to be effective, given that residential patterns often shift). For example, when reevaluating its zone boundaries, the Nashville, Tenn., school system considers both race/ethnicity and SES, as well as seeking to distribute English language learners and students with disabilities evenly across schools (Metro Nashville Davidson County Board of Public Education, 2012). The district adopted this plan following a decade of rapid resegregation after its court-ordered desegregation plan ended and the district returned to neighborhood schools. Many of the school districts in our initial list of 111 districts that were trying to achieve diversity had an attendance zone boundary policy with some diversity-related language, but we could not find evidence that they were revisiting the zone boundaries with any regularity to ensure that their diversity goals were being met. 

Many school district officials continue to pursue school integration even though they are not legally required to do so. 

Districtwide choice (with civil rights protections) 

Fourteen of the districts offer districtwide choice combined with civil rights protections, a strategy that can also have a far-reaching effect on enrollments. Under this approach, families rank the schools they would like their child to attend, and the district considers their preferences along with districtwide diversity goals. For example, California’s Berkeley Unified School District (which recently celebrated 50 years of voluntary integration policies) assigns students through a lottery system that gives some weight to families’ school choices but also factors in data from a detailed diversity map that includes information about parent education level, parent income level, and racial and ethnic patterns within each neighborhood. The student assignment lottery does not use personal attributes of students, but rather considers the diversity characteristics of the neighborhood in which the student lives (Berkeley Unified Public School District, 2018).  

Transferring students  

Finally, eight of the districts consider socioeconomic and/or racial diversity when evaluating transfer requests to and from schools. For example, Ector County Independent School District in Texas gives priority to transfer requests that will diversify the receiving school by socioeconomic status, English proficiency, enrollment in special education, gifted and talented status, and race or ethnicity (Ector County Independent School District Board of Trustees, 2011). Typically, districts include this type of strategy with another one of the strategies mentioned above.   

What have we learned about the effectiveness of these strategies? Overall, districts that pursue voluntary integration have succeeded in reducing socioeconomic segregation over the past 15 years, while levels of racial segregation have remained fairly steady. Given that racial segregation has increased nationally over that time, this suggests that these districts have been relatively successful in one sense — it should be counted as a success that they’ve maintained the existing levels of racial diversity in their schools. However, as mentioned earlier, districts that use race-conscious policies have been more successful in reducing racial segregation than those that don’t. 

We found also that the type of student assignment policy makes a significant difference. The lowest levels of school-level racial and socioeconomic segregation are seen in districts that use a combination of attendance zone boundary adjustments and a diversity-oriented magnet school system. This was closely followed by school districts that use districtwide choice with civil rights protections. Conversely, we found the highest levels of school racial segregation in districts that rely on magnet school admissions as their only means of integration, and we found the highest levels of school socioeconomic segregation in districts that rely only on school transfer policies. (These latter findings are not surprising given that magnet admissions affect only a handful of schools in a district, and transfer policies affect only a small subset of the overall student population.)  

Voluntary integration: Limited but still worthwhile  

Sixty-five years after the Brown decision, many districts — including the 59 in our study — continue to pursue integration, even in the absence of clear legal guidance and political support. They do so because they believe in the power of diversity to achieve educational and social benefits for their students and communities. 

However, since the 2007 Parents Involved decision, public school districts have struggled with uncertainty as to whether they can continue to pursue racial integration at all and, if so, what types of policies they are permitted to use. Even so, voluntary integration is experiencing a modest resurgence. For example, in 2018 alone, a number of community districts in New York City adopted new integration plans, spurred in part by high school students advocating for such policies; New Jersey saw the introduction of a new statewide school desegregation lawsuit that may result in cross-district voluntary integration efforts; and the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas committed itself to expanding its use of family income data as a factor in making student assignment decisions at schools of choice. 

Voluntary school integration alone is a limited strategy, to be sure. For example, it tends to focus mainly on student enrollment patterns, whereas court-ordered desegregation addressed a broader range of issues, such as the integration of teachers and staff and efforts to equalize school quality. Except for a handful of voluntary interdistrict integration policies — which are incredibly popular where they exist — integration efforts are also limited to within school district boundaries, which can be a further source of segregation.  

Today, however, voluntary school integration is one of the few options available. Unless and until the political climate changes, it would seem to be the most politically viable option for educators and community leaders who hope to increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity of their schools. Partnering school integration efforts with more robust housing integration efforts and working on housing and/or education integration at a regional level are other strategies to consider beyond district-level voluntary integration. 

As our research suggests, there are challenges involved in designing and implementing local student assignment policies that increase school-level diversity — racial diversity in particular. However, some districts do provide useful models for those that hope to create voluntary integration policies of their own. And, no doubt, the demonstrated benefits of racial and socioeconomic integration compel all of us to continue pursuing the promise of a public education system that is no longer “inherently unequal.”   


Anderson, J., Frankenberg, E., & Taylor, K. (2017, November). Voluntary integration plans and definitions of diversity: School district policies and practice. Paper presented at the University Council for Educational Administration, Denver, Co. 

Berkeley Unified Public School District. (2018). Information on Berkeley Unified’s student assignment plan. Berkeley, CA: Author. www.berkeleyschools.net/information-on-berkeley-unifieds-student-assignment-plan. 

Board of Education of the City of Chicago. (2018). 602.2: Admissions policy for magnet, selective enrollment and other options for knowledge schools and programs. Chicago, IL: Author. 

Cowan, C.D., Hauser, R.M., Kominski, R.A., Levin, H.M., Lucas, S.R., Morgan, S.L., … Chapman, C. (2012, November). Improving the measurement of socioeconomic status for the National Assessment of Educational Progress: A theoretical foundation. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/researchcenter/Socioeconomic_Factors.pdf .

Eaton, S. (2012, February). Not your father’s suburb: Race and rectitude in a changing Minnesota community. Washington, DC: One Nation Indivisible.  

Ector County Independent School District Board of Trustees. (2011). Post-unitary status student assignment plan. Odessa, TX: Ector County Independent School District.  

Food Research & Action Center. (2017, March). Community eligibility continues to grow in the 2016-2017 school year. Washington, DC: Author. http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/CEP-Report_Final_Links_032317.pdf .

Frankenberg, E., McDermott, K.A., DeBray, E., & Blankenship, A.E. (2015). The new politics of diversity: Lessons from a federal technical assistance grant. American Educational Research Journal, 52 (3), 440-474. 

Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467 (1992). 

Hanushek, E.A., Kain, J.F., & Rivkin, S G. (2009). New evidence about Brown v. Board of Education: The complex effects of school racial composition on achievement. Journal of Labor Economics, 27 (3), 349. 

Harwell, M. (2018). Don’t expect too much: The limited usefulness of common SES measures and a prescription for change. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.  

Kahlenberg, R.D. (2016). School integration in practice: Lessons from nine districts. New York, NY: The Century Foundation.  

McDermott, K.A., Frankenberg, E., & Diem, S. (2015). The “post-racial” politics of race: Changing student assignment policy in three school districts. Educational Policy, 29 (3), 504-554. 

Metro Nashville Davidson County Board of Public Education. (2012). Diversity management plan of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Nashville, TN: Author. 

Mickelson, R.A., & Nkomo, M. (2012). Integrated schooling, life course outcomes, and social cohesion in multiethnic democratic societies. Review of Research in Education, 36 (1), 197-238. 

Pettigrew, T.F., & Tropp, L.R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90 (5), 751-783. 

Potter, H., Quick, K., & Davies, E. (2016). A new wave of school integration. New York, NY: The Century Foundation.  

Reardon, S.F. & Owens, A. (2014). 60 years after Brown: Trends and consequences of school segregation. Annual Review of Sociology, 40, 199-214. 

United States Department of Justice & United States Department of Education. (2011). Guidance on the voluntary use of race to achieve diversity and avoid racial isolation in elementary and secondary schools. Washington, DC: Authors. 

Wells, A.S., Duran, J., & White, T. (2011). Southern graduates of school desegregation: A double consciousness of resegregation yet hope. In E. Frankenberg & E. DeBray (Eds.), Integrating Schools in a Changing Society: New Policies and Legal Options for a Multiracial Generation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 


Citation: Anderson, J. & Frankenberg, E. (2019). Voluntary integration in uncertain times. Phi Delta Kappan, 100  (5), 14-18. 

JEREMY ANDERSON (jqa5378@psu.edu; @jma_edu) is a Ph.D. candidate at the Pennsylvania State University, State College. 
ERICA FRANKENBERG (euf10@psu.edu) is the parent of two Hort Woods children and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights, Pennsylvania State University, University Park.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

WP_User Object ( [data] => stdClass Object ( [ID] => 565 [user_login] => JAnderson [user_pass] => $P$BEt7oP4DmxrsbT/gHlK1axeswsqnzs1 [user_nicename] => janderson [user_email] => janderson@fake.fake [user_url] => [user_registered] => 2019-01-16 14:33:54 [user_activation_key] => 1547649235:$P$BvK2iRpihbXa7Peo8met0m.ufCfZoq. [user_status] => 0 [display_name] => Jeremy Anderson [type] => wpuser ) [ID] => 565 [caps] => Array ( [author] => 1 ) [cap_key] => wp_capabilities [roles] => Array ( [0] => author ) [allcaps] => Array ( [upload_files] => 1 [edit_posts] => 1 [edit_published_posts] => 1 [publish_posts] => 1 [read] => 1 [level_2] => 1 [level_1] => 1 [level_0] => 1 [delete_posts] => 1 [delete_published_posts] => 1 [author] => 1 ) [filter] => [site_id:WP_User:private] => 1 ) stdClass Object ( [ID] => 68498 [display_name] => Erica Frankenberg [first_name] => Erica [last_name] => Frankenberg [user_login] => erica-frankenberg [user_email] => efrankenberg@fake.fake [linked_account] => [website] => [aim] => [yahooim] => [jabber] => [description] => ERICA FRANKENBERG (euf10@psu.edu) is the parent of two Hort Woods children and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. [user_nicename] => erica-frankenberg [type] => guest-author ) 565 | 565