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Seattle Returns to Neighborhood Schools

Officials say district can't shoulder burden of school integration

By Tim Walker

Thursday, December 3, 2009 -- The Seattle school board has voted to return the district to a neighborhood-based system of assigning students to schools - a system the city had abandoned thirty years ago, when it became the first large city in the nation to voluntarily adopt a busing plan to integrate students.

Even though some observers said the board’s November 18 vote marked the “end of an era,” the board’s decision had in fact been long in the making. In 1998, Seattle dropped mandatory busing for a series of assignment plans that critics said were confusing and directionless. Under the new plan, to be phased in over a couple of years, students will be assigned to schools based on their address. Additional options for students to attend other schools might be provided, but with no guarantees 

What is clear is that racial integration in Seattle, similar to other cities, is no longer seen as a critical ingredient for quality education. District official insist they prefer to have schools with diverse student bodies, but it is no longer a top priority.

Or as superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson explained, “a good education trumps diversity.”

NEA believes that encountering racial diversity in school has a positive impact on cognitive and academic skills of both racial minority and white students.

Seattle had been at the forefront of school integration in the late 1970s, so the dramatic resegregation of its schools is a bitter pill to swallow for residents who value diverse public schools.

Seattle is not alone. For districts across the country, increasing racial isolation is now largely considered to be a problem that is simply too big for schools alone to solve. And when the US Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that the integration efforts in Seattle and Louisville were unconstitutional because they classified students by race, most experts predicted that racial resegregation of the nation’s schools would become even more insurmountable.

And in North Carolina, Wake County voters recently expressed their disapproval of their district’s diversity policy by electing new school members strongly opposed to it and in favor of neighborhood schools. Wake had been busing students to balance the percentages of low-income students at individual schools. Supporters warn that abandoning it could hasten white flight and produce even worse poverty numbers at more schools.

Jennifer Lanane, president of the 5,000-member Wake chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators, supports the diversity policy and is lobbying the new board members to reconsider their position.

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