The School Board is re-examining its 21-year-old desegregation plan, which it has been unable to fully live up to.

The board has hired a legal expert and a team of consultants to chart its course for future desegregation policy. The consultants will study the existing plan’s effects on integrating school faculties and student bodies, then report back to the board in April. By September, says Marilyn Johnson, the board’s chief attorney, the board will be ready to “roll out” a plan.

Board President Michael Scott and schools CEO Arne Duncan have been careful to characterize the effort as an evaluation, not a move to end the program. However, the move could lead to an end of court supervision and to “unitary status”—a finding by a court that the district has satisfied its legal obligation to desegregate.

A number of Supreme Court decisions from the 1990s are “telling us that we can’t remain under court orders forever,” says Maree Sneed, a national expert in school desegregation law whom the board hired as outside counsel. “If our experts find that we haven’t done everything we’re supposed to do [to desegregate], then we’ll develop a plan … because that’s the ultimate goal.”

Since the early 1990s, many school districts have asked courts to end legally mandated desegregation plans, and the courts have often agreed. In one judicial circuit, courts have turned the tables on school districts, requiring that they show evidence that makes the case for continuing court supervision of their desegregation plans.

However, local civil rights advocates are concerned that the end result may take some options away from minority students, such as the opportunity to attend magnet schools that set aside the majority of their seats for minority students.

Meanwhile, the district is not enforcing all the provisions of the current plan, and in some areas it has lost ground in recent years. The existing plan set a cap for white students at neighborhood schools, established goals for faculty integration, created magnet schools and programs and provided for extra money to go to inner-city schools that the district did not expect to integrate.

Majority-white schools: The plan caps white enrollment at any given school at 65 percent. In 1983, the year the provision took effect, six schools exceeded the limit. This year, 15 schools are more than 65 percent white.

Faculty integration: The plan re-quires that the racial make-up of each school’s faculty fall within 15 percentage points of the racial make-up of the district’s entire teaching force. Currently, that means that each elementary school should have no more than 60 percent white teachers and no more than 70 percent minority teachers, for high schools, no more than 63 percent white or 67 percent minority. More than half of all schools fail to hit the mark, Human Resources Director Carlos Ponce told the board’s Desegregation Monitoring Commission in a February 2002 meeting.

The board has repeatedly tried and failed to get the U.S. Justice Department to ease hiring guidelines. But even if its proposed formula had been approved, more than 80 schools would still be out of compliance, according to a CATALYST analysis of March 2002 CPS Human Resources Department data.

Magnet schools: The plan says that magnet schools should use lotteries to keep white enrollment between 17 percent and 35 percent. Some schools never hit the range because they had too few white students. Since the board changed admissions and transportation policies in 1998, even more have joined the out-of-compliance list. Two highly rated magnet elementary schools, Hawthorne and Decatur, now have white enrollments of more than 43 percent, well above the cap, according to this year’s CPS Racial-Ethnic Survey.

And only one of the five new college prep magnet high schools—Walter Payton—falls within the target range. White student enrollment at Northside College Prep is nearly 48 percent; it’s well below 17 percent at Gwendolyn Brooks, Lindblom and Jones.

Magnet programs: Under the plan, hundreds of magnet programs were created at neighborhood schools to boost student integration at non-magnet schools. By most accounts, the quality of the programs was mixed, and there was little oversight. Before he was appointed CEO, Arne Duncan worked to retool that patchwork into a “magnet cluster” program that encouraged neighboring schools to work together, reduced the number of academic specialties and limited busing.

Last year, the board’s Desegregation Monitoring Commission studied the effects of magnet clusters and found that streamlined academic offerings and more teamwork made educational sense. However, the study also found that getting rid of busing rendered clusters a bust as a desegregation initiative because students could not escape segregated neighborhoods to go to school. “As the Magnet Cluster Program is currently organized, the Monitoring Commission does not believe that it is a coherent desegregation strategy,” says a written report.

Some magnet cluster schools in white neighborhoods became more segregated since then, but the study found that they continue to get extra “desegregation” funds to hire additional staff. Garvy Elementary, a school on the Northwest Side that is 75 percent white, gets desegregation money for its magnet cluster program. “The program has worked very favorably for us,” says Principal Julie McGlade. “We’ve been able to get a staff person and a very good program in science and math.”

Targeted funds: The desegregation plan acknowledges that many inner-city schools will probably never be desegregated. As a result, it calls for special funds to create programs at so-called racially isolated schools to compensate for the effects of segregation. This year, the Office of Academic Enhancement, which administers desegregation programs, budgeted $14.8 million for such schools.

Last year, researchers for the Desegregation Monitoring Commission found that at least 12 percent of the schools receiving special “compensatory” funds for racially isolated schools were actually integrated, with 25 percent or more white students. Meanwhile, hundreds of racially isolated schools received no compensatory funds.

What might happen if CPS leaves court supervision is anybody’s guess, and civil rights advocates here are concerned about the prospects.

“I’m trying to figure it out, what’s the agenda?” says civil rights attorney Patricia Mendoza, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“My concern is the impact on Latino kids,” Mendoza explains. “What access will they have to quality programs? Under the busing system, we’re not getting our fair shake, but show me how we’re going to do better.”

A study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that Latino neighborhoods have fewer magnet schools than other parts of the city, and African American students travel farther than other students to attend magnets.

A recent report that the board had “de-magnetized” Sayre Elementary in Austin and was considering similar moves elsewhere fueled speculation about the status of magnet schools without the consent decree. (See story.) However, CPS attorney Johnson says the board wants to increase the number of magnet programs. “That is inevitably going to cause some shift—some programs may not ultimately be magnet programs,” she says.

Ending the consent decree might mean less flexibility for the board to use race-based lotteries to ensure that magnet schools enroll minority students, says attorney Harvey Grossman of the American Civil Liberties Union in Chicago.

Federal courts have struck down race-based admissions policies in some districts that don’t have consent decrees, but not in others. “The decisions are sort of all over the map,” says Dennis Parker, an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney. “At some point, one of these cases is going to go up to the Supreme Court.”

CPS legal advisor Sneed says the consent decree is not a shield for the board from reverse-discrimination lawsuits. “We’re not trying to hide behind a court order,” she says. “The school board has a responsibility to do analysis and determine where they stand before they get a legal challenge.”

One of the board’s consultants, Gordon Foster, says that given how few white students remain in the system, the board may want to limit its ambitions for desegregation. Since the board entered the consent decree in 1980, white enrollment has dropped from about 17 percent to only 10 percent. Under those circumstances, “not too much is feasible,” says Foster.

He suggests that CPS follow the lead of Miami, where he helped craft a desegregation plan that focused on the part of the district where most white students lived. Now, he says, that area is “almost completely desegregated,” while the rest of the district is 98 percent minority.

Chicago might focus its efforts on the district’s Region 1, which covers the city north of Belmont Avenue. “The rest of it is all Hispanic or all black, pretty much,” he says. “It’s obvious to anybody … that there’s not much to play with.”

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