Wednesday, June 15, 2016

RISD Shell Game

Last week, I brought up my fear that magnet schools in the Richardson ISD were leading to an increase in segregation along socio-economic lines. I didn't have data to test whether my fear is warranted (and I still don't) because as far as I know, the RISD doesn't make such data easily accessible to the public. As long as that's the case, my fear, grounded or not, persists.

The feedback to my article suggests that magnet schools may only be a small component of a larger problem with transfers.

Magnet schools are designed to attract voluntary student transfers (d'oh, that's why they are called magnets). But students voluntarily transfer to other schools, not just magnets, for lots of reasons. Families can request transfers that the RISD will consider on a case-by-case basis, provided the receiving school is under 90% capacity at that grade level. There are also involuntary transfers. If a school is over capacity, enrollment of new students may be denied, even if the students live in the attendance zone. Through a process called "overflow," new students will be reassigned to another school with room. There's also Texas's Public Education Grant (PEG) program, which enables students attending low-performing schools to transfer to schools in other districts. RISD has two such schools currently. Garland ISD has two. Dallas ISD has dozens. RISD schools may be gaining some students and losing others through the PEG program.

With all the transfers going on for all sorts of reasons, it begins to resemble a shell game where it's impossible to keep one's eye on the ball. Is it unreasonable to ask whether such transfers might be having the effect of increasing segregation at RISD schools? Anecdotal evidence suggests that's what's happening. Even if it's not intentional on the part of the district, it might still be the inevitable result of a colorblind process.

Consider the hypothetical case of two schools, A and B, both in relatively affluent neighborhoods, but School B has a slightly better reputation than School A. In April of each school year, some families from School A's attendance zone request transfers to School B because they consider School B to be higher performing. The transfers tend to be the higher performing students from single-family homes whose parents know the score. The gap between School A and B widens slightly. Then in August, when new students seek to enroll, School B fills up more quickly and students are overflowed. These late arrivers tend to be the lower-performing students from multi-family residences whose parents do not know the score. Attendance at both schools remains equal, but the performance gap widens a little more. This leads to even more transfers the next year. Gradually, year after year, the effect is that School A, even though it's in a relatively affluent area, may end up with a student enrollment poorer than its surrounding neighborhood would suggest. Do you know any schools like this? This process plays out even if each year's overflow is handled on a strictly first-come, first-served basis. Is this happening? I dunno. As far as I know, RISD doesn't publish the data needed to answer this question.

Note, there doesn't have to be anything nefarious about this process for it to result in a more segregated school district, racially, ethnically, or socio-economically. Individual families, each making decisions that they consider best for themselves, can collectively lead to an outcome that is not best for the whole district. We know it happens with churches. Martin Luther King, Jr, famously called 11:00 am on a Sunday morning the most segregated hour in America. Our challenge should be to put policies in place to keep our schools from slowly turning into the most segregated public facilities in our community.