Design matters : the relationship between policy design, context, and implementation in integration plans based on voluntary choice and socioeconomic status



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The recent decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) has forced school districts to begin thinking of new ways to integrate their schools without relying on race as the single factor in their assignment plans. While some school districts already have begun to implement race-neutral student assignments, others are just beginning the process and are looking to plans that have been able to maintain diversity despite the new limitations being placed on them.

In order to learn more about what factors are most critical in shaping racial and socioeconomic diversity in school districts, I examined the interaction between the design and implementation of 3 different integration plans that rely on voluntary choice and socioeconomic status (SES). I wanted to determine whether these factors had any effect on the way such integration plans are employed and ultimately on school-level diversity outcomes. I was also interested in learning how the local sociopolitical context influenced outcomes.

I used qualitative case methodology, which allowed me to focus on the processes and meanings behind the plans. I conducted a historical analysis of desegregation on each of the school districts and used data collected from documents and interviews to analyze how design interacted with context to produce particular outcomes. I situated my analysis in the education policy implementation literature as it tells us that people and places play integral roles in how a policy is designed, adopted, and implemented. The ultimate success of a policy is heavily influenced by the actors involved in the creation of the policy as well as the context in which the policy is implemented.

I found that the success of these plans depends heavily on their context. Urban school districts that have high poverty levels and few White students have a difficult time maintaining diversity, whereas school districts that incorporate the city and surrounding suburbs are more likely to maintain diversity because White, middle-class families do not have the same opportunity to flee the district. Furthermore, school districts that use geographic zoning and regulated choice are able to maintain higher levels of diversity. Support from the community and local policymakers also can play a role in the success of integration plans.

The findings suggest that geographic and political contexts matter in the shaping and adoption of integration plans based on voluntary choice and SES. I offer suggestions to maintain integration given the local sociopolitical context of the school districts.