21 January 2006

An Unsatisfying Look At Denver's Segregated Schools

The desegregation order that had provided for busing in Denver schools since 1973 ended in 1995. Denver was in both 1973 and 1995, and remains, a segregated city, not by law, but in fact. Thus, it was hardly a surprise that when Denver ended busing and returned to a neighborhood school based system that the schools became far less racially and ethnically diverse. A report from Denver's Piton Foundation has chronicled what happened and has received top billing in the Denver Post, as well as attracting national new coverage.

Many of the conclusions of the report, phrased as important findings, like the fact that most black students in the metro area attend schools in Denver and Aurora where most blacks in the Denver metro area reside, while Anglo students disproportionately attend schools in predominantly white Cherry Creek, Jefferson County and Douglas County school districts invite a "no shit sherlock" reaction. Also in the NSS zone is the report's conclusion that there aren't many Anglo students in the same classes as English as a Second Language programs. The last major influx of non-English speaking Anglo immigrants was at least eighty years ago.

Similarly, while the report repeatedly harps on the impact of the Poundstone Amendment in limiting Denver's annexation of neighboring territory, and hence limiting its ability to increase the mix of Anglo students in its attendance area that way, the experience of municipalities like Lakewood and Centennial, both formed for no significant reason other than to avoid annexation from neighboring municipalities, cast doubt on the practical importance of the Poundstone Amendment (Aurora wasn't subject to it, but has shown similar patterns to Denver's schools, for example). And, of course, now that the pattern of incorporations around the borders of Denver is almost complete, so one is left wondering why anyone should care, even if this was the cause of some of the segregation in Denver's public schools.

The Piton Foundation report is, frankly, not very impressive in many respects. It doesn't ask enough of the right kinds of questions. For example, while it notes that "white flight" may be a factor in the ethnic makeup of the Denver Public Schools, despite not being the only factor, it does not tell us what percentage of school aged children attend the Denver Public Schools, what percentage attend private schools or choice out of the district, how school choice within the district impacts their ethnic makeup (I know from other studies that both black and white students tend to move to one of a handful of schools where their own ethnic group is a majority under that program), and how the population of school aged children in Denver has changed over time. The percentage of Anglo students in the Denver Public Schools has declined steadily since pre-desegregation 1967, but we don't know where they have gone from this report. Likewise, the report doesn't tell us if the decreasing share of metropolitan area school enrollment in the Denver Public Schools is due to greater overall growth in the suburbs (not surprising given that Denver is virtually landlocked) or some other cause, or both (and in what proportions). It also does nothing to explain why the declining share of Anglo students in the Denver Public Schools has continued for a decade after school busing ended. All of that information is necessary to assess the cause of Denver's situation in a way that is useful to a policy maker, although it admittedly takes slightly more effort to track down (something that Piton Foundation shouldn't be having trouble with given its previous studies on similar topics that have used non-public information to reach its conclusions).

Likewise, by focusing on the metropolitan area as a whole, it does little to evaluate if some districts are doing better than others, and if so why. For example, while the report does show the graduation rates by ethnicity in various metropolitan area school disticts, it does not make a serious effort to look at the causes behind those differences. It doesn't take a genius to make an informed guess that the average black student in Douglas County where blacks have a graduation rate of 74.8% is probably a heck of a lot more affluent than the average black student in Denver where the graduation rate for black students is 44.1%, but again, the report fails to connect the dots.

It is notable that all but one or two of the 58% of schools in DPS which are at least 80% non-Anglo are also majority poor. And, there are other studies by the Piton Foundation itself tht have shown that poor non-Anglo students benefit greatly from being in a different school environment, but this report does not connect those dots either.

There are also issues of style in the report. Why use the term "minority" as synonmous with non-Anglo, when 80% of the Denver Public Schools enrollment is non-Anglo? The majority of students in the Denver Public Schools is Latino, and percentage of students who are black is almost the same as the percentage of students who are Anglo.

In short, there are clearly questions worth asking about the resegregation of Denver's schools, but this Piton Report doesn't ask or answer most of them, which is an unfortunate disappointment from a foundation with a good record for doing research on this area.


Anonymous said...

Please, just say "white" instead of "Anglo"--as Anglo implies someone of English descent which is not necessarily the case.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

When used as an ethnic identifier in context of the mid- to late- 20th century of the United States, particular in the American West, "Anglo" does not imply someone of English descent (who would be called "British"). The term "Anglo" when used as an ethic identifier in this context instead, in its predominant usage, it implies a white person who speaks English as a native language. This reflects the reality that some Hispanics are racially identified as white and may be predominantly Iberian rather than Mestizo or Mulatto by descent.

There may be an English descent sense in other parts of the English colonial empire, but even in Medieval England and Northeastern Ethnic reference, "Anglo-Saxon" would typically be used to convey the sense you refer to.