Northside’s racial mix raises issues of law, equity

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In early March, Northside College Prep, the new magnet high school under construction on the Far North Side, sent out acceptance letters to 500 applicants who met one of two cutoff scores on an admissions test, one for whites and a slightly lower one for minorities.

The School Board’s aim was to achieve a split of roughly 50-50 and, thereby, minimize potential legal trouble from two fronts. On one side, the U.S. Department of Justice is charged with enforcing a court-sanctioned desegregation plan that limits the white enrollment at magnet schools to 35 percent. On the other are white parents who might sue on the grounds that their children were denied slots so that minority children could be seated; lawsuits recently forced Boston and San Francisco to back away from race-adjusted admissions policies. The resulting compromise leaves the board somewhat exposed on both sides.

To meet its desegregation goals at Northside, the board would have had to set substantially lower cutoff scores for minority students. Limiting the percentage of white students accepted to 35 would have meant rejecting some 300 who scored higher than some minority students who would have been accepted, CEO Paul Vallas told the board’s Desegregation Monitoring Commission at a March 18 meeting.

However, had the School Board admitted students to Northside solely by rank order on test scores, the school would have enrolled even fewer minority students, leaving the board more exposed to charges that it was violating its legal agreement with the Justice Department, known as a consent decree.

Steering a middle course, the board set only slightly different test score cutoffs for white and minority students on the nationally normed admissions test. White students needed scores that placed them in the top 11 percent of students nationwide, while minorities needed scores in the top 16 percent. The differential resulted in the rejection of about 50 white students, according to Dawn Clark Netsch, a member of the monitoring commission.

‘Pipeline’ 50-50

Board officials defend their approach on the grounds that the white-minority breakdown of the students accepted reflects the white-minority breakdown of students who took the admissions test. “You cannot overlook what was going in the pipe before you determine what comes out,” says Marilyn Johnson, the board’s chief attorney. “I think [the board’s protocol] is both equitable and legal.”

This reasoning is borrowed from job-discrimination cases, in which courts often compare the racial or gender makeup of the applicant pool for a set of jobs with the makeup of the group that was hired.

The board’s strategy takes it into uncharted territory, according to civil rights attorneys and desegregation experts. The comparison between applicant pool and acceptances has not been widely used in school desegregation cases, says Rosa Abreu, a staff attorney in the Chicago office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Gary Orfield, a Harvard University education professor who has studied school desegregation in Chicago and other cities for over 30 years, says that Chicago’s consent decree should protect it from lawsuits like those in Boston and San Francisco. “School systems that are under court order can have racial quotas,” he says.

But the consent decree itself could be challenged. In San Francisco, the school board agreed to abandon its desegregation plan by 2002. Also, there is no guarantee that the Justice Department will take action to enforce Chicago’s consent decree in this case. In recent years, federal judges have relieved many school districts of their desegregation commitments altogether. Under President Clinton, the Justice Department’s enforcement record in desegregation cases has been “very weak and irregular,” says Orfield.

Rainbow/PUSH’s national education spokesperson, Valerie Johnson, says she is “adamantly opposed” to the board’s tactics at Northside. “There have not been any challenges to the deseg law in Chicago,” she notes. “So, in essence, they are subverting the rule of law. Until challenges are made, it just doesn’t seem reasonable to anticipate a lawsuit in this case.”

In crafting their strategy, board officials consulted with neither the Justice Department nor the Desegregation Commission, says board attorney Johnson. Both groups now are looking into the legality of the board’s actions. Vallas spent over two hours defending the board’s plans at the March 18 commission meeting; a Justice Department attorney listened in from Washington, via speakerphone.

Vallas emphasized the board’s plans to place a comparable college-prep high school in each of the district’s six regions, along with two new citywide magnet high schools slated for the South Side and other programs in neighborhood schools across the city. The eight new magnets alone would more than double the number of high-quality high schools that were available when he took office in 1995, he remarked. “Everybody forgot about the high schools before 1995,” Vallas repeatedly told the commissioners.

Vallas also stressed that, when taken as a group, college prep programs currently in operation have an aggregate enrollment that is within the magnet school guidelines. Two new college prep schools, South Side in Roseland and Lindblom in West Englewood, had practically no white applicants, which historically has been true of a number of magnet elementary schools.

Vallas addressed concerns that the various college prep schools might be perceived as unequal, especially given the fact that Northside and a college prep school planned for the Near North Side would be housed in new buildings while the others would be in renovated facilities. Tens of millions of dollars in renovations are planned for the existing buildings, he said, including the construction of new wings for two of them.

Commissioners applauded the administration for its overall efforts but came back repeatedly to unresolved questions. “In a system that is 90 percent minority, how can you have a school that is 50 white?” asked Commissioner Elena Mulcahy. “You have a situation that is going to be hard to explain.”

“I think tossing out 300 [white] kids would be hard to explain,” Vallas replied, adding that whites make up substantially more than 10 percent of the city’s residents. “It’s not like the district exists outside of the city proper. I think this is certainly within the spirit of the consent decree. I’m on much safer legal ground than if I’d gerrymandered.”

The commission adjourned, taking no action beyond setting a meeting date in May. “There is no formal action for us to take,” says Chair Peggy Davis, a partner at the law firm Gardner, Carton and Douglas. “They [the board] have already taken the action. And they didn’t come to us for approval.” She notes that the terms of the consent decree don’t require advance consultation with the commission. “If the consent decree operated that way, maybe we’d have more input. As it is, we wind up having input after the fact.

“Certainly, I think the concern about litigation [from white parents] is very real,” says Davis. “The trend in the courts is very hostile to affirmative action, and many consent decrees have been eliminated. We don’t think that’s in anyone’s interest. We think there’s some legal support for basing admissions on applicant flow. Whether it applies here is another question.”

Desegregation advocates echo the commission’s concerns about both law and equity. “They should follow the consent decree. It’s the law; it’s in place,” says Jim Lewis, vice president for research and planning at the Chicago Urban League. “On the other hand, if a desegregated student body can be achieved through other means, whatever they might be, that’s a good thing.”

Watchdogs

Orfield takes a mixed view. He says he is “completely in favor” of “Chicago having more good academic schools,” and sees a 50-50 split as desirable. “Everybody considers a school like that desegregated,” he says. ” And the whites don’t see it as a transitional school,” which bolsters a school’s chances of remaining desegregated.

“The problem is, the group that’s got more than 50 percent of the population needs equal choices,” says Orfield. He thinks the board’s plan to spread college prep programs across the city bears watching. “If there’s not a significant middle-class enrollment in the all-black schools they’re setting up,” he warns, then the program can’t ensure equity among the different schools.

The test-driven admissions process raises other equity concerns, he notes. “Schools with admissions requirements are a very bad idea in any kind of desegregation plan. Admissions tests invariably relate to race and income, so they are class stratifying.”

Local civil rights organizations share Orfield’s concerns. “If the elementary schools at the neighborhood level are not preparing students to achieve at or above national norms to even sit for these admissions test, then there are big concerns in terms of equity, of who’s going to gain access to the jewel schools of the district,” says Abreu of MALDEF.

MALDEF is watching the board’s magnet school policies closely, but Abreu says the group plans no immediate action. Another civil rights group, the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is also keeping an eye on magnet policies, says Amy Zimmerman, an attorney with the committee’s Children’s Advocacy Project.

Regardless of the plan’s merits, Orfield thinks that the board would have been wise to consult with the Justice Department, the plaintiff in Chicago’s school desegregation case. “It’s a very bad thing to openly defy a federal court order,” he says. “A federal judge can lock up somebody for up to a year on contempt charges.”

A spokesperson for the Justice Department, Christine Dibartolo, says only that the department is “consulting with the Monitoring Commission to see if there are any violations.”

Northside is being built to serve the school district’s Region 1, which includes all city land north of Belmont Avenue.

Northside and the three other college prep high schools that will be operating next year—South Side, Lindblom, and Jones— all used a test-based admissions policy. To apply, students had to score in the top 41 percent nationwide on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in both reading and math. Those students then took an admissions test, the Cognitive Abilities Test. Both exams are published by Riverside Publishing.

South Side and Jones decided on a number of students to admit (about 125 for South Side and 300 for Jones) and then admitted students in rank order on the test. Lindblom adopted a similar procedure and has admitted about 150 students, but administrators there say they will continue to test and enroll students through the spring and summer until they have about 200 students.

Of the four new college prep schools, only Jones in the South Loop sent acceptance letters to a group that meets the racial guidelines of the desegregation plan.

Both Lindblom and South Side are located in communities where the overwhelming majority of residents are African-American, according to the 1990 census and more recent data compiled by Claritas, Inc., a market-research company. “We would be extremely happy if we had a more culturally diverse population, but at this point it’s not happening,” says South Side’s principal, Linda Layne.

Whitney Young Magnet, which has a college prep curriculum and selective admissions, has consistently met the board’s desegregation goals using a process similar to the one used by the new regional college prep high schools.

“If we have to make adjustments, we’ll try to make them at the front end by recruiting differently,” says Roger Prietz, an assistant principal who has been part of the admissions process at Whitney Young since 1980. “We’d go to a few more black schools or Latino schools or white schools and try to get more quality students from those communities … rather than have to accept students who are not as high quality simply because of their race.”

In the early 1990s, Whitney Young’s white enrollment dipped just below the magnet school guidelines, to 14 percent, according to the board’s web site. It has been on the rise since 1993 and was recorded as 21 percent in 1998.