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Wichita school district considers contract with feds to end 40-year-old busing agreement

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, at 10:47 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, March 11, 2013, at 1:48 p.m.

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It’s been nearly five years since the Wichita school board voted to end the forced busing of black and white students across town for school integration.

But the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has yet to officially release the district from its voluntary 1971 busing agreement.

On Monday, board members will consider a new contract with federal officials that could finally make the 41-year-old agreement past history.

“A lot’s changed in 41 years since we voluntarily entered into that decree,” said superintendent John Allison. “It’s nice that we’re finally moving forward.”

In 2008, Wichita officials ended crosstown busing for most students, saying a growing network of magnet schools — which draw students from different geographic areas — would guarantee diversity and equity across the district.

That’s still the plan and the promise, Allison said. According to a proposed agreement board members will consider Monday, Allison would submit his plan to the Office for Civil Rights by February, and the agency would have to decide within six months whether to release the district from its 1971 consent decree.

“What this does is put in place and confirm what our plan and our actions have been,” Allison said.

“We’re confirming with OCR our commitment to families to offer high-quality education regardless of zip code or ethnicity, and whether it’s a magnet or neighborhood” school, he said.

Under the district’s original agreement, every school’s racial makeup is supposed to be “reasonably consistent” with that of the entire district, “plus or minus 20 percent for each race.”

The agreement applied only to black and white students, however. It did not include or even mention Hispanics, who now make up more than a third of the Wichita district.

From 1971 until 2008, the district assigned thousands of black students to schools with predominantly white populations and hundreds of white students to schools with predominantly black populations.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to assign students to schools based on race. This left Wichita and school districts nationwide scrambling to dismantle strategies such as forced busing.

After Wichita dropped its busing plan, schools in predominantly minority parts of town became crowded, and schools where white students were bused, such as Mueller Elementary, lost their racial balance.

Today, 20 of the district’s schools are considered single-race in that they have 60 percent or more of students of one race. More than half of those — including one of the district’s newest schools, Ortiz Elementary — are predominantly Hispanic.

All three schools that are predominantly black — Mueller, Spaght and Gordon Parks Academy — have magnet programs. But they accept students from surrounding neighborhoods first and so far have not attracted a diverse enough pool of applicants from elsewhere.

According to district data, six schools are predominantly white: Chisholm Trail, Earhart, Hyde, McCollom, Riverside and Peterson.

Exploring options

Since the end of forced busing, school leaders have explored ways to avoid one-race schools.

One option: tweaking the district’s magnet application process — now a random lottery — so that family income or address could be factored into the selection process.

Allison said he doesn’t foresee any changes to the magnet process. The district will continue to market its magnet options at events such as the annual Choices Fair and encourage tours of magnet schools.

He added that the racial makeup of any one particular school is not as important as the district’s overall commitment to equity.

“I think the bigger issue is what the district has done to guarantee high-quality education for all of our students. That’s the bottom line,” he said.

“When you have a district with choice, we are going to have decisions that are made by parents based on what they think best fits … their students and their particular needs.”

One key — and costly — element of Wichita’s school choice is transportation. The district provides bus rides to students who live more than 21/2 miles from their school, whether it is a neighborhood school or a magnet.

According to the proposed agreement board members will consider Monday, the district “reserves the right to modify and cut its current transportation plan and … its current magnet school program” in the event of significant budget cuts. The district would agree to notify the Office for Civil Rights of any such cuts at least 40 days before they are adopted.

“That’s the big issue out there looming that would impact our magnet programs,” Allison said.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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