The Elephant in the Classroom: Segregation in Seattle Public Schools

#3 in “The Good Schools Project”
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Last week, in our quest to figure out what a “good school” is, we looked at Greatschools, a website designed to help parents evaluate potential schools for their kids. I interviewed Greatschools’ VP of Communications, Carrie Goux, and learned that their summary rankings are primarily based on standardized test scores. I questioned whether test scores can provide a complete picture of a school’s quality.

In the midst of exploring the GreatSchools website, I realized something disturbing about Seattle’s Public Schools.

Take a look at the two figures below. The figure on the left shows Greatschools’ summary rankings of Seattle’s public elementary schools. The figure on the right is a “diversity map” based on 2010 Census data. (The latest govt data available)

left image courtesy of, right image courtesy of The Seattle Times

What do you notice about these two maps? Where do all those lovely green 10s reside? What about those pesky red and yellow dots?

The figure on the right is courtesy of The Seattle Times, which broke down the 2010 census data to see which neighborhoods were most diverse. Long story short,* the least diverse parts of Seattle tend to be the whitest neighborhoods.

Comparing these two maps, an uncomfortable picture forms. According to the testing data, a good school = a white school.

Does that surprise you? Does it make you uncomfortable.

We Seattlites pride ourselves on being liberal and enlightened. We vote for Bernie, we buy organic, we have a bonafide socialist on city council. But we are incredibly segregated. Not only that, but we have the biggest black-white “achievement gap” in the state!

It’s very disheartening.

The way I see it, there are a few possibilities which could explain this disparity:

  • the standardized tests are biased
  • there are huge differences in the quality between white and non-white schools
  • there are other outside factors which contribute to the achievement gap

My hunch is that some combination of the three contribute to the big gap between white and non-white schools.

How did we get into this mess anyway? Why is Seattle so segregated?

It was no accident. For generations, it was commonly said that “white people live north of the Shipping Canal.” This was formally enforced with racially restrictive covenants until 1948. But even after such overt discrimination was outlawed, discriminatory practices such as redlining made it difficult for black, brown, and Asian people to get housing. Buying a house is one of the primary ways Americans build wealth, so discriminating against home buying was a very effective way of reinforcing both segregation and intergenerational poverty. (For more on the history of Seattle’s segregation, see this great article by KUOW.)

Most Seattle children attend their neighborhood schools. When neighborhoods are segregated, so are schools.

But wait a second, isn’t school segregation illegal?

Yes and no. Brown v. Board of Education, decided by the Supreme Court in 1954, ruled that “separate educational facilities were inherently unequal.” But the court did not outline how schools must end segregation. Many districts fought the ruling however they could, from legal challenges, to dragging their feet on integration, to intentional sabotage. Across the country, “well-meaning” white parents did everything they could to maintain segregation.

Seattle’s journey from segregation to integration and back again begins in 1962 when the NAACP sued the Seattle School Board. They settled out of court and Seattle Public Schools began a program of voluntary integration. In Seattle, as in the rest of the country, some non-white students wanted to attend all-white schools; almost no white students wanted to attend non-white schools.

I want to stop and think about that for a moment, because it’s still a core belief for many people. We collectively agree that majority white schools are “better” than majority-minority schools. We understand when a black student wants to attend a white school, but it’s almost unthinkable that a white student attend a school in which he or she is a minority.

That really bothers me. It’s as if we say, “this school is not good enough for my white kid, but it’s fine for yours, person of color.” We believe there is inequality and we choose to ignore it.

Needless to say, voluntary integration did not work. No white parents wanted to send their kids to majority-minority schools. In 1977 both the NAACP and the ACLU threatened to sue again and so “The Seattle Plan” was developed to force integration through mandatory busing.

“Well-meaning” white parents didn’t take that lying down. They got an initiative on the ballot to ban forced busing. It won, but was later deemed unconstitutional. Many white families fled the city to escape integration, others sent their kids to private schools. Between 1965–1985 white enrollment in Seattle Public Schools dropped from 80,000 to 25,000. (Seattle is not unique in this regard, “white flight” was a problem in cities across the United States after mandatory integration.)

It’s understandable that people want their kid to go to school in their own neighborhood. It’s nice to walk to school, to see your neighbors at “Back to School Night,” etc. It’s annoying if your kid is the one who has to be bused across town.

But many would argue that the benefits of integration outweigh the costs. Formerly-bused kid turned educator, Sean Riley, wrote a great article on that topic for The Stranger.

To say that mandatory busing was unpopular is an understatement. In 1989, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice abandoned The Seattle Plan and instead opted for “Controlled Choice” in which families could rank school preferences as long as there wasn’t disproportionate segregation as a result. It was the beginning of the end for school integration. A series of tweaks to this plan weakened integration efforts until race was only used as a “tie breaker” when space at a certain school was at a premium. Even then, a group called “Parents Involved in Community Schools” sued the school district. The case, bundled with a similar case from Louisville, went to the Supreme Court in 2006. In a split decision, the court ruled that schools couldn’t use race as a determining factor for school assignments.

So, here we are. 
Seattle, as a whole is 69.5% white
GreatSchools’ top 10 Seattle public elementary schools are 69.5% white
GreatSchools’ bottom 10 Seattle public elementary schools are 11% white
(these are averages of the white populations of these schools)

That’s a lot of segregation!

Which brings me to my BIG BEEF with GreatSchools. While I appreciate that they strive to present simplified data in an accessible way, I believe their use of summary rankings furthers segregation.

Bear with me here. Middle-class parents exercise school choice by choosing where to rent or buy a home. “Good” schools are one of the top considerations among parents when home shopping. Constrained by small budgets, poor parents don’t have this choice. Low-income families get the “leftovers” of schools.

image courtesy of

Greatschools’ data is incorporated into many real estate sites such Zillow. If a potential homebuyer is looking at a certain neighborhood but sees that the local schools have a low ranking, I believe that most parents would immediately rule out that neighborhood without further investigation. Parents are busy, parents who are house-hunting even more so. I doubt that most parents have the bandwidth to do much more research than seeing that colored GreatSchools summary ranking and taking it for granted.

When I raised this concern with Ms. Goux, she seemed surprised. She said that GreatSchools is simply a tool, and that she hopes that parents will use it to make good choices. Furthermore, a summary ranking is meant to be a “starting off point” and should not be taken as the final word on school quality. In conclusion she added, “parents value diversity.”

I agree that GreatSchools’ data is simply a tool. Tools are not inherently good or bad, rather, it depends on how they are used. I fear that many parents, unthinkingly, use GreatSchools as a tool to further segregation.

To be frank, I also question whether parents actually value diversity. The history of our nation’s school segregation, integration, and re-segregation would seem to argue otherwise.

I still had not figured out how to choose a good school for my son. And now I had the added concern that even exercising “school choice” was unfair, since many parents are unable to do so. I was more confused than ever, but I needed to figure this out quickly, because after only two weeks of looking, we bought a house.

Next time on “The Good School Project”: new neighborhood, new school, new problems?

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* This diversity map is based on the question, what are the odds that any two random people who live in this neighborhood are the same race? You might think that areas like China Town, with a higher population of Asian people, would score as not very diverse, but not so. Less diverse neighborhoods tend to be the whitest, probably because Seattle is a majority (69.5%) white city.