by Albert Cortez, Ph.D.  • IDRA Newsletter • October 1997

Dr. Albert CortezIn June of this year, IDRA convened a superintendents summit bringing together a small group of superintendents to discuss equity and school reform issues. The summit included participants from Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. It was cosponsored by two IDRA projects: the Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative for Equity and the STAR Center.*

The participants explored equity and excellence issues in the context of school reform, including school facilities renovation and construction. This topic was timely in view of a serious national initiative being promoted by the Clinton administration that would channel millions of dollars of federal funding to local communities to help offset the cost of building new facilities. In Texas, interest in the topic was further fanned by recent state legislation that will provide almost $200 million in state funding to local districts building or renovating local schools (new debt).

This new trend of facilities funding offers many communities opportunities to provide relief in an area that has been neglected for far too long. As local school officials and their communities begin to take advantage of these opportunities, they must consider the implications of facilities-related decisions early in the process, certainly before major outlays are initiated. Failure to do so can result in an extensive need to reconsider early actions and could ultimately lead to serious political or legal challenges from a range of sources. Superintendents who participated in the summit discussed several factors that school officials should address.

One critical factor in the design of a facilities plan is the legal status of the school district, specifically if it is operating under the supervision of a court as a result of prior student civil rights litigation. Unless a district has been declared “unitary” (i.e., that it has satisfied court requirements related to the removal of vestiges of officially sanctioned segregation) it is conceivable that any such plan may require court review and approval. Even in the absence of a court mandate, school districts have an affirmative responsibility to ensure that their actions do not result in the segregation or resegregation of students enrolled in their schools.

In a presentation during the summit, attorney Maree F. Sneed, a nationally recognized expert of civil rights and equity, noted that all school officials have an ongoing responsibility to ensure that their school actions do not impinge on student civil rights. This responsibility includes school compliance with requirements known in legal circles as the Green Factors, a set of principles outlined in a landmark student civil rights case that spelled out areas of school officials’ responsibilities (see box below). These Green Factors are used by compliance officers and legal advocates to assess school systems’ adherence to equal access requirements spelled out in law.

When considering the building or placement of facilities, school districts should assess the impact of their activities in the six areas covered in the Green Factors. These include student assignment, faculty assignments, staffing, transportation related activities, physical facilities and extracurricular activities. Participants in the superintendents summit extensively explored the implications of these requirements for local decision makers.

Student assignment is one of the more obvious issues confronting schools faced with new enrollment, the redistribution of their school age population within the district over time. In drawing up attendance assignments, it is critical for school officials to project the impact of changes in student assignments not only at the new schools, but also at existing campuses. It is not sufficient or acceptable to ignore such issues under the guise of being “color blind” in the student assignment process.

Given the sophisticated hardware and software available in many school districts, it is also possible to merge census and school data bases to project the effect of varying student assignment plans on school enrollments. School officials point out that in planning new campus placements it is not unusual to have numerous assignment configurations available to help guide the final campus location decision. In analyzing such questions, school officials must be sensitive to over-concentration of court-protected groups, which include racial and ethnic minority students, students who are limited-English-proficient, as well as students who are eligible for special education services (among other categories). Failure to consider the effect of any student placement plan on such student populations invites legal challenges to local school placement decisions.

Another factor for school officials to consider in the development of a campus plan is faculty assignment, including the staffing of a new physical plant. As school officials consider staffing options, they must consider the resulting faculty and overall staffing profiles created at the new school and assess the effects of reassignments on the campuses from which the faculty and staff are being drawn. Consideration of credentials and years of experience need to be taken into account in such assessments and steps can be taken to ensure that the resulting staff distribution does not favor specific schools.

In addition to staff reassignment, the Green Factors call for the consideration of school recruitment and hiring practices to ensure nondiscriminatory selection and placement of staff. Beyond looking at ethnic and racial factors, school officials should consider the credentials of faculty and staff impacted as well as their years of experience. Both are considered key indicators of equitable quality of staff made available to educate different students.

While student assignment and faculty and staff profiles are important “tests” in assessing school compliance with legal requirements, another important area relates to student access to facilities, which in turn relates to student transportation. As legal advocates assess the acceptability of new facilities locations, a critical question centers on which students will be transported and what distances will be involved. With growing concern and some community resistance to school busing, school officials find that they must carefully assess the transportation implications associated with the construction of new school buildings or the redrawing of school boundaries and the related question of which and how many pupils will need to be transported.

Even in cases where a new facility is constructed to respond to new residential developments in a district, it may be necessary for the school decision makers to look at the overall effect of a school location decision on the district as a whole, rather than considering the effect of a new school placement only in the portion of the district in which new development is concentrated. Responses may involve the re-configuration of existing school or attendance zones and boundaries or the development of strategies designed to attract diverse students to a unique instructional program.

A general assessment of equitable access to quality facilities is another area where school officials have legal responsibilities. Courts have long recognized that the quality of school facilities is one indicator of access to quality education. As school officials consider either new buildings or the remodeling of existing facilities, they must examine the impact that such actions have on students’ equitable access to those physical facilities. If the placement or renovation decisions create or exacerbate unequal access to comparable school facilities for students, local officials set themselves up for a possible court challenge by anyone who has standing in the community, that is anyone (citizen, parent, tax payer, business owner, etc.) who may be impacted by those local decisions. As courts have considered the equal facilities question they have examined the condition of buildings (particularly as these relate to health and safety issues including the presence of asbestos, lead paint and electrical hazards), square footage, lab and other equipment, and similar areas that impact on access to instruction.

A final area considered in legal assessments of equity in schools is the consideration of student access to extracurricular activities. Recent activities related to Title IX reviews reflect that courts are now looking not only at the number of and access to extracurricular activities, but also at access to physical facilities such as gymnasiums and fields in which these activities may take place. As schools embark on the construction or upgrading of facilities required for extracurricular activities, they must consider the student equity implications of those decisions.

There is growing federal disengagement in education and calls for greater local flexibility in education decision making. In light of this trend, it is important to remember that schools continue to have numerous legal obligations to ensure that students have equitable access to educational opportunity. In an era where many schools are embarking on new construction plans and the renovation of existing facilities, school officials and community leaders must continue to pay attention to the array of equity issues that surround the making of those local decisions.

Good planning and the acquisition of community input can help avert subsequent challenges to local actions but only to the extent that planning and consultation include consideration of the various student equity issues cited. The extent to which local school officials consider and adhere to those principles will determine whether the next decade will mark a new round of litigation that challenges unequal school facilities or the beginning of an educational facilities renaissance.

“Green Factors” Spell Out School’s Responsibility for Equity

In Green vs. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, the Supreme Court stated that a given district is “clearly charged with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch.” This landmark decision is important for another reason beyond the fact that school boards must actively work toward desegregation. The court stated that, when reviewing the facts, “the racial identification of the system’s schools was complete [i.e. total], extending not just to the composition of student bodies…, but to every facet of school operation.” It then listed six factors that have come to be known as the Green Factors:

  • racial composition of the student body
  • faculty
  • staff
  • transportation
  • extracurricular activities
  • facilities

Since 1968, these six factors have been used by the federal courts as a basis for determining the degree to which equal educational opportunity and “unitariness” exists in a district under review by the court. More recently, the courts have added other considerations including the quality of educational offerings in racially identifiable schools in a given district to determine the degree to which a district has achieved unitary status (i.e., the degree to which non-racially identifiable schools exist that resulted from de jure practices of segregation).

In short, the Supreme Court has affirmed that when a district has created racial isolation in schools, simply reassigning students to create racially balanced or less isolated schools is not enough of an intervention to overcome the original effects of the previous racial isolation and discrimination. The district must take more affirmative remedial measures.

Source: IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative for Equity

*The STAR Center is the comprehensive regional assistance center funded by the U.S. Department of Education to serve Texas. It is a collaboration of the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the RMC Research Corporation. For information about STAR Center services call 1-888-FYI-STAR.

Dr. Albert Cortez is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]