Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

“Your Father Works For My Father”: Race, Class and the Politics of Voluntarily Mandated Desegregation

by Stephen Samuel Smith, Karen M. Kedrowski, Joseph M. Ellis & Judy Longshaw - 2008

Background/Context: Unlike the situation nationally where desegregation progress is faltering, the school district in Rock Hill, South Carolina, has recently undertaken measures to increase balance in pupil assignment despite considerable local opposition to these measures and the absence of a court order requiring the district to do so. Moreover, while other districts that are also pursuing desegregation increasingly rely on voluntary strategies such as magnets, the Rock Hill school district has relied more on adjusting the boundaries of mandatory attendance zones. This article investigates the conditions and developments that facilitated the school district’s voluntarily increasing its desegregation efforts through the use mandatory strategies. In so doing, the article expands upon our previous work that raises the possibility of a new politics of school desegregation.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this essay is to clarify the meaning of voluntary desegregation; to understand the political, demographic, and other conditions that affected desegregation efforts in Rock Hill; and to relate these conditions to broader issues such as the changed (since the civil rights era) relationship between the federal government and local school districts on issues involving desegregation, the relative merits of race- versus class-based public policy, citizen participation in desegregation planning, and the Supreme Court’s consideration of voluntary desegregation.

Setting: Rock Hill South Carolina

Research Design: Case study

Conclusions/Recommendations: We find that Rock Hill’s school desegregation efforts were facilitated by a change in school board elections, the current relatively loose coupling of policy venues on issues involving desegregation, the overlap between the interests of Blacks and working-class Whites in the development of a high school reassignment plan, citizen participation in desegregation planning, and effective leadership from the district’s administration. The findings from this case study suggest that in some situations class-based public policy is more effective than race-based public policy, but they also caution equally strongly against making any sweeping claims for the generic effectiveness of class-based public policy. The findings also suggest why and how, contrary to the situation in the civil rights era, the workings of local politics in southern school districts may currently be consistent with the pursuit of school desegregation, not antithetical to it. Because of this consistency, a Supreme Court ruling against voluntary desegregation may be viewed as undermining not only the pursuit of equality of opportunity, but also the democratic ideal of popular sovereignty.

“Your father works for my father,” was a taunt that students from Northwestern High are widely believed to have shouted during football games with Rock Hill High, the other high school in Rock Hill, South Carolina.1 Even if the taunt is an urban legend, it deals, as do most urban legends, with salient issues. Not only was there a fierce rivalry between the schools, but Rock Hill High had significantly higher percentages of low-income students and students of color and, moreover, was generally seen as having inferior resources, facilities, and support. With a third high school scheduled to open at the start of the 2005–6 school year, the Rock Hill School District (RHSD) had to rezone all high school attendance boundaries for the first time since Northwestern had opened in 1971.2 Having recently undergone a bruising battle over elementary school reassignment, RHSD appointed a 35-person citizens’ committee to recommend an assignment plan for the high schools. The committee, more than two-thirds of whose members are White, recommended a plan that placed a high premium on achieving demographic balance among the three schools.3 To the extent there were imbalances, they were the opposite of the previous ones: Northwestern was projected to have a higher percentage of low-income students than the other two schools and a significantly higher percentage of students of color than Rock Hill High. After making a few minor changes in the recommendation, the school board adopted it by a vote of 6-0. Five of those six members are White.4


Events in RHSD are noteworthy because of what happened, how it happened, where it happened, and when it happened. What happened was that RHSD bucked one national trend and, in some ways, two trends. Despite the national hoopla accompanying the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, there is considerable—albeit contested—evidence of increasing resegregation nationally, and even scholars such as John Logan who challenge claims of wholesale resegregation acknowledge, “It is certainly true that progress toward desegregation of America’s public schools has faltered since the early 1990s.”5 Such faltering is especially unfortunate given the growing evidence of the extent to which desegregation provides important educational benefits.6 However, in contrast to the faltering progress nationally, RHSD has recently made a determined effort to increase desegregation in its elementary and high schools. In addition to being unusual for the effort with which it has recently pursued desegregation, RHSD is unusual for its desegregation strategies. Most districts that are still pursuing desegregation increasingly rely on voluntary strategies involving transfers, magnets, and/or school choice. While RHSD has employed some voluntary strategies and may employ others in the future, so far it has generally done things “the old-fashioned way,” i.e., by adjusting the boundaries of mandatory attendance zones.

How it happened involves the politics of electoral systems, race, class, and civic engagement. A change in school board elections from a system in which all board members were elected at large to one in which most were elected from single-member districts (SMDs) brought three newcomers to the board. Two of them are Black, and one is a White from the working-class side of Rock Hill that was also previously underrepresented on the board. These demographic changes affected board decisions including the location for the new high school. That location facilitated a situation—unusual in the history of school desegregation—in which the interests of working-class Whites were viewed as similar to those of Blacks.7 Recognition of that similarity characterized the work of the high school reassignment committee, whose experience challenges the conventional scholarly wisdom about citizen involvement in desegregation planning. Moreover, the committee’s deliberations exemplify the civic engagement allegedly in such short supply at a time when so many citizens are “bowling alone.”8

Where these developments took place compounds the case study’s interest. Located in northern South Carolina, Rock Hill is a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, a city that has played a pivotal role in school desegregation history. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district (CMS) gave rise to the landmark 1971 Supreme Court ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, allowing mandatory bussing for school desegregation, and CMS’ desegregation experience is generally considered to be one of the nation’s most successful.9 However, in the mid-1980s, CMS began a drift towards resegregation that was exacerbated by the 1992 implementation of a magnet plan. A lawsuit by White parents challenging CMS’ desegregation policies subsequently led to the reopening of Swann and a 1999 federal district court trial during which both CMS and Black parents said that the district had not yet completely fulfilled its obligations under the original Swann decision. But the judge ruled otherwise, declared CMS “unitary,” and ordered it to stop pursuing racial balance.10 The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed several aspects of the district court’s ruling against CMS, but affirmed the crucial finding that the district was unitary. Given the importance of Charlotte in school desegregation history and the Supreme Court’s 2002 refusal not to hear an appeal of the Fourth Circuit’s decision, the Swann case had almost as many national repercussions at the start of the twenty-first century as it had had a generation earlier, albeit to just the opposite effect. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 1999 trial, CMS witnessed a dramatic increase in resegregation.11 However dark and long a shadow these events in CMS have cast on desegregation efforts nationally, only their penumbra, if even that, has so far fallen on nearby Rock Hill. Comparisons with CMS will help explain the relative success of RHSD’s desegregation efforts.

Finally, when these events took place makes this case study especially timely. We focus on events from 2000–2005. This was a time when, especially in the wake of the reopened Swann litigation, the legal environment became demonstrably less favorable to court-mandated desegregation. But there was considerable uncertainty about the status of desegregation efforts voluntarily initiated by a local school district because such efforts pose legal issues that had not been explicitly addressed by the Supreme Court. That situation will likely soon change. The Court has recently announced that in fall 2006 it will consider cases from Seattle and Louisville involving voluntary desegregation. Although events in those two districts differ in important ways from those in Rock Hill, given the paucity of scholarly literature about the politics of voluntary desegregation, this article adds significantly to the stock of knowledge about an issue that will draw increasing attention in the months to come.



This is our second published report on RHSD’s desegregation efforts. The first was a short, largely theoretical piece that, noting the recent experience of RHSD and CMS, raised the possibility of a new politics of desegregation by drawing on the political science of literature about the selection and coupling of policy venues.12 In the “old” politics of desegregation, even though education is primarily a local responsibility, desegregation proponents had to move the conflict to the federal level (venue selection) because local political arenas were so hostile to desegregation. Moreover, desegregation proponents’ success at the federal level translated into success at the local level because of relatively tight coupling between federal and local venues. This tight coupling arose because the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act gave the federal government effective sticks and carrots in battles over school desegregation with recalcitrant local authorities.

Nowadays, the situation is almost the very opposite from what it was during the civil rights era. The federal judiciary has become increasingly hostile to the court-mandated desegregation characteristic of the civil rights era, but local political venues continue to bear the imprint of the Voting Rights Act which enfranchised large numbers of Blacks and facilitated their election. Thus, as indicated by the example of RHSD, local political venues can be more receptive to desegregation initiatives than they were a generation ago. Moreover, and this is a third and also crucial difference, coupling on desegregation-related issues is looser than it was during the civil rights era. At that time, a district that refused to desegregate faced the very real threat of the cessation of federal aid. But nowadays, there is relatively little threat that a district pursuing desegregation will lose federal aid.

To the extent there is a new politics of school desegregation, it will be piecemeal, occurring on a district-by-district basis since it is so heavily dependent on local political conditions and developments. That is another difference because in the civil rights era, desegregation could occur relatively quickly on a wide scale after an important development at the federal level (e.g., the Supreme Court’s Swann ruling). But with the federal judiciary increasingly unsympathetic to court-mandated desegregation, the local politics of desegregation merit sustained inquiry as a way of understanding current possibilities for fulfilling important aspects of Brown’s promise.

This article expands on our earlier report in two significant ways. First, we present a wealth of previously unreported empirical material, especially about the high school reassignment committee. Second, and more importantly, we use this new empirical material to expand our understanding of the conditions that affected Rock Hill’s desegregation initiatives. Whereas our first report dealt only with changes in school board elections, here we also deal with the choice of desegregation strategies, how class as well as race affected RHSD’s desegregation efforts, and the role of citizen advisory committees in planning for desegregation.

In addition to these introductory remarks, the article has four main sections. The first discusses methodological and conceptual issues. The second section discusses desegregation in RHSD by initially summarizing its early history and then focusing on four recent events: (i) the change in 2000 from a school board elected entirely at large to one in which five of seven members are elected from SMDs, (ii) the overhaul in 2001 of the elementary school pupil assignment plan and the elections and lawsuit that followed this overhaul, (iii) the choice in 2001 of a site for a new high school, and (iv) the development of a high school reassignment plan in 2003–4. The historical narrative gives rise to the next section’s discussion of this case study’s major themes: voluntary and mandatory desegregation strategies, the interplay of class and race, the role of citizen advisory committees, and the importance of local politics. The fourth section concludes the article.



In conducting this case study, we drew on data contained in a wide range of documents including articles from Rock Hill’s daily newspaper; RHSD reports, maps, memoranda, and school board minutes; reports from South Carolina’s department of education and election commission; and federal court proceedings. We observed numerous events such as school board meetings, court proceedings, and gatherings of educational activists. Our research also benefited from the stock of knowledge that comes from longtime residence and/or employment in Rock Hill as well from our involvement in key aspects of the events we discuss. One of us (Longshaw) was a member of the high school reassignment committee, and another of us (Smith) would have served as an expert witness for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) had litigation over the elementary school reassignment gone to trial. Because of Longshaw’s and Smith’s participation in these events, we took special care to triangulate data obtained through their involvement with other sources of data, especially formal, semi-structured interviews with key actors. Among the people interviewed were seven members (including its chair) of the high school reassignment committee other than Longshaw, the committee’s facilitator, two of the plaintiffs on the opposite side of the litigation from the LDF, and two school board candidates and one school board member whose position on the litigation was also the opposite of the LDF’s.



Historically, the term desegregation has been used most frequently in connection with race and ethnicity. However, in recent years in Rock Hill and nationally, other student-level characteristics, such as economic status (often measured by eligibility for free or reduced lunch [FRL]) and academic achievement (as measured by test scores), have played an important role in discussions about pupil assignment. Part of the increased attention to these factors has been due to the legal and political obstacles to considering race in pupil assignment. And, of course, there are frequent empirical correlations among racial balance, academic balance, and economic balance. But the latter two kinds of balance deal with issues that are important in and of themselves; e.g., the educational challenges posed by schools or classrooms with large concentrations of poor and/or low-achieving students, independent of the students’ race or ethnicity. For these reasons, our use of desegregation will include RHSD’s efforts to improve socioeconomic and academic as well as racial balance, and we will discuss the relationships among these different aspects of desegregation, paying particular attention to the extent to which desegregation was seen as benefiting only Blacks or both Blacks and working-class Whites. While this aspect of our use of the term desegregation is expansive, another aspect is limited: we confine our discussion to between-building desegregation because it is this kind of desegregation, rather than within-building desegregation (e.g., racially-correlated tracking), that has been the focus of controversy in RHSD.


As indicated by the history of the Swann case, the federal judiciary has become increasingly hostile to mandatory desegregation efforts over the past 15 years. This hostility has led the civil rights community to focus on desegregation strategies that—unlike those of the civil rights era—are not mandated by federal courts. Thus, in 2005, several leading civil rights organizations, including the LDF, published a 52-page handbook Looking to the Future: Voluntary K-12 School Integration.13 Moreover, the Supreme Court’s consideration of voluntary desegregation is drawing increasing attention to this issue.

It is worth emphasizing that the voluntary in voluntary desegregation can have two meanings. First, it can refer to the origins of the desegregation: Did the district pursue desegregation primarily because of external pressure, e.g., was it ordered to do by a court and/or threatened with a loss of federal funding under the 1964 Civil Rights Act? Or did the district initiate a desegregation effort absent external pressure? In some ways, this distinction may seem misleading. By all accounts, almost no significant desegregation would have taken place anywhere in the country without the intervention of the national government through court decisions, legislation, or administrative action. As Jennifer Hochschild has written, “There would have been no school desegregation absent authoritative imposition from an agent outside and ‘above’ the school districts themselves.”14 The history of desegregation in RHSD exemplifies Hochschild’s point. As indicated below, absent federal pressure in the 1960s, RHSD would not have desegregated. Moreover, RHSD’s recent efforts to expand desegregation in the absence of federal pressure reflect the legacy of such pressure because these recent efforts made only relatively small changes compared with the large increase in desegregation that resulted from federal intervention three decades earlier.

Thus, it would be wrong to ignore the historical role of federal pressure in setting the stage for RHSD’s recent desegregation efforts. But it would be almost as misleading to ignore the difference between recent events and those during the civil rights era. In the latter, staffers from the Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) were in Rock Hill, observing bus routes and school locations, and RHSD could easily have lost federal funding if it did not improve racial balance. Recently, however, the federal government was largely oblivious to pupil assignment issues in RHSD, but the district’s leadership was not. Of its own volition, the district initiated efforts to increase desegregation despite strong local opposition and a lawsuit. For these reasons, we think it is fully appropriate to view the origins of these recent efforts as voluntary.

The second meaning of the voluntary in voluntary desegregation refers to the pupil assignment strategies for achieving desegregation. Does a district’s desegregation strategy rely primarily on transfers, magnet schools, and/or a choice? Or does the district’s desegregation plan rely primarily on adjusting the boundaries of mandatory attendance zones?15 Court-mandated plans can employ mandatory strategies, voluntary ones, or a combination of the two, but over the years, there has been a growing emphasis on voluntary ones for a variety of reasons including the availability of federal funding; the backlash, especially among Whites, against “forced busing”; and its growing popularity of choice as a pupil assignment strategy independent of desegregation considerations. Moreover, most plans whose origins are voluntary also rely on voluntary strategies. The decentralized character of education in the United States makes it impossible to know exactly what percentage of voluntarily initiated desegregation efforts employ voluntary strategies, but the percentage is presumably a high one. The LDF manual lists five court cases dealing with school districts’ “race-conscious voluntary school integration policies;” all five involve voluntary strategies.16 Included in these five cases are those from Louisville and Seattle that the Supreme Court is hearing in fall 2006.

Figure 1 summarizes our discussion of the different meanings of voluntary. This article is a case study of the politics of one of the four possibilities indicated in that figure: a voluntarily initiated desegregation effort that has relied primarily on mandatory strategies. It is unclear at this point to what extent the difference between voluntarily initiated plans with voluntary strategies and voluntarily initiated plans with mandatory strategies will be an issue in the cases that the Supreme Court will consider.

Origins of Desegregation Plan








Seattle & Louisville

 Supreme Court cases

Charlotte: 1992–1999


Rock Hill: 2000-2005

Charlotte: 1970s–1992

Rock Hill: 1960s–1970s

Figure 1: Desegregation Possibilities


Having addressed relevant methodological and conceptual issues, we turn now to desegregation in Rock Hill.  We provide background on the city and school district of Rock Hill, discuss the way that school board members are elected, and summarize the early history of desegregation in RHSD.  We then turn to more recent desegregation efforts, first at the elementary school and then at the high school level.


The fifth-largest city in South Carolina, Rock Hill is a growing one whose population in 2000 was slightly under 50,000. RHSD, however, extends beyond the geographic boundaries of the city of Rock Hill itself and encompasses many rural areas. In the 2005–6 school year, the district had 16,800 students of whom 56 percent were non-Hispanic White; 36 percent, Black; 4 percent, Hispanic; and 4 percent, Asian or American-Indian. As is the case in many other districts, RHSD is experiencing a surge in Hispanic enrollment. Thus, four years earlier, before the implementation of the reassignment plans discussed below, Hispanic enrollment was half its current share of the district’s total enrollment. As is also frequently the case, the demographic composition of the electorate differs from that of the district’s student population. Seventy-six percent of RHSD’s registered voters are White, 22 percent are Black, and 2 percent fall into the South Carolina Electoral Commission’s residual category of “Other.”

Like many communities in the south, Rock Hill still bears the marks of years of segregated housing. The neighborhoods north of Main Street and the commercial thoroughfares of Cherry Road and Celanese Bypass are predominately white. Many areas on the south end of town are heavily Black. The south side is also home to significant numbers of working-class Whites and is generally less prosperous than the north side. Not surprisingly, Rock Hill High is on the south side of town and Northwestern High, on the north.


As early as the 1970s, civil rights advocates claimed that the electoral chances of Blacks were hurt by the system of at-large elections through which all RHSD board members were chosen. But the claim lacked traction, in part because from the 1970s until 1994, the board had at least one Black member, and for four years in this period, a second. However, although Blacks ran in the elections of 1994, 1996, or 1998, none were elected to the seven-person board, even though, as noted above, the electorate was 22 percent Black. Moreover, during this period, as had historically been the case, most of the White board members resided on the north side of town, and most board members’ children attended Northwestern High.

These geographic disparities on the board were as widely remarked as the racial ones and compounded the political sentiment in the late 1990s to change the at-large electoral system. Even though Blacks spearheaded the push for change, they did not do so through established civil rights organizations such as the NAACP. Rather, efforts were channeled through a recently created Neighborhood Coalition Council led by a retired Black educator. The council framed the issue as one of geographic representation that, the council said, would be facilitated by replacing the system in which all board members were elected at large with one in which many, if not all, were elected from SMDs. The all-White, Northwestern-dominated school board opposed SMDs, as did the superintendent, claiming that that SMDs would result in board members being more concerned with their particular district than with the needs of RHSD as a whole.17

Their opposition was unsuccessful. Contacted by Black activists, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) threatened a lawsuit under the 1965 Voting Rights Act if the school board did not adopt a single-member district plan.18 After months of wrangling among the U.S. Justice Department, the York County Legislative Delegation, and the school board, the latter agreed to a so-called 5–2 plan in April 2000 that divided RHSD into five electoral districts, each of which would elect one member of the board. The boundaries of two of the districts were drawn to make it likely that a Black would win in both. The remaining two seats would be elected at large. The members would serve staggered terms. The incumbent school board members could choose, come re-election time, whether to run for an at-large seat or for their district seat.19 The new plan was implemented in time for the November 2000 election in which three district seats and one at-large seat were on the ballot. Two of the district seats were won by Black women, Mildred Douglas and Elizabeth “Ann” Reid. The third district seat was won by Walter Brown, a White who lived on the south side. In addition to changing the board’s demographic characteristics, these three newcomers would soon have a profound effect on some key board decisions.


A discussion of RHSD’s recent debates about pupil assignment and site selection are best understood in the context of the district’s desegregation history, and we preface our discussion of the recent controversies with a summary of key events in this history.


Early Desegregation Efforts

Like many southern communities, Rock Hill saw little school desegregation until the 1960s upsurge of the civil rights movement and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1968, with most of its schools heavily segregated and worried about a possible loss of federal funding, RHSD signed a desegregation consent agreement with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Although high schools were desegregated at the start of 1970s, desegregation at the elementary level remained an issue, especially at Sunset Park, a school located in a Black neighborhood, whose student population remained more than 99 percent Black in 1973.20 It was not until 1977 that HEW agreed to a dismissal of the enforcement proceedings against the district.21

Even though that dismissal led local officials to say that RHSD had met its legal obligations, the district paid considerable attention to desegregation in the 1980s.22 Largely occasioned by the district’s growth, a major 1983 reassignment affecting all elementary schools prompted an article in the daily paper headlined “School rezoning geared toward racial balance.”23 The proposal proved controversial, and as the controversy developed, the board ended up paying more attention to socioeconomic balance than racial balance.24 However, the plan did improve racial as well as socioeconomic balance.25 Ongoing growth occasioned additional reassignments for elementary and middle schools during the 1980s and 1990s. With the exception of one aspect of the 1996 plan discussed below, these reassignments, too, generally sought to balance the schools demographically. Quantitative comparative data suggests these efforts were generally successful.26

One of the ways that RHSD pursued racial balance was to pair Sunset Park with a school located in a predominantly White neighborhood. But Sunset Park was considered a troubled school characterized by discipline problems and poor academic performance. In 1996, as part of an elementary reassignment, the board de-paired the two schools, making each a stand-alone K-5 school. Sunset Park became in the words of the superintendent, “as close as the district gets to a ‘neighborhood school’”27 The de-pairing generally delighted parents in the White neighborhood whose children had been bused to Sunset Park, but RHSD leaders also saw themselves as responding to two sets of Black concerns. The first was that Sunset Park stay open and not suffer the fate of Rock Hill’s other historically Black schools. The second was for a neighborhood school—even if that meant that Sunset Park, already 73 percent Black, became even more racially imbalanced. However, the board’s decision was challenged by other Blacks, including future school board member Mildred Douglas, She, too, wanted Sunset Park to remain open and objected strongly to RHSD’s proclivity for moving Black students to achieve racial balance more often than it moved White students. But Black children suffered, she thought, from attending a school with such a high percentage of Black enrollment. “We want to bring our children up to survive,” she told the board, “and they can’t do it if they go into the job market and find it’s not 80 percent Black there.”28 Douglas’s views were shared by the local chapter of the NAACP.29 Concerns similar to those about Sunset Park were also voiced about Sylvia Circle, another elementary school in a Black neighborhood that was also projected to experience a sharp increase in Black enrollment. But the concerns about Sunset Park were especially salient because of the school’s reputation as a troubled one.

2001–2 Elementary School Reassignment

Pursuing Racial Balance: The scheduled opening of a new elementary school in August 2002 led RHSD to begin revamping its elementary assignment plan in early 2001. The effects of the SMDs were manifest when board members ranked various criteria for the new plan. Now a member of the board, Mildred Douglas was in a much better position to push for racial diversity than she had been five years earlier when, as a private citizen, she had only been able to caution the board about the consequences of “an 83-percent Black school.” Douglas ranked racial balance very high, as did the board’s other recently elected Black member, Ann Reid, and it ended up at the top of the board’s list of criteria.30 Contributing to the emphasis on racial balance were developments at Sunset Park and Sylvia Circle since the 1996 changes in the assignment plan.

By the 2000–1 academic year, Sunset Park had become 94-percent Black and Sylvia Circle was 80-percent Black.31 Also on the district officials’ minds was the schools’ performance on South Carolina’s recently implemented accountability system that graded schools as excellent, good, average, or below average. Although Sylvia Circle’s grade was “average,” Sunset Park’s was “below average,” making it the district’s only school to earn this dubious distinction. In RHSD’s view, it was difficult to attribute Sunset Park’s poor performance to inadequate resources because Sunset Park was receiving more governmental funding per pupil than any other elementary school in the district, and it had the lowest student-teacher ratio.32 Thus, the district attributed the school’s poor performance to the well-known problems that result when large numbers of children from low-income families are concentrated in a particular school. The reason why RHSD had “to fix Sunset Park,” according to Bob Norwood, the board’s vice chair, was that “we are under a mandate from the state to fix failing schools. . . . Unfortunately, with our student population, socioeconomic and racial balance has a bearing on whether that school will meet the state requirements.”33

The administration proposed a plan to the board in May 2001 that reassigned over 40 percent of the district’s elementary school students.34 There were three aspects to the proposal’s efforts to deal with desegregation. The least controversial of these aspects was a change in Sylvia Circle’s status. Taking advantage of South Carolina law that allowed public school districts to establish charter schools, the district had previously submitted a grant to convert Sylvia Circle to a Montessori charter school, making it, in effect, RHSD’s first magnet.35 The second aspect continued RHSD’s practice of using what in Rock Hill are traditionally called pockets, i.e., neighborhoods—most often Black ones—that are not contiguous with other parts of a particular school’s attendance zone but are included in the attendance zone to improve racial and/or socioeconomic balance. Third, the proposal shifted attendance zones on the district’s edges, much like moving the spokes on a wagon wheel.

It was the third aspect of the plan that triggered the most opposition. Among the shifts in attendance zones was one that would have moved many students from the attendance zone of Finley Road Elementary School to Sunset Park’s. In July 2001, a group of White parents from Finley Road formed Neighborhoods United (NU), an organization that in the ensuing months gained support from parents in other parts of the district and spearheaded the opposition to the proposed reassignment through its website, fundraising, attendance at school board meetings, and vigorous organizing efforts. Throughout the controversy, NU charged the proposed reassignment was illegally based on race. It also opposed the reassignment of students to Sunset Park (or other schools it considered undesirable) and claimed that low-achieving children currently at Sunset Park should stay there to take advantage of the school’s many special programs. In moving Sunset Park’s low-achieving students to other schools, RHSD sought, NU further charged, to camouflage their poor test scores in a way that would allow all elementary schools to achieve passing grades on the state’s accountability system.36

During the summer and fall of 2001, RHSD worked on the plan and held frequently contentious public forums that, among other things, were characterized by supporters of NU warning that any board member who supported the plan would be defeated in the 2002 school board election. Despite such threats, in November 2001, the board voted on a final plan that moved fewer students than the original proposal and included fewer, albeit larger, pockets. The motion to approve the plan was made by one of the board’s Black members, seconded by the other, received votes from three White members, and passed by a 5–2 margin.37

Courtroom Battles: The new assignment plan was scheduled to take effect at the start of the 2002–3 school year. But in April 2002, eight families filed suit in federal court in demanding that the elementary pupil reassignment plan be abandoned and that, pending a court decision on this demand, RHSD be enjoined from implementing the plan.38 Representing the plaintiffs in Rock Hill was a law firm that had represented the Charlotte plaintiffs who had successfully challenged CMS’ desegregation policies. Several months after the suit was filed, another group of families intervened in support of the school board. This second group of families—hereafter called the defendant-interveners as they were known in court documents—were represented by the LDF and a Charlotte law firm, both of which had represented Black families in the recent CMS case. The two litigations were also similar in that both occurred in the Fourth Circuit, one of the federal judiciary’s most conservative. However, the federal district court judges were very different. The Charlotte case was heard by a Reagan appointee who had been active in Charlotte’s 1960s’ anti-busing movement. In contrast, the judge assigned to the Rock Hill case, Matthew Perry, was a Carter appointee and one of South Carolina’s most noted civil rights attorneys.

On July 19, Perry issued a ruling denying the preliminary injunction.39 The Fourth Circuit upheld that ruling, but remanded the case to the district court to determine whether any of the plaintiffs’ children had been assigned to a school on the basis of race.40 The Fourth Circuit’s decision led to negotiations among the three parties that continued into the spring of 2003. With the threat of a trial looming, a settlement was reached in April of that year. The settlement allowed the reassignment plan to continue, recognized RHSD’s interest in pursuing “meaningful diversity” in its schools, and allowed the use of pockets in future assignment plans if they (the pockets) were necessary to avoid racial isolation.41 But the definition of racial isolation was a very limited one. Moreover, the settlement indicated that “that race will not be the predominant factor in the assignment of students,” and that “the School District shall not employ numerical racial quotas or targets in the assignment of students in any future SAP [student assignment plan], including future high school and middle school SAPs.” The district also agreed to provide transfer options for the plaintiffs’ children and up to fifty additional students, and it made several other concessions.

Table 1 shows how Sunset Park’s and Sylvia Circle’s enrollments have changed since the reassignment. As the Montessori Program has been phased in, Sylvia Circle has become increasingly more balanced. In contrast, Sunset Park’s Black enrollment remains significantly higher than the system-wide average, but over the past four years the school has not experienced the extreme racial isolation that it did prior to the reassignment.42 Moreover, in 2005–6, the Black-White dissimilarity index for RHSD’s elementary schools was 11.6, which is generally viewed as indicating a low level of segregation and which was below that in 1990 and 2000.43

School Year



% Non-Hispanic

% People of

% African







Sunset Park






Sylvia Circle













Sunset Park






Sylvia Circle













Sunset Park






Sylvia Circle













Sunset Park






Sylvia Circle













Sunset Park






Sylvia Circle













Sunset Park






Sylvia Circle












Table 1: Racial Composition of Sunset Park and Sylvia Circle Schools, 2000-2005

Source: Rock Hill School District

The (Lack of) Electoral Consequences: With its limited definition of racial isolation and restraints on the use of “numerical racial quotas or targets,” the settlement provided only a partial victory for desegregation proponents even though the trial, if it had taken place, would have been before a judge long associated with civil rights causes. By contrast, the election that took place between the implementation of the pupil assignment plan and the signing of the settlement was a total victory for desegregation proponents. Despite NU’s claims that any board member who supported the plan would suffer electoral defeat, just the reverse happened.44

The second election since the change in electoral structure, the November 2002 contest involved three board seats, one at-large and two SMDs. In the at-large race, a White incumbent who had voted for the reassignment plan won the election with 44 percent of the vote, beating two candidates who had opposed the reassignment plan. One of the SMD seats was an open one because an incumbent decided against running. An NU member sought this seat, but in a three-way race he was defeated by a candidate, also a White, who distanced himself from NU. The other SMD race saw the board chair, a White, seek re-election. Her support for the reassignment plan had made her one of NU’s bête-noires, but the group was unable to recruit anyone to run against her, and she ran unopposed.

The Third High School

Choosing a Site in 2001: Several months before beginning work on the elementary school reassignment plan discussed above, the board had chosen a location for a new high school that also showed how the SMDs had changed policy.

The superintendent advocated a site in the north of the district, as did many residents from that part of town, who sported buttons stating “North” at school board meetings. RHSD made efforts to acquire land on the district’s northern periphery. But when these efforts failed, the school board voted 4–3 in March 2001 to locate the third high school in a predominantly White, middle-class neighborhood located on the north side, but one closer to downtown than the site for which land could not be acquired. The vote reflected the geographic divisions on the board; the three dissenting votes were from Brown, Douglas, and Reid, the board members from the south side of town who had recently been elected from the newly-created SMDs.45

Advocates for a northern location generally supported the board’s decision, but citizens living near the projected site were less enthusiastic. They feared the noise and congestion portended by the new school and complained of insufficient opportunity to voice their concerns before the board’s vote.46 A month after choosing the northern site, the board voted to abandon it in favor of a site on the south side. Again the key vote was 4–3, but this time the three board members from the south side were joined by a fourth member, Britt Blackwell, who indicated that concerns over the cost of the northern site had led him to change his mind.47 The vote also indicated the success of the board’s Black members in forming alliances with entirely different groups of Whites to secure victories on two crucial desegregation-related issues. The two Whites, Brown and Blackwell, who had voted with the two Blacks against locating the new high school on the north side were the same two who had voted against them on the elementary school reassignment.

In addition to the symbolic benefits conferred by having the new school on the south side, the board’s decision was expected to facilitate long-sought development there. Moreover, the decision would change long-standing school transportation patterns. In the past when RHSD had sought balance in pupil assignment, it typically paid more attention to the wishes of affluent White families for shorter transportation times than to similar wishes from other families. But with the new high school on the south side and RHSD seeking demographic balance among the three schools, transportation times would be more evenly distributed, thus addressing one of the longstanding Black complaints about the downside of desegregation.

Adopting a high school reassignment plan in 2004: The elementary reassignment plan had been developed by district staff and then presented to the public for comment. Given how contentious that assignment had been, RHSD took a different approach to the high school reassignment by creating a 35-person committee to recommend a plan for the board’s approval. The committee was designed to include a wide range of viewpoints. The settlement agreement for the elementary school reassignment specified that the two groups of parents who were parties to the litigation could each designate one member of the committee. The committee also included parents from every school in the district as well as several community members and RHSD teachers and administrators whom the superintendent chose. As noted earlier, more than two-thirds of the members are White, among whom were the plaintiffs’ representative on the committee and two other members of NU, both of whom had run unsuccessfully for the board in 2002. One of the latter, Ken Spears, was elected the committee’s chair. Associate Superintendent Lynn Moody served as the committee’s main facilitator. To provide and analyze data for the committee, the district hired the Operations Research/Educational Lab (OR/Ed) at North Carolina State University.

The group began meeting—generally on a monthly basis—in May 2003. Some members dropped off the committee and others’ involvement was sporadic. But a core of about 25 took the work seriously, spending hours reviewing data, and rarely missing a meeting, many of which were characterized by heartfelt discussions involving race, class, and whether members’ main responsibility was to the neighborhoods they represented or what was best for Rock Hill. At one of the early meetings, the plaintiffs’ representative on the committee distributed copies of the settlement agreement saying that it prohibited the use of race as a criterion for pupil assignment. However, this effort to relate the settlement agreement to the work of the committee received scant support from other members. Since Associate Superintendent Moody said that the agreement only prohibited making race the primary criterion, the group used race as one of its criteria for developing an assignment plan. Others were student test scores, student FRL-eligibility, travel times from home to school, property values in the schools’ projected attendance zones, and the number of pockets that the assignment plan would have. Based on the weight accorded to various combinations of these variables, OR/Ed developed possible assignment scenarios for the committee’s consideration. To help the committee focus on the scenarios’ merits independent of which neighborhood would go to what school, Moody and OR/Ed did not plan to provide maps of the various scenarios’ attendance zones until late in the committee’s work. But drawing on the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a committee member insisted that maps be provided much earlier, and their early availability intensified the conflict many members felt between what particular neighborhoods wanted and what might be best for RHSD.

The committee considered dozens of maps and scenarios in a series of long, frequently intense and frustrating meetings that led many members to wonder whether any plan could ever receive the two-thirds margin that the committee had agreed would be necessary to recommend a plan to the board. However, at the January 2004 meeting, the committee approved a plan by a vote of 20–10. Unlike several recently considered alternatives, the approved plan assigned some affluent subdivisions, including one called Wedgewood, to schools other than Northwestern, even though that school is much closer to these subdivisions than Rock Hill High and the new high school are.

After receiving the committee’s recommendation, the board scheduled two public hearings that saw considerable criticism of the proposal, much of which came from residents of Wedgewood, who constituted more than half the audience at one of the hearings.48 However, the hearings were much less contentious than those involving the elementary assignment plan, and no movement or organization even faintly resembling NU developed in opposition to the committee’s recommendation. A month after receiving the recommended plan, the board made several minor changes and then, as indicated earlier, approved it unanimously.

There was even less political fallout from the high school reassignment plan than from the elementary school plan. Whereas opponents of the latter failed to capture any seats on the school board, they did, as noted above, wage two (out of three on the ballot) hotly contested campaigns in the first election following adoption of the plan. However, the first election—the one in 2004—following adoption of the high school reassignment saw no hotly contested races. Five seats were on the ballot.49 Four of the five incumbents seeking reelection ran unopposed, and the fifth won easily with 58 percent of the vote.

Contributing to lack of political fallout were RHSD’s efforts to make the new school’s facilities and staff especially appealing. It chose for principal of the new school a widely respected local educator, who, in the months before the new school’s opening, reached out to parents from neighborhoods that would otherwise have attended Northwestern. Under his leadership, the new high school’s opening in August 2005 was generally viewed as a successful one. The new school’s projected and actual demographic characteristics are provided in Table 2, as are those of RHSD’s other high schools. As the table indicates, the projections call for the three schools to be much more closely balanced than Northwestern and Rock Hill were prior to the opening of the new school. Indeed, to the extent the three high schools are unbalanced, it is Northwestern that is projected to have the highest percentage of FRL-students. Moreover, its projected percentage of students of color is only slightly less than that of the new school and considerably higher than Rock Hill’s. Although future growth in the Northwestern attendance zone will likely lead to an increase in the school’s enrollment of White students from relatively affluent families, the projected assignment plan is very different from the one it replaced in which Northwestern had significantly lower percentages of FRL-students and students of color than Rock Hill High.

School Year


% FRL- Eligible

% Non-Hispanic White

% People Of Color

% African-American









Rock Hill






All High Schools













Rock Hill






All High Schools






Projected by reassignment plan







Rock Hill






New High School






All High Schools













Rock Hill






New High School*






All High Schools





Table 2: High School Demographic Characteristics

* In its first year of operation, the new high school had only ninth- and tenth-graders.

** The reassignment plan did not make projections for African-American enrollment

Source: Rock Hill School District and South Carolina Department of Education

It is impossible to know the exact extent to which these projections will be fulfilled because the new plan is gradually being phased in, and the new high school contains only ninth- and tenth-graders in 2005–6, the school year in which we are writing. However, the data allows several observations, the first of which is that non-Hispanic whites constitute 3 percent less of RHSD’s total high school enrollment in 2005–6 than they did in 2004–5. We do not think the drop reflects any significant White flight occasioned by the reassignment plan. There is no anecdotal evidence of White flight. Moreover, the percentage of non-Hispanic Whites in the district’s high schools began declining long before so dramatic an overhaul of the high school reassignment plan was on RHSD’s policy agenda; as recently as the 1998–9 school year, non-Hispanic Whites constituted 65 percent of the district’s high school students.50 Thus, RHSD’s high school enrollment is likely affected by the same demographic trends that affect school districts across the nation: differences in birth rates among race and ethnic groups, the return to the south of Blacks, and the surge in the Hispanic population.51

The drop in the non-Hispanic-White share of high school enrollment notwithstanding, Table 2 also indicates that even with only partial implementation, the new assignment plan has already produced a situation in which differences in race, ethnicity, and poverty among the district’s three schools are much smaller than they were between Northwestern and Rock Hill prior to the new assignment plan. Before reassignment, 50 percent of Rock Hill’s and 67 percent of Northwestern’s student populations were non-Hispanic White; after reassignment, the range for the three schools was from 49 to 59 percent. Similarly, there was a 17-point spread in FRL-eligibility prior to reassignment; after reassignment the spread was 9 points. Thus, in its first year, the new high school assignment plan has gone a long way to eroding any statistical basis for taunts by students at any one of the three schools about whose parents work for whom.


Our historical narrative raises four important issues: the use of mandatory desegregation strategies, the interplay of class and race, citizen involvement in desegregation planning, and the importance of local politics in contemporary desegregation efforts. Discussion of these issues indicates how RHSD’s voluntary pursuit of desegregation has probably been facilitated by several structural factors and definitely by political ones. The latter include the overlap of Black and White working-class interests in the high school reassignment, the role of the high school reassignment committee in facilitating reasoned communication and acceptance of the reassignment plan, the change in school board electoral structures, and the general workings of the politics of education in Rock Hill. In addition to discussing RHSD’s experience on these four issues, we discuss the implications of this experience for future research, the debate over class- versus race-based public policy, and the extent to which there is nowadays less of a tension between democracy and desegregation than there was in the era of court-mandated desegregation. As with any case study, the extent to which these implications are similar to those of voluntary desegregation elsewhere can be ascertained only with additional research. But we discuss these implications extensively because they put RHSD’s experience in a broader theoretical context, are of considerable heuristic value, and will add to the debate over voluntary desegregation that—given the Supreme Court’s consideration of the issue—has become more salient to educators, scholars, and policy-makers.



Given the increased emphasis nationally on voluntary strategies and the many negative images evoked by the term “forced busing,” it is worth noting that even critics of mandatory desegregation strategies acknowledge that these strategies have certain advantages. Thus David Armor notes that “. . . geographic rezoning to increase racial balance is the most cost-effective desegregation technique,” and Christine Rossell’s survey of desegregation plans leads her to conclude that mandatory plans reduce racial imbalance more than voluntary plans do.52 However, critics charge that these advantages are outweighed by mandatory plans’ political unpopularity, the white flight that results from these strategies, and other disadvantages.53

While RHSD’s heavy reliance on mandatory strategies may have given the district more bang for the buck (i.e., produced more racial balance at a lower cost) than voluntary strategies, the decision to rely heavily on mandatory strategies did not result from anything approaching a detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of the two kinds of strategies. The possibility of voluntary strategies hardly entered the high school reassignment committee’s deliberations. At one point, committee chair Ken Spears recalled, “That was brought up in discussions, but never considered by us. We were looking at the data, and we figured if you look at magnets and choice, you will throw your balance out.”54 Since magnet and many other voluntary desegregation strategies typically require a distinctive program aimed at attracting students who would otherwise not want to attend the school, the flip side of the scant consideration given magnet and choice strategies was how “making the schools equal” became a virtual mantra of the committee. Among other things, this meant that there be no disparities in the three schools’ programs, e.g., if one school had an International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, all three had to have it.55

Whereas the high school assignment was developed by a citizens’ committee, the elementary reassignment was developed by RHSD staff and reflected the superintendent’s skepticism about voluntary strategies such as magnets, which “from my observation and experience tend to segregate a lot.”56 To be sure, at the same time that the elementary assignment plan was overhauled, Sylvia Circle became a Montessori charter that functioned as a magnet, which undoubtedly helped the district’s desegregation goals. But the implementation of the Montessori program was not primarily dictated by desegregation concerns. Rather, the availability in 2000 of state money for public charter schools allowed RHSD to implement a program of whose educational merits the district’s administration had long been convinced.57 Additional evidence of how little voluntary strategies figured in the district’s thinking about desegregation in the 2001-2 elementary school reassignment comes from the recent history of Sunset Park. As early as 1999, the district considered making it a year-round school, but delayed consideration of the change until after the elementary school reassignment plan was implemented.58 When Sunset Park became a year-round school in 2004–5, it retained essentially the same attendance zone that it acquired as a result of the elementary school reassignment. Families in that attendance zone who did not want year round schooling were assigned to Finley Road. If RHSD had changed Sunset Park to a year-round school as part of the elementary school reassignment, the opt-out school would presumably have been Finley Road as it was in 2004–5. Had that been the case, NU might never have existed since its core was Finley Road families angry at their assignment to Sunset Park.

The contrast between the nationwide popularity of voluntary strategies and the almost casual manner that has led RHSD to rely heavily on mandatory strategies gives rise to the question: What conditions have facilitated these mandatory strategies? Our discussions of school board elections, class and race, and the high school reassignment committee deal with the political aspects of this question, and these aspects are the main focus of this article. Here, we will call attention to some structural factors that, we tentatively suggest, may facilitate RHSD’s mandatory desegregation efforts.

Our first suggestion is RHSD’s size. The relationship between a district’s enrollment and/or area and levels of segregation is a complicated one. There is important evidence associating large, consolidated districts with lower levels of segregation, and in politically balkanized, residentially segregated metropolitan areas, metropolitan-wide desegregation plans are often viewed as the most effective.59 Nonetheless, “the larger the number schools [in a district], the greater the logistical challenge for increasing desegregation and racial balance at all grade levels.”60 The likelihood of such logistical problems is one explanation that Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor offer for their finding of a strong positive relationship between enrollment and segregation. Their study of North Carolina districts found that “37 percent of the variation in segregation is associated with variation in the size of school districts.”61 With almost 17, 000 students in 2005–6, RHSD may not be small when compared with all 14,000 of the nation’s districts, but desegregation in Rock Hill does not face the substantial logistical difficulties that it does in large, urban districts, such as nearby CMS. Other suggestive evidence that RHSD’s heavy reliance—at least so far—upon mandatory strategies is linked to the district’s size is Associate Superintendent Moody’s recent comment that with enrollment continuing to grow and the district building new schools “we are beginning to have that conversation” about making greater use of magnet and choice assignment strategies.62 Because the larger a district is, the greater its transportation times will generally be, we would also suggest another reason why smaller districts may find it easier to use mandatory strategies: the longer the transportation times, the more likely it will be that a district will have to provide incentives for families to accept the longer transportation times. A likely incentive is a specialized program, which is a defining characteristic of a magnet.

A second and perhaps more important factor facilitating desegregation is RHSD’s racial and ethnic composition. As noted above, the non-Hispanic-White percentage high school enrollment has been shrinking over the past decade. So, too, has the non-Hispanic-White percentage system-wide, but the drop is not as great.63 As was the case with high school enrollment, we doubt that the drop can be attributed to White flight occasioned by the district’s desegregation policies. During recent years when RHSD’s total enrollment has increased by almost 15 percent and statewide private school enrollment has remained constant, private school enrollment in York County (in which RHSD is located) has dropped by approximately 24 percent.64 Thus, a more probable explanation of the decrease in the percentage of all of RHSD’s students who are non-Hispanic white is the same demographic trends that likely explain a similar decrease at the high school level. These demographic trends notwithstanding, non-Hispanic whites constituted 56 percent of RHSD’s enrollment in 2005–6, and the district’s racial and ethnic composition stills falls within the range that scholars generally view as consistent with high levels of desegregation between non-Hispanic Whites and peoples of color.65

Finally, the district also benefits from a reputation of having “good schools.” Of the three other districts in the same country as RHSD, the one whose schools are frequently considered the county’s best has higher housing costs than Rock Hill. A second district, whose schools are also considered “good,” features a more difficult commute to Charlotte. Flight to Charlotte itself is deterred by much higher housing costs and ongoing publicity about CMS’ problems. Thus, the district’s location within the Charlotte metropolitan area also facilitates its pursuit of desegregation.

Implications of RHSD’s Use of Mandatory Strategies

The most straightforward implication of RHSD’s heavy reliance on mandatory strategies is that such strategies can be compatible with voluntarily initiated desegregation efforts. While that implication may not be earth shattering, it is very worth noting given the much greater attention typically paid to voluntary strategies and the many pejorative connotations of “forced busing.” Taking note of this implication has the additional benefit of raising the question: To what extent are the conditions that favor voluntarily initiated mandatory strategies different from those that favor the other possibilities indicated in Figure 1, especially voluntarily initiated voluntary strategies? Our discussion of class and race, advisory committees, and local politics addresses political aspects of this question, but it is clear that—especially for structural factors—additional research is needed to answer this question. While such research would add greatly to our understanding of the nationwide possibilities for voluntary desegregation, it faces two sets of difficulties.

The first is the generic one of doing research on most aspects of local education policy: the decentralized nature of the United States educational system. For example, if a district undertakes a desegregation initiative, but the initiative is not controversial and there is no nearby university with researchers interested in desegregation, that district’s efforts are likely to pass unnoticed anywhere else. Thus, it may be difficult to locate a group of districts (to say nothing of a statistically useful sample) from which to draw meaningful comparisons about the structural factors affecting voluntary desegregation efforts. The second difficulty is more interesting because it highlights a possible conflict between scholarly and normative commitments and indicates how the legal environment may serve to discourage research on voluntarily initiated desegregation efforts. The scholars most likely to do this research are probably those for whom desegregation is an important normative priority. However, publishing research on a district’s previously unnoticed voluntary desegregation efforts may bring them to the attention of opponents of race conscious public policy and thus provoke legal challenges to these efforts. That possibility has been especially strong given the unsettled nature of current desegregation law, but it may very well persist after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Seattle and Louisville cases.66


Whereas the elementary school reassignment led to a lawsuit and, with the exception of one seat on the board, a hotly contested school board election, the high school reassignment went much more smoothly. Part of the reason for the difference may be that desegregation at the high school level is, all other things being equal, often easier than at the elementary school level because of the latter’s much smaller attendance zones. But all other things were not equal in RHSD if only because the high school reassignment involved much larger numbers of students and an extensive overhaul of thirty-year-old attendance boundaries. It is thus necessary to consider other explanations, one of which was the difference between the interplay of class and race in the two reassignments: the high school reassignment was more widely perceived as remedying longstanding disparities that had hurt not only Blacks, but working-class Whites as well.

The interplay of class and race (as well as of academic achievement) are exemplified by the comments of Leila Hicklin, a leader of one of the three subcommittees in which the high school reassignment committee did most of its work. A White and Rock Hill native with what she describes as “really deep roots in the community,” Hicklin indicated that committee “dominated my life for the year that I was on it . . . I really put it up there on the priority list because it was so important for Rock Hill for it to be done correctly. . . .

When I look back on the history of our city—and I will say personally that for years, I don’t think the high schools have been balanced. And it’s been used around town that Northwestern is white collar and Rock Hill is blue collar, and I think most people on committee wanted to change that concept. And that’s why I’m happy with that outcome, because if statistics are right, balance should be much better than when we started.

. . .when I say balance, I just don’t mean racial balance, I mean, I like to say, parental participation balance, and obviously SES and SAT scores.67

Committee chair and former NU member, Ken Spears had a similar perspective as indicated by his comments about another committee member who:

. . . wanted everyone to go their closest school, period. And when we first started, that’s kind of the train of thought I had. But then we started doing the data and looking at it, it didn’t work. It was too far out of balance. And again, where I came from, and how I was raised, I just didn’t feel that was right.68

Where Spears came from and how he was raised involved his economic circumstances. Although Spears is now a successful building contractor, during his school days, the family “didn’t have a lot of money,” he and his siblings were “on free lunch,” so “I know the struggles that a lot of the people have . . . so I have been on that side of the tracks, and I have not forgotten where I came from.” And, like Hicklin, Spears noted the widespread perception of the differences between the district’s two high schools:

A lot of people in this town have felt that since Northwestern was put there that it was the White elite school, that it was the school that got whatever they wanted and got it first. I don’t know that statement’s all true. . . . But a lot of people always kind of felt that Northwestern was the elite. . . .

. . . a lot of people in town felt there was an uneven balance there, that Rock Hill always got the shaft. I was one of the ones who fussed about it, but not to the extent that some of them did. My point of fussing was the free and reduced, and the minority, and that kind of thing. Not the fact that one got a wrestling mat before the other got a wrestling mat, or one got a uniform for the band before the other did.69

Both Spears and Hicklin are White, but similar sentiments were voiced by Lonnie Harvey, the Black business executive who was the defendant-interveners representative on the high school reassignment committee. The committee contained a lot of people:

…who knew the history between the schools, they knew the reputation as one being seen as the school for the doctors and lawyers, which is Northwestern, and one—the blue collar school—which was Rock Hill. The fact that at one time, the cheerleaders at Northwestern had a cheer, “Your father works for my father.” When these things come up that sort of sticks in the craw of some folks. The other, which I had first-hand experience in, is that real estate agents would tell folks this is the Northwestern school district, so this is where you want to buy a house. So we wanted to give them [realtors] the opportunity to say, it doesn’t matter which school district you live in.70

The interplay of class and race in the elementary school differed in at least two significant and related ways from that in the high school reassignment. First, one of the main ways the high school reassignment plan sought to improve balance was by assigning economically well-off neighborhoods such as Wedgewood to either the new school or Rock Hill High, which is why more than half of the people at one of the public hearings were from Wedgewood. By contrast, NU arose among families assigned to Sunset Park from what had previously been Finley Road’s attendance zone, an area considerably less affluent than Wedgewood.71

Second, the elementary school reassignment was viewed—by both proponents and opponents—as trying to remedy imbalances that affected only the overwhelmingly Black student populations at Sunset Park and Sylvia Circle. But as Spears’s, Hicklin’s, and Harvey’s comments indicate, the high school reassignment was viewed as remedying widely acknowledged imbalances that hurt working-class White students as well as Black students. To emphasize that the high school reassignment was seen as benefiting Blacks and working-class Whites is not however to say that voting and preferences on the committee invariably followed class or race lines. They did not. One of the strongest proponents of balance was Leila Hicklin, and she is the wife of a physician. Another of the committee’s strongest supporters of balance, also a White, is from a commercially prominent Rock Hill family. This person’s emphasis on balance is especially noteworthy because it infuriated relatives angry at the prospect of their children not being able to attend Northwestern, and the resultant family tensions were known to other committee members.72 Neither this person’s nor Hicklin’s emphasis on balance can be attributed to class interest in any meaningful sense of the term. Rather, it was because, in Hicklin’s words, “it was so important for Rock Hill for it to be done correctly.” But this concern for the common good—this ability to identify with what was perceived to be in the best interest of the community—was facilitated by seeing the issue in class as well as race terms.

Implications of the Interplay of Class and Race in RHSD

Given how often the history of school desegregation is viewed—perhaps most famously in Boston in the 1970s—as pitting Black interests against those of working-class Whites, the first implication is that desegregation has the potential, as it did in the high school reassignment, to benefit working-class Whites as well as peoples of color.73  Moreover, efforts that do benefit working-class Whites and peoples have color also have the potential, as they did in Rock Hill, to enlist support from at least some upper-class Whites motivated by normative concerns and what they see as the public interest.

More generally, RHSD’s desegregation experience is relevant to the debate about the relative merits of race- versus class-based public policy. Legal constraints and the political backlash against race-conscious public policy have led to calls to forsake such policies in favor of those that focus on class disadvantage.74 According to this view, polices that focus on class are less open to legal challenges, are politically more viable, and will of necessity benefit peoples of color given the frequent empirical correlations among race, ethnicity, and class. A discussion of the relevant legal issues is beyond the scope of this article. However, our data does allow us to comment on claims of political viability and empirical overlap.

Political Viability: The comparison between the political trajectories of the elementary and high school reassignments provides considerable support for the claim of greater political viability of initiatives that are seen as benefiting both Blacks and working-class Whites. For similar reasons, the Black activists who initiated the successful fight for SMDs consciously framed the issue as one of place, not race. While framing the issue in that manner may have had little effect on the DOJ’s involvement, it helped build local political support for the change in elections. Finally, proponents of the southern site for the third high school also emphasized that it would benefit the entire south side of town, not just Blacks, and the core of the winning school board coalition on that issue was the three members from the south side, one of whom was White.   

Thus, the comparison between the elementary school reassignment and three other events—the high school reassignment, the siting of the third high school, and the change in electoral structure—is an important indication of the political difficulties that face an issue generally viewed as benefiting only Blacks. However, this conclusion must be tempered by two additional observations. The first is that in most events recounted here, race was not subsumed under class, but each had a life of its own and was considered both separately as well as in connection with the other. This was especially evident in the deliberations of the high school reassignment committee. As indicated by the comments quoted above, members thought about both race and class, and each of the many possible assignment scenarios provided racial and economic data.

The second observation involves the pivotal role of race and ethnicity in political mobilization. As our historical narrative indicated, the initial impetus of most of the events recounted in this case study was the change in school board elections. Had that change not occurred, other events would have happened very differently, if they would have happened at all. The battle to change the elections was spearheaded primarily by middle-class Blacks. Even though they created a Neighborhood Coalition Council that framed the issue as one of place rather than race, their efforts arose to combat the racial discrimination built into an at-large electoral system whose operation kept Blacks from winning any seats in three successive elections even though they constitute 22 percent of the electorate. It is thus only a slight exaggeration to say that the south-side Whites who also benefited from the change in elections were riding on the coattails of a struggle initiated by Blacks and waged primarily by them. Thus, this case study is a reminder of the likely shortcomings of any political strategy whose focus on class leads it to neglect the extent to which race-based oppression is a distinctive source of political mobilization with the potential to address issues of class as well as those of race that trigger the mobilization.

Empirical Overlap: Although the empirical overlap of race and class in the change in electoral structure and siting of the third high school requires little additional comment, the high school reassignment raises interesting issues involving the technical aspects of pursuing desegregation. Of the various variables on which the committee sought balance, the two most useful were FRL-eligibility and test scores. Algorithms that first sought to maximize balance on these two variables did a better job of balancing the remaining variables than did the algorithms that first sought to maximize balance on other variables.75 As Table 2 indicates, the reassignment plan projected only small differences in each school’s FRL enrollment. The racial differences were greater, but their magnitude is small by the measures of racial balance commonly used. Thus, on the high school assignment there was considerable overlap between race and class. However, the extent of overlap may be different in other situations, especially those in which higher percentages of non-Black peoples of color require algorithms that distinguish among Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and so forth, rather than lumping them together in a single category (“minority”) as was done in Rock Hill’s high school reassignment. Moreover, given the nature of residential segregation, there are reasons to think that race and class will overlap more on issues involving between-building segregation than on other educationally important issues such as within-building segregation, track placement, and improving academic outcomes.


The discussion of the interplay between class and race addressed differences in the political content of the elementary and high school reassignments. There were also important differences in the process by which the two reassignments took place. That difference is a second important reason why the high school reassignment took so different a political course. Former NU member and committee chair Ken Spears pointed to that difference:

With the elementary rezoning, there was no outside communication as to how you came up with this map. . . . It was done in the district office, I don’t think they did it intentionally, trying to hide from anybody, but there was no information outside the district office as to how they came up with the numbers they did, it was that they just presented it, and said this was the way it is. A lot of us during the elementary rezoning . . . said put community leaders together, get them involved.76

That perspective was shared by many other committee members such as Jeff Nicholson and Elissa Cox. Nicholson, like Spears, was a White member of NU whose anger at the elementary school reassignment led him to also run (unsuccessfully) for the board in 2002. Nicholson was especially concerned about traffic safety on roads near the new high school and thought the committee did not adequately address this issue. He also thought the committee could have functioned more efficiently, but he was generally pleased by the process because RHSD “involved the parents. . . . The district had never done anything like that before. New leadership is involving the public. I think the overall process was great.”77 Cox, also White, was one of the ten people to vote against the final plan because “I felt that a few random neighborhoods had been selected [by the committee] to be reassigned to various schools to ‘see’ what effect the shift would have in the data, . . . There was not a fair process of how the neighborhoods were selected to be ‘traded.’’’ Nonetheless, she said:

I did like the process that the district office used to set the reassignment lines. I felt that it was very fair and unbiased. . . . The members of the committee tried very hard to keep all schools equally balanced and it was very evident that balance and equality were top priority. Overall, I believe that the process that was used to create a reassignment plan was much more effective than those used in the past in our district.78

These comments confirm the conventional scholarly and administrative wisdom that citizen participation in a decision-making process typically facilitates adherence to its outcome even when, as in the case of Nicholson and Cox there are reservations about the outcome itself.79 However, these comments and, more generally, the results of the high school assignment committee are almost the exact opposite of what would have been predicted from most of the scholarly literature that focuses on citizen involvement in desegregation planning. For example, an early review of citizen involvement concluded, “The less the public is asked for its opinion during the period of policy-formation, the greater the likelihood that the public will accept the integration plan.”80 A subsequent study of ten districts pointed out that “much citizen participation in planning is more symbolic than real,” but also noted that such participation “may have a positive effect in avoiding conflict if participation takes place before specific decisions about how to desegregate are made.”81 The most thorough review of the literature on citizen involvement in desegregation planning was conducted by Jennifer Hochschild. She notes that such involvement may have certain advantages, but provides a generally pessimistic appraisal of it:

[I]f citizens become involved early in the process, if their roles and responsibilities are clear, if their work is relevant and actually influences the process, they may improve the plan and increase White acceptance. But these conditions are seldom met, and—a big constraint—their outcomes usually come at the relative expense of minorities. Minorities seldom end up worse off than they started when citizens design plans, but they always come out with more of the burden . . .

. . . But the point is worth reiterating: citizen planning and advisory groups are generally ineffective and Whites are generally more effective participants than Blacks. Thus we should not be surprised to find that citizen planning for desegregation has few positive and many negative effects on desegregation goals.82

One reason why the high school reassignment committee was successful was that—as would be anticipated by the comments of Greenblatt and Willie, and Hochshchild—citizens were involved very early on in the process (at its start, in fact), their roles were clear, and their work of considerable influence. But there are, we suggest, other reasons that distinguish the committee’s work from the generally pessimistic appraisal that Hochschild presents. Although her work provides the most thorough review of citizen involvement in desegregation planning, it appeared over twenty years ago and thus drew heavily on desegregation efforts that stemmed from federal mandates or pressure. In such cases, there was less necessity and incentive to involve citizens in the planning process.83 Moreover, the insistence of judges, HEW, and/or court-appointed masters upon desegregation could provide a disincentive to involving citizens in desegregation planning because that involvement could delay the development or implementation of a plan. In contrast, voluntary desegregation efforts require—almost by definition—more community support than court-mandated ones. In situations where the voluntarily initiated desegregation effort employs mandatory strategies, we further suggest that there is an especially great need for as much community consensus as early on as possible because, when implemented, such strategies do not give families the array of assignment options that transfer, magnet, and choice strategies typically do.

As committee member Cox’s comments indicate, the work of the high school reassignment committee provides support for the conventional wisdom that if the process is viewed as fair, the outcome will be accepted despite disagreements. But the committee did more than reconcile critics of the outcome. It also provided opportunities for the kind of argumentation, deliberation, and persuasion characteristic of efforts to reach what Jürgen Habermas calls reasoned consensus.84 Those processes were evident in the intense, long, and frequently frustrating meetings that raised doubts about whether the committee could ever find enough agreement to recommend a plan to the board. As Associate Superintendent Moody said:

I never thought we would get close enough to take it to the board. They were so diverse in their thinking, in what they truly believed. We would go back to our ground rules about, Are we doing this for all children or just for our neighborhood? See, just the way the committee was set up . . . by their schools. . . . They all came with their individual agendas. I’m going to protect Sullivan; I’m going to take care of Oakdale; I’m going to take care of Old Pointe. . . . They saw themselves as a representative to fight for that community, to the people who lived in that community, not to come up with something that was comprehensive for all children. But yet when they set their ground rules—we had a lot of conversation, we went back to it and back to it—and they challenged each other: Who are you talking about? Do you really believe in all children? Well, then why are you saying that? I think it was a soul searching of each other, a real challenge of each other. . . . I don’t think anyone of them would say they didn’t have to do some compromising.85

The process Moody describes also led to the transformative learning experience reflected in Ken Spears’ comment, quoted above, about how “his train of thought” about the desirability of having “everyone to go to their closest school, period” was changed by “doing the data.” Given that Spears was both a member of NU and chair of the reassignment committee, this change in his thinking played a key role in the committee’s being able to recommend a plan aimed at reversing longstanding class and race disparities in high school assignment.

Not that such committees guarantee desegregation success; after all, the high school reassignment proposal barely passed. But given the large number of students affected by the reassignment and the passions occasioned by the opening of the first new high school in thirty years, it is hard to believe that, absent the committee, RHSD could have adopted with so relatively little community conflict a reassignment plan that pursues desegregation through mandatory attendance zones.

Two final observations also help explain the committee’s success: First, despite the complaints of some members of the committee that it was stacked with RHSD employees, their presence, our data indicates, was a net positive because of the authority with which they could speak about various issues. For example, at a key moment in the committee’s deliberations, several RHSD employees spoke feelingly of the difficulty that teachers face in classrooms with large numbers of low-income, low-achieving students, and these comments helped persuade some previously dubious committee members of the importance of pursuing balance in pupil assignment. Moreover, the educators’ communication skills and understanding of educational issues helped clarify deliberations at several key points, including shortly before the vote to recommend a plan, when there was debate about the extent to which the committee should tweak the computer-generated scenarios to increase balance.

Second, the committee benefited from effective support from the district. One aspect of this support was provided by the paid consultants who provided data to the committee and educated members in its use and interpretation. A second was the leadership of Associate Superintendent Moody, the committee’s facilitator. Believing strongly in the educational value of diversity and balance in pupil assignment, Moody labored to strike an appropriate balance between encouraging the group to pursue balance and jeopardizing her credibility with committee members for whom that pursuit was less of a priority. It is not surprising that committee members Hicklin, Harvey, and Spears, who liked both the process and outcome, had a very favorable evaluation of Moody’s leadership. Thus, more significant testimony to this leadership comes from the plaintiffs representative on the committee, who was much more critical of both RHSD and the committee’s work. She thought that “the district knew what map they wanted and this is what they pushed for. . . . I don’t think the process was fair . . . and it was highly directed by district administration.” She considered “Lynn’s ability to manage the group very stifling,” but added, “She’s a wonderful lady, I have a lot of respect for her. She has great ability to get results that she had pre-set in her mind, and she did a remarkable job at that. I certainly wish I had some of those skills.”86 That this committee member could find Moody’s management “stifling,” but admire her skills and ability to get results is strong evidence that the associate superintendent’s leadership contributed to the adoption of a plan that placed great emphasis on balance.

Implications for Citizen Involvement in Desegregation Planning

The comparison between the elementary and high school reassignments indicates how a citizen committee greatly facilitated the pursuit of racial balance, making the importance of such committees an obvious implication of this case study. Although we can suggest that it is indeed an implication and that such committees may be especially necessary in situations of voluntarily initiated mandatory strategies, it is difficult to relate our suggestions to the existing literature on such committees because of the paucity of relevant recent literature. To be sure, there is literature with practical advice for leading such committees and structuring their work.87 But neither our literature search nor inquiries to practitioners produced any literature within the past decade that came close to providing a rigorous evaluation of the actual practice of such committees, how they are led, and the ways districts can support them in situations where the pursuit of racial, socioeconomic, and/or academic balance is a key consideration.

There are several reasons for the paucity of such literature. One, as we were told by a consultant who works on pupil assignment issues, is: “Boards don't want a report. They want a final decision in the form of a new map. The map is the product, and then they are glad to be done with this kind of thing. . . . The issue pops up, the board deals with it, and then they want to move on.”88 If such considerations militate against the production of a written body of work upon which scholars and practitioners could subsequently draw, even stronger ones militate against a body of work evaluating citizen participation in desegregation-related planning. Evaluations cost money, something of which districts are chronically short. Moreover, compared with the situation a generation ago, there is currently little federal or foundation money to support research on the politics of making desegregation work better.

But while not surprising, the lack of such literature is unfortunate. The absence of such literature precludes the kind of dialog among scholars and practitioners that could presumably allow such committees to function more effectively and on a wider scale. Moreover, the absence of such literature about advisory committees is part of a larger problem to which Brown and Knight have recently called attention: a paucity of scholarly literature about the methodology of developing attendance boundaries that take account of diversity. Despite an extensive literature search, they report, “No professional articles specifically related to how urban school districts set school boundaries with respect to diversity variables were found.”89 Like Brown and Knight’s work, our case study demonstrates the needs for scholarship on this subject. If citizen participation in developing attendance boundaries is as important for desegregation efforts as this case study suggests, these efforts would benefit from expanded research on how that participation can most effectively occur.90


While it is impossible to predict how Judge Perry might have ruled had the lawsuit not been settled, it is reasonable to infer that his assignment to the case benefited RHSD and the defendant-interveners represented by the LDF. That was certainly the view of the plaintiffs, and their representative on the high school reassignment committee attributed their willingness to settle to the prospect of otherwise having to go to trial in Perry’s courtroom, even though any appeal of his presumed unfavorable decision would be heard by one of the nation’s most conservative federal appeals courts.91 Given such considerations and the immense attention traditionally paid to court rulings by desegregation scholars and proponents, it is important to emphasize that in the past decade—unlike in the civil rights era—many of the key aspects of RHSD’s pursuit of desegregation have been primarily determined by local political events, not courtroom battles.

To be sure, federal pressure based on the Voting Rights Act facilitated the change in school board elections. But pressure to change how a school board gets elected is very different—politically, legally, and educationally—from pressure to change pupil assignment or school-siting policy. There was no pressure from either the judiciary or federal bureaucracy for RHSD to revamp its entire elementary school assignment plan, locate a new high school on a site opposed by most of the district’s affluent White residents, or pursue balance in high school assignment as vigorously as it did.

It is also worth emphasizing that desegregation proponents have done relatively better in Rock Hill venues than they did under the auspices of the presumably sympathetic Judge Perry. Although the settlement allowed the district to continue with the recently implemented assignment plan as well as to consider race in its pursuit of diversity, the agreement was not a total victory for RHSD and the defendant-interveners. In addition to providing a transfer option for some students, the agreement imposed stringent limits on the use of pockets and prohibited the use of “numerical racial quotas or targets” in any future assignment plan, including those for middle and high schools. The quoted phrase is ambiguous, but given the way “target” is frequently used in such contexts, the plaintiffs’ representative had good—albeit not conclusive—reasons for telling the high school reassignment committee that the settlement agreement precluded the committee from considering race as a criterion, even if race were not the main or only criterion. Thus, it was not primarily the settlement per se that allowed the committee to use race as one of its criteria, but the fact that there was scant support by committee members for not using it.

Similarly, the decision to build the third high school on the south side resulted primarily from the dynamics of local politics, not court intervention. Moreover, it was the workings of local politics, not court intervention that led to the success of desegregation proponents in the 2002 election despite the many threats and efforts of NU to defeat these proponents.  Finally, the tranquility of the 2004 school board elections indicated how the workings of the local politics of education managed to overturn longstanding high school attendance patterns without producing any serious challenge to the school board.

Many of these events were facilitated, if not triggered, by the change in school board elections. Immediately after this change, a board to which no Black had been elected in the previous three elections gained two Black members, both of whom were re-elected four years later. Moreover, their presence on the board facilitated RHSD’s pursuit of desegregation in the elementary school reassignment and was a key reason why the board located its third high school on the side of town containing high percentages of Black and working-class residents despite the opposition of many affluent Rock Hill Whites, the board’s chair, and the superintendent to this site. The superintendent subsequently remarked that the decision to build the third high school on the southern site “was the only thing I ever lost with the board,” and the reason is that the change in elections brought three members from the south side of town to the board. 92

Implications for the Politics of Desegregation

Given how the adoption of SMDs affected both the location of the third high school and the district’s ability to pursue desegregation, the most immediate implication of this case study is the importance of investigating whether similar changes in electoral structures elsewhere have comparable effects. But the implications of the case study extend beyond the possible consequences of changes in school board electoral structures. Rather, they bear witness to the fact that even though the federal government currently has little interest in pursuing desegregation, other federal-level landmark initiatives of the civil rights era, especially the Voting Rights Act, have transformed school board politics in a way that makes voluntary desegregation more possible than it was in the era of court-mandated desegregation.

Whatever the success of court-mandated efforts in fulfilling Brown’s promise, these efforts had two collateral downsides. The first, as we noted earlier, is that many such efforts pitted Blacks against working-class Whites in a manner that had unfortunate consequences for both education and many aspects of politics, both nationally and locally. The second was the conflict, as Jennifer Hochschild has pointed out, between two of the nation’s cherished political ideals: the liberal ideal of equality of opportunity and the democratic ideal of popular sovereignty.93 This conflict extended far beyond the desegregation advisory committees discussed above; it was inherent in the logic of desegregation proponents’ reliance on federal intervention to trump the workings of local politics and the preferences of elected school boards.94

However, in RHSD’s voluntary desegregation efforts of the past five years, the workings of local politics have been consistent with promoting equality of opportunity via increased desegregation. This consistency was evident in the high school reassignment committee whose deliberations exemplified the kind of bridging civic engagement that the U.S., according to many commentators, e.g., Putnam, so desperately lacks.95 That consistency was also evident in the results of school board elections, which resulted in victories of candidates who backed the district’s desegregation efforts. To the extent future research finds a similar consistency elsewhere, it will provide additional evidence that, compared with court-mandated desegregation, voluntarily initiated desegregation involves less conflict between the liberal ideal of equality of opportunity and the democratic ideal of popular sovereignty, i.e., there is less conflict because voluntary desegregation occurs under the auspices of democratically elected school boards. Thus a Supreme Court ruling against voluntary desegregation can readily be viewed as one that would not only undermine the pursuit of equality of opportunity, but would also undermine the democratic ideal of popular sovereignty.


The story on RHSD’s recent desegregation efforts has not yet fully unfolded. Among other things, if current demographic trends continue, as they almost certainly will, RHSD will face challenges arising from the declining non-Hispanic-White percentage of the district’s enrollment as well as from fiscal constraints and continued growth. Moreover, the district will increasingly need to understand desegregation in multi-racial and multi-ethnic terms rather than from the White/Black or White/minority perspective that it typically has had. Nonetheless, the history to date is noteworthy for two reasons. First, unlike many other districts, RHSD is making major efforts to pursue desegregation in pupil assignment. Second, as of this writing midway through the 2005–6 academic year, there is reason to think the district’s efforts have been reasonably successful. Although Sylvia Circle and especially Sunset Park have higher percentages of Black students than the system-wide average, they are no longer experiencing the extreme racial isolation that they did prior to the elementary school rezoning, and the district continues to maintain very high levels of racial balance in its elementary schools. Because the new high school currently enrolls only ninth-and tenth-graders, it is impossible to ascertain the extent to which the three high schools will fully realize the highly balanced student populations projected by the new reassignment plan. But the plan gives every sign of redressing the longstanding imbalances that previously characterized high school assignment in RHSD.

These changes occurred in the absence of federal pressure and, in the case of the elementary reassignment, despite significant local opposition that achieved some success in federal court, but none in local elections. In the case of the high school reassignment, this change occurred via the kind of bridging civic engagement and reasoned communication that partisans of democracy typically cherish. Moreover, this engagement allied the interests of Blacks and working-class Whites in creating a situation in which there will be little statistical basis for students at any of the district’s three high schools to shout, “Your father works for my father.” With the Supreme Court’s consideration of voluntary desegregation making the issue more prominent, understanding the extent to which dynamics similar to those in RHSD could or do operate in other districts is a task as timely as it is intellectually exciting and educationally important.


Smith and Kedrowski contributed equally to this article. The research for it was supported by grants to Smith from the American Political Science Association and to Smith and Kedrowski from the Winthrop University Research Council. We are grateful to the scores of residents of Rock Hill who shared their knowledge of education and local politics with us, but are too numerous to thank by name. We are also grateful to: Tim Allen, Elaine Baker, Tammy Blankenship, David Burnett, Wayne Gunter, Michael A. Miller, and Lynn Moody for help in obtaining data; to Scott Huffmon and the Winthrop Social and Behavioral Research Laboratory for providing us with unpublished polling data; to John Chesser, Chinh Le, and Roslyn Arlin Mickelson for helpful comments; to Lane Lovegrove, Manning B. Shaw III, and Janelle Stitt for research assistance; and to April Lovegrove for clerical assistance. Of course, the authors bear sole responsibility for any errors of fact or interpretation.

1 Asked about the cheer, a 2003 graduate of Northwestern responded:

This is something that we've always heard was said publicly in the form of cheers, but my personal experience with the saying has been more on the level of an “urban legend.” I cannot speak with any authority as to whether or not it was actually a chant. I have never heard it said at the football games before, but it's something that students are aware of (Howell Williams, personal communication, January 27, 2006).

See also the comments of a member of the high school reassignment committee, Lonnie Harvey, cited below.

2 The county, York, in which RHSD is located contains four school districts. Officially, the Rock Hill school district is generally referred to as York 3 or Rock Hill School District Three. However, we will refer to it simply as RHSD.

3 Even with the surge in Hispanic school enrollment discussed below, the vast majority of RHSD’s white students and white families are nonHispanic whites. For this reason and for expository convenience, we will use white as a proxy for nonHispanic white, unless the context (e.g., quantitative analyses of enrollment trends) requires greater precision.

4 The board’s seventh member, a Black, was not present at the meeting.

5 John Logan, Resegregation in American Public Schools? Not in the 1990s (Albany, NY: Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, 2004), 15. For claims of growing resegregation see Erica Frankenberg, Chungmei Lee, and Gary Orfield, A Multiracial Society with Segregated Schools: Are We Losing the Dream? (Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 2003) and Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee, Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation (Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 2006).

6 Kathryn Borman. Tamela Eitle, Deanna Michael, David Eitle, Reginald Lee, Larry Johnson, Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Sherman Dorn, and Barbara Shircliffe, “Accountability in a Post-desegregation Era: The Continuing Significance of Racial Segregation in Florida's Schools,” American Educational Research Journal, 41(3) (2004), 605–631; Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, and Steven G. Rivken, New Evidence About Brown v. Board of Education: The Complex Effects of School Racial Composition on Achievement, NBER Working Paper 8741 (National Bureau of Economic Research: Cambridge, MA, 2002); Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, “Subverting Swann: First- and Second- Generation Segregation in Charlotte, North Carolina, American Educational Research Journal, 38(2) (2001), 215–252; Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, “The Academic Consequences of Desegregation and Segregation: Evidence from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,” North Carolina Law Review, 81(4) (2003), 1513–1562; Russell W. Rumberger and Gregory J. Palardy, “Does Segregation Still Matter? The Impact of Student Composition on Achievement in High School,” Teachers College Record, 107(9) (2005), 1999–2045.

7 Throughout this article our use of the term working class accords with the frequent everyday meaning of the term as pertaining to blue-collar workers, not white-collar workers. Our usage elides many crucial issues contained in the voluminous literature on social class. But our discussion does not require greater precision, especially because it reflects the understanding of Rock Hill residents such as Leila Hicklin and Lonnie Harvey when they refer to Rock Hill High as the blue-collar school and Northwestern as the white-collar school or the school for doctors and lawyers in their comments cited below.

We will also typically talk of desegregation as benefiting Blacks even though some Blacks opposed the board’s reassignment plans, especially for the elementary schools. However, this opposition was limited. As indicated by the views of the board’s two Black board members, the Black activists who pushed for SMD representation on the school board, and the support for the defendant-interveners in the lawsuit, RHSD’s pursuit of desegregation had strong backing in the Black community. Moreover, polling data from early spring 2003 (after the elementary school reassignment was implemented but before the litigation was settled) also indicates strong support among Rock Hill Blacks for desegregation. For example, on a question about the importance of “bussing children to ensure racial balance,” the modal Black response was the highest on the scale (“Extremely important”=38 percent), 78 percent of Black respondents were in the three highest categories, and only 13 percent were in the three lowest categories. In contrast, the modal White response was the lowest on the scale (“Not Important At All”=26 percent), and 50 percent of White respondents were in the three lowest categories on the scale. (Analysis by authors of data provided by Scott Huffmon).

8 Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

9 Stephen Samuel Smith, Boom for Whom? Education, Desegregation, and Development in Charlotte (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004). Unless stated otherwise, our subsequent statements about desegregation in Charlotte all draw on this book.

10 In school desegregation law, the term unitary generally means that the vestiges of the Jim Crow era’s state-mandated dual system have been eliminated to the extent practicable and that the district is entitled to be released from court supervision.

11 Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, “Achieving Equality of Educational Opportunity in the Wake of Judicial Retreat from Race Sensitive Remedies: Lessons from North Carolina” American University Law Review 52:6 (2003), 152-184; Smith, Boom for Whom?

12 Stephen Samuel Smith, Karen M. Kedrowski, and Joseph M. Ellis, “Electoral Structures, Venue Selection, and the (New?) Politics of School Desegregation,” Perspectives on Politics, 2:4 (2004), 795–801.

13 NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, and the Center for the Study of Race and Law at the University of Virginia Law School, Looking to the Future: Voluntary K-12 School Integration (New York: Author, 2005).

14 Jennifer Hochschild, “Is School Desegregation Still a Viable Policy Option?” PS: Political Science & Politics 30 (1997), 458-465.

15 For a fuller and more nuanced discussion of voluntary and mandatory strategies than is necessary here, see Christine H. Rossell, “The Effectiveness of Desegregation Plans” in Christine H. Rossell, David J. Armor, and Herbert Wahlberg, eds., School Desegregation in the 21st Century (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2002),

16 LDF, Looking to the Future, 31. A sixth case involves a graduate school of education’s laboratory school.

17 Judy Longshaw, “Is Board Lacking Diversity?” Herald, November 1, 1998, 1B.

18 Allison Bruce, “School Board Wants Lawmakers’ Input on Elections,” Herald, December 21, 1999, 1A.

19 Allison Bruce, “Members Endorse Plan to Diversify School Board,” Herald, April 25, 2000, 1A.

20 Jean Denton, “Savage Says Some Redistribution Likely,” Evening Herald, February 17, 1973, pp. 1, 14.

21 Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Order of Dismissal in the Matter of York County School District No. 3, South Carolina and South Carolina State Department of Education, Docket No. S-122 Proceedings Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Creagh B. Evins, Administrative Law Judge (Greenville, SC: Author), April 11, 1977.

22 Jennifer Woods, “School Rezoning To Ignore Race,” Evening Herald, May 13, 1983, 1.

23 Jennifer Woods, “School Rezoning Geared to Maintain Racial Balance, Evening Herald, April 26, 1983, pp. 1, 14.

24 Joe Berger, Interview with authors, Rock Hill, SC, October 7, 2002. Berger was a member of the board in 1983.

25 Jennifer Woods Parker, “Board OKs Rezoning,” Evening Herald, December 7, 1983, pp. 1,2.

26 Quantitative historical data on the actual extent of socioeconomic balance is not available, but data on racial balance is. In 1990, for example, the Black-White dissimilarity index for RHSD’s elementary schools was 20.6, slightly less than the median for SC school districts in that year. By 2000, largely because of the situation with Sunset Park and Sylvia Circle discussed further on in the article, the corresponding figure was 25.9, slightly more than the median for all of South Carolina’s districts.

[The dissimilarity index indicates the proportion of a district’s students that would have to be moved to ensure that the racial composition of each school in the district would be the same as the racial composition of the entire district. The index ranges from 0 (perfect racial balance) to 100 (complete segregation). Data obtained from the American Communities Project at Brown University, accessed online at http://www.s4.brown.edu/schoolsegregation/index.htm. According to this website, a dissimilarity index of 60 or above “is considered very high,” and “values of 30 or below are considered to be fairly low.”]

27 Cal Harrison, “Racial Makeup of New Zones Outrages Parents,” Herald, May 7, 1996, 1a.

28 Judy Longshaw and Nicole Gustin, “Parents: Leave Zones Alone,” Herald, May 22, 1996.

29 Harrison, “Racial Makeup.”

30 Rock Hill School District, Comparisons of the Impact of the Proposed Student Attendance Plan on Student Demographics: Preliminary Discussions, May 28, 2001 (Rock Hill: Author, 3).

31 Rock Hill School District Enrollment—All Ethnic Codes, October 24, 2000 (Rock Hill: Author, 2000).

32 Editorial, “Balancing Our Schools,” Herald, April 22, 2001, 23.

33 Jennifer Stanley, “Board: ‘Fixes’ to Sunset Park May Be Route to Rezoning,” Herald, June 12, 2001, 1a.

34 Jason Cato, “Concerns Rise Over Proposed Zones, Herald, May 30, 2001, 1A.

35 “Sylvia Circle will give first priority for admission to the 200 students who are currently attending the school and who reside within walking distance of Sylvia Circle. The second 200 seats, as well as those seats available because currently enrolled students selected other district locations, will be open to any student in the district in grades K4-5th grade. If more students apply than can be served . . . students will be randomly selected by drawing . . . Sylvia Circle Montessori will maintain a racial balance comparable to all schools in the Rock Hill School District” (Charter school grant application submitted by RHSD to South Carolina Department of Education, April 25, 2001).

36 Tiernee Midkiff, “Don’t Bus Our Children,” Herald, August 25, 2001, 5A.

37 Rock Hill School District Minutes of Meeting of November 26, 2001 (Rock Hill: Author, 2001).

38 Law firm of Parks, Chesin, Walbert, and Miller, Federal Lawsuit Filed Against Rock Hill School District #3 Challenging Race-Based Elementary School Rezoning and Race-Based Siting of 3rd High School, news release, April 30, 2002.

39 Amy French, Nichole Monroe Belle, and Sean Jamiseson, “Judge Lets Reassignment Policy Proceed This Year,” Herald, July 21, 2002, 4b.

40 Erica Pippins, “Judges Deny Appeal in Rezoning Case, Herald, July 31, 2002, 1A.

41 Offer of Judgment in Burris v. Rock Hill School District No. 3, Civil Action 0:02-1409-10 United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.

42 As discussed below, at the start of the 2004–5 academic year, Sunset Park became a year-round school. It retained its defined attendance zone, but students anywhere in RHSD could apply to attend the school. We lack data on the extent to which this change led to the increase in the school’s Black enrollment.

43 Computation is the authors’ based on data from RHSD’s 45-day membership report dated October 13, 2005.

44 We are not, it should be emphasized, claiming that the elections were a referendum on desegregation; many other issues were involved. But with the reassignment having just taken effect and the outcome of the litigation very uncertain, the results of the election are prima facie evidence that opposition to the board’s pursuit of desegregation was nowhere near as important to voters as NU had hoped it would be.

45 Jennifer Stanley, “4-3 Vote Ends Battle Over Where To Build,” Herald, March 13, 2001, 1A.

46 Andrew Skerritt, “McDaniel To Hear Public Speak About Third High School,” Herald, March 16, 2001, 1A.

47 Rock Hill School District, Minutes of School Board Work Session, April 9, 2001 (Rock Hill: Author, 1); Jennifer Stanley, “Saluda Trail Site OK’d”, Herald, April 10, 2001, 1A.

48 Wendy Bigham, “Parents Voice Views On School Lines,” Herald, February 3, 2004, 1B.

49 Five seats were on the ballot because one of them had been filled by a temporary appointment to a seat left vacant by a resignation.

50 In 1999–2000, non-Hispanic whites constituted 64 percent of the high school enrollment; in 2000–1, 63 percent; in 2001–2, 63 percent; and in 2002–3, 61 percent (all data from RHSD’s Ethnic Reports based on 45-day membership). In the discussion we present data on private school enrollment that also argues against significant White flight in recent years.

51 In this respect, the situation in RHSD parallels that in many other districts. As Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee say about the situation nationally, “Within a decade it is likely that there will be fewer than half white students in our public schools . . . This will not be true because of flight to private schools, which serve a much smaller proportion of students than they did in the 1950s and are expected to serve a declining share in the future. It is because of a changing population structure created by differential birth rates and age structures and a largely nonwhite international flow of millions of immigrants” (Orfield and Lee, Racial Transformation).

52 David Armor, Forced Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 223; Rossell, “Effectiveness of Desegregation Plans,” 94.

53 Armor, Forced Justice; Rossell, “Effectiveness of Desegregation Plans.”

54 Ken Spears, personal communication, Rock Hill, SC, January 18, 2006.

55 Lynn Moody, personal communication, Rock Hill, SC, January 23, 2006.

56 Phillip McDaniel, personal communication, Rock Hill, SC, January 30, 2006.

57 Ibid.

58 Allison Bruce, “Officials like option of year-round class,” Herald, June 12, 2000, 1A; Rock Hill School District, Minutes of School Board Work Session, April 13, 2003 (Rock Hill: Author, 2003).

59 Gary Orfield, “Metropolitan School Desegregation: Impacts on Metropolitan Society,” Minnesota Law Review 80:4 (1996), 825-874.

60 Armor, Forced Justice, 183.

61 Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor, “Segregation and Resegregation,” 1484.

62 Moody, personal communication. Rock Hill, SC, January 23, 2006. The results of such conversations became apparent in the fall of 2006 as this article was being copyedited. With a new elementary school scheduled to open in the 2007-8 school year, RHSD had to revise approximately half of its elementary school reassignment plan, including the portion dealing with Sunset Park. The initial proposal called for an expansion of Sunset Park's attendance zone, but many families who would have been reassigned to the school indicated that they would exercise the opt-out provision that had been provided when Sunset Park had become a year-round school in 2004-5.  As a result, the district backed off the expansion of Sunset Park’s attendance zone and is exploring ways of making the school more attractive, including the possibility of placing a math, science, and technology magnet there.  It is unclear at this point whether such a magnet, if implemented, would lead to others in the district and thus a marked change in the district's traditional heavy reliance on mandatory strategies.

63 During the same period when non-Hispanic-White enrollment in the district’s high schools dropped from 65 to 56 percent, system-wide it dropped from 61 to 56 percent (computations from RHSD ethnic reports based on 45-day membership).

64 Computations by authors from annual reports, Private School Enrollment By Grade, By County obtained from South Carolina Department of Education. These reports do not provide data on where students reside or the number who are home-schooled, and we do not have the report for 2005–6. However, in the absence of a comparison between RHSD’s enrollment and York County population trends—an undertaking beyond the scope of this article—these reports provide the best available data on private school enrollment.

65 Armor, Forced Justice, 222; Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor, “Segregation and Resegregation,” 1485. Another relevant structural factor might be residential segregation. However, Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor report that in North Carolina “the relationship between neighborhood and school segregation is surprisingly weak” (p. 1492). Our preliminary analyses for South Carolina also indicate a weak relationship.

66 We are grateful to Chinh Le for calling the possible conflict between scholarly and normative commitments to our attention. The conflict will certainly continue if the decision in those cases is a narrowly tailored one that focuses on particularities of these districts’ desegregation plans. Moreover, if the ruling includes broader limitations on voluntarily initiated desegregation efforts, some districts—either because of inertia or inclination—may continue them until challenged.

67 Leila Hicklin, personal communication, Rock Hill, SC, December 28, 2004.

68 Spears, personal communication. Rock Hill, SC, January 18, 2006.

69 Ibid.

70 Lonnie Harvey, personal communication, Rock Hill, SC, January 23, 2006.

71 Lacking student-level data, we base this statement upon FRL and housing value data from the 174 segments into which RHSD was divided by OR/Ed for developing the high school reassignment plan. Wedgewood was one of these segments, and we compare it with the segments in which three of NU’s five officers lived (a fourth lived outside of Finley Road’s attendance zone, and we were unable to obtain data on the fifth). Only 1 percent of students from Wedgewood were FRL-eligible; the average for the three NU officers’ segments was 15 percent. Moreover, even though Wedgewood had only about 63 percent the number of students that, on average, the NU officers’ segments contained, it had, on average, about four times the number of expensive homes.

72 Harvey, personal communication. Rock Hill, SC, January 23, 2006.

73 Ronald P. Formisano, Boston Against Busing, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). One reason why working-class Whites have opposed desegregation efforts is that many plans—again Boston is the poster child—have required much greater changes in pupil assignment for Blacks and working-class Whites than they have required for more privileged, affluent, and politically influential Whites.

74 Richard D. Kahlenberg The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

75 Michael A. Miller, personal communication with authors, February 9, 2006. Miller was the OR/Ed staff member who worked most closely with the high school reassignment committee. There was strong support for the priority given to variables other than race even from committee members for whom civil rights, race, and ethnicity were very salient issues. Thus, Lonnie Harvey—the defendant-interveners’ representative on the committee, a consultant on workplace diversity issues, and a Black—noted that when the committee considered “a map that gave racial balance to all three schools,” he considered it “an atrocious-looking map, difficult as far as travel concerned, created a lot of satellites, income had no balance to it” (interview with authors).

76 Spears, personal communication.Rock Hill, SC, January 18, 2006.

77 Jeff Nicholson, personal communication, Rock Hill, SC, January 5, 2005.

78 Elissa Cox, personal communication, November 18, 2004. Cox’s comments contain words within quotation marks because she used quotation marks in the e-mail from which her comments are taken.

79 The scholarly understanding is often labeled the participation hypothesis [Sidney Verba, Small Groups and Political Behavior (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961)].

80 Morton Inger and Robert Stout, “School Desegregation—The Need to Govern,” Urban Review, November, 1968, 36.

81 Susan L. Greenblatt and Charles V. Willie, “School Desegregation and the Management of Social Change,” in Charles V. Willie and Susan L. Greenblatt, eds., Community Politics and Educational Change: Ten School Systems Under Court Order (New York: Longman, 1981), 340.

82 Jennifer L. Hochschild, The New American Dilemma: Liberal Democracy and School Desegregation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 101-102, 106.

83 Of course, in the era or of court-mandated desegregation efforts, local political support could facilitate such efforts. But broad-based community input in these efforts from the very outset was not as necessary as it is in the absence of such mandates.

84 Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume I: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 1985).

85 Moody, personal communication.Rock Hill, SC, January 23, 2006.

86 Hollie S. Bennett, personal communication, Rock Hill, SC, October 26, 2004.

87 Julie Sturgeon, “Over the Line,” District Administration, August 2005.

88 John Chesser, personal communication, Charlotte, NC, February 14, 2006.

89 Arlene K. Brown and Karen W. Knight, “School Boundary and Student Assignment Procedures in Large, Urban Public School Systems,” Education and Urban Society, 37:4 (2005), 401.

90 The future of pupil assignment in RHSD may bear as much witness to the need for such evaluation as the past does. Despite the high school committee’s success, RHSD is currently taking a different approach to future pupil reassignment issues by appointing a seven-person advisory committee whose members are expected to serve for two years. The committee will make recommendations upon which district staff will draw in developing assignment plans for the board’s approval. Motivating this new approach are what the district viewed as the downsides of the high school committee, e.g., the extensive amount of staff time and energy required to support the work of so large an ad hoc committee. At this point, it is unclear whether this new process will serve RHSD as well as the high school reassignment committee did.

91 Bennett, personal communication.Rock Hill, SC, October 26, 2004.

92 Phillip J. McDaniel, personal communication, Rock Hill, SC, October 19, 2002.

93 Hochschild, New American Dilemma.

94 Of course, in many districts, had Blacks been able to vote, school board elections might have turned out very differently. But federally mandated desegregation was not confined to such districts. Indeed, some of the most crucial federal interventions occurred in districts such as Charlotte where Whites constituted a majority of the citizenry.

95 Putnam, Bowling Alone. In response to early works touting the benefits of social capital, critics pointed out that high levels of it could have pernicious consequences, e.g., the Ku Klux Klan draws on the kind of social networks and norms of trustworthiness to which the concept of social capital refers. In response to this criticism, Putnam subsequently distinguished between bonding and bridging social capital (Bowling Along, 22). While the Klan might rank high on the former, it embodied little of the latter. We talk of bridging civic engagement rather than bridging social capital because while the empirical referents of the term social capital merit sustained study, the term itself, in our view, is deeply flawed both analytically and ideologically [Stephen Samuel Smith and Jessica Kulynych, “It May Be Social, but Why is It Capital? The Social Construction of Social Capital and the Politics of Language,” Politics & Society 30: 1 (2002), 149-196].

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 5, 2008, p. 986-1032
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12787, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 2:59:50 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Stephen Smith
    Winthrop University
    E-mail Author
    STEPHEN SAMUEL SMITH is a professor of political science at Winthrop University. He served as an expert witness for NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the reopened Swann litigation and is the author of Boom for Whom? Education, Desegregation, and Development in Charlotte (SUNY Press 2004) and, with Jessica Kulynych, of “It May be Social, but Why is it Capital? The Social Construction of Social Capital and the Politics of Language” (Politics & Society, 2002).
  • Karen Kedrowski
    Winthrop University
    KAREN KEDROWSKI is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Winthrop University. Her research interests include political communication, health policy, and education policy. Her publications include Cancer Activism: Gender, Media and Public Policy (forthcoming from the University of Illinois press), with Marilyn Stine Sarow. She is currently working on a book on breastfeeding rights in the United States with Michael E. Lipscomb.
  • Joseph Ellis
    University of Tennessee-Knoxville
    JOSEPH M ELLIS is an instructor of political science at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and a Ph.D. candidate at Temple University. His primary research interests are in post-Soviet economic and political transitions, especially issues relating to emerging market economies and taxation. He is the author, with Stephen Samuel Smith and Karen M. Kedrowski, of “Electoral Structures, Venue Selection, and the (New?) Politics of School Desegregation,” (Perspectives on Politics, 2004).
  • Judy Longshaw
    Winthrop University
    JUDY LONGSHAW is journalist who previously covered education policy in Rock Hill. She is active in the district’s educational affairs.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue