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How Educational Leaders Respond to Racial Diversity Based on the Policy Context

The research on educational leaders’ response to the growing diversity in their districts and schools reveals how our current global political context, driven by whiteness and white supremacy, socializes us and affects our daily sentiments, structures, and practices in schools. We have written previously about how educational leaders and their district and school communities are influenced by various nested policy contexts (Diem et al., 2016; Weaver-Hightower, 2008). Policies and associated policy discourses are perceived, received, and enacted through an ecological system of nested policy contexts at the global, national, state, and local level (Weaver-Hightower, 2008). According to Weaver-Hightower (2008) these nested policy contexts serve as a “web of influence” where the state establishes its policy intentions in writing, the policy is then recontextualized to other organizational entities such as state education agencies and school districts, and then finally, local actors like school administrators and teachers reinterpret the policy and determine how to distribute decision-making power in the policy implementation process (Diem et al., 2016; Weaver-Hightower, 2008, p. 158). Nevertheless, the process of how policies and subsequent policy discourses are framed and then refrained at various contextual levels of the policy environment is in no way linear and, indeed, complex. Yet, what we have found in the research on district and school community responses to racial diversity is that when states design policies that are intentionally race-neutral, local policy actors are influenced by the messages coming from their policy environment and intrinsically follow suit with race-neutral attitudes, structures, and practices (Diem et al., 2016; Welton et al., 2015).

To understand how the racial discourses in the policy environment shaped suburban district and school policy actors’ responses to increasing racial diversity in their communities, we compared suburban districts in three different metropolitan contexts: San Antonio, Texas; Los Angeles, California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Each metropolitan context had key state policies that largely influenced the racial politics of the suburban districts we studied. Texas was and still is largely influenced by high-stakes testing, and its accountability system was highly influential in the Bush Administration’s design of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Texas has also been a legal battle ground over the discrimination against English learners (EL), and an outcome of these court rulings is that now districts are required to provide bilingual instruction for EL students in the elementary grades (Gandara & Rumberger, 2009). California, in contrast, has designed policies that intentionally disregard both race and language. In 1996, the California legislature passed Proposition 209 which amended the state constitution to preclude state agencies from considering race, ethnicity, and sex in public employment, contracts, and education (Contreras, 2005). Essentially, Proposition 209 was an anti-affirmative action policy that greatly limited Black and Brown student access to University of California institutions. Proposition 227 is a subtractive language policy passed in 1998 that eliminated bilingual education in California and required non-native English speakers to receive instruction in a separate English-only class setting. Finally, Minnesota, up until 1999, had statewide enforced desegregation, while integration remained voluntary through inter- and intra-district school choice (Diem et al., 2016). The state is currently being sued by families arguing that an unequal education system has been established by allowing segregation to exist across school districts (Cruz-Guzman v. Minnesota, 2018).

Ultimately, we found that the state policy contexts that the districts we studied were situated in was concomitant with how they responded to the expanding racial diversity in their communities. In the suburban San Antonio district, the high-stakes-testing-driven accountability system prompted a significant focus on counting the performance of racial and ethnic student sub-groups. While race mattered in terms of fulfilling mandated state accountability measures, efforts to be culturally responsive to their growing racially diverse student populations were superficial and merely for educators to avoid cultural conflicts with and behavior problems from students. Also, we found that while the district and school leaders restructured their educational services to address these changing demographics, they used race-neutral approaches that reinforce deficit thinking and thus dehumanize students’ of color learning experiences (Welton et al., 2015).

Educational leaders in the suburban Los Angeles (LA) district were faced with operating in a state with anti-bilingual and racially hostile policies, and these leaders were the weakest of the three suburban districts we studied in terms of their efforts to be race-conscious. Educators in the suburban LA district were also quick to essentialize racial minoritized groups instead of recognizing the funds of knowledge and cultural wealth these students and their families possess that would be a valued asset to school policymaking and curricular and instructional practices. In contrast, the suburban Minneapolis district we studied was more race-conscious because the former state-desegregation rule put funding and resources towards racial equity efforts, and so the district used these resources for professional development and continuous improvement work in cultural competency. This capacity building and development of more racially equitable practices also prompted district leadership to push their school level leaders to examine their data for racially exclusionary practices in school discipline and to be more forthcoming about how school structures and practices perpetuate the racial achievement gap (Diem et al., 2016). Consequently, we found in each case that educators’ responses to the demographic changes occurring in their district communities were a reflection of their state policy context.

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