Life After Dowell: The Impact of Unitary Status and the End of Court-Ordered Desegregation, 1993-2013
Elmer, Douglas R.
University of Kansas
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
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In 1991, the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell established guidelines that expedited the lower courts’ ability to terminate court-ordered desegregation cases, even in cases where racial imbalance was likely to persist. The courts refer to districts that have had court cases terminated as operating under “unitary status.” Over the next 25 years, the lower courts terminated hundreds of desegregation orders. This dissertation examines patterns of racial composition, school finance, and educational attainment in 480 school districts operating under unitary status, and compares these patterns to those in districts that remained under court oversight as well as those districts with no court-mandated desegregation plan in place. These analyses include data from 1993 through 2013 and provide significant evidence that unitary districts followed a different trajectory than either districts not impacted by the Dowell ruling or districts that remained under court order through 2010. In addition to finding both overall changes in racial composition and differing patterns of segregation across the subsets of districts analyzed, findings indicate a relationship between unitary status and increasing segregation levels over time. Additionally, districts not under court order were consistently able to spend more per pupil than districts with active court orders and those operating under unitary status. The finance analysis also found that while unitary districts were able to spend more on students for some time after court orders terminated, these efforts could not be sustained long-term. Finally, an examination of educational attainment showed that court-monitored and unitary districts had much lower rates of educational attainment in 1993, and high schools with very low levels of education attainment were overrepresented in the subsets of districts impacted by the Dowell decision.
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