Feds Pledge to Ramp Up Public School Desegregation Efforts

U.S. Secretary of Education John King plans to change the separate and unequal nature of K–12 campuses in the United States.
(Photo: Jeff Hathaway/Getty Images)
Apr 22, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Most sociologists and education experts agree: Learning for both white and minority students is enhanced when they sit beside each other in the classroom. Experts also agree: As African Americans and Latinos have become the new public-school majority, the nation’s classrooms are more segregated than ever.

But a new report from The Century Foundation, a New York City–based think tank, indicates they might not stay that way for long. The number of school districts and charters using school-assignment policies to promote socioeconomic integration has more than doubled in the last two decades, affecting approximately 4 million students in 32 states.

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The push also has a friend in a really high place: Secretary of Education John King, who is using his bully pulpit at the U.S. Department of Education to preach the gospel of classroom diversity.

“For me, just as a well-rounded education is essential to fulfilling our mission of a quality opportunity through education, so too is the opportunity to attend schools that are diverse, that are racially diverse, that are socioeconomically diverse,” said King, speaking this week at a Century Foundation event unveiling the report.

Though the Brown v. Board of Education case was a crippling blow to racially separate schools, public school integration has taken on increasing urgency.

A series of studies has revealed that, propelled by housing trends and income inequality, an alarming number of public and some charter schools are more likely to be separate and unequal. Schools and districts that are predominantly black or Latino are less likely to have quality facilities or resources compared with schools in white districts, and they typically feature a strong police presence—a key component in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Other studies, however, show that balanced integration in a school with quality facilities and adequate funding can not only help minority students succeed in the classroom, but can be a powerful factor in raising students’ awareness of that inequality. There’s a benefit for white students too, helping them acquire the skills they’ll need to navigate an increasingly diverse world.

Awareness of the benefits of integration is there, according to the report. “Our research has identified a total of 91 districts and charter networks across the country that use socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment,” wrote the authors. When The Century Foundation first began tracking the use of race and income in school assignments, the report says, “it could find only two districts that employed a conscious plan using socioeconomic factors to pursue integration,” and only 40 by 2007.

The majority of the integration strategies observed fall into five main categories: attendance zone boundaries, district-wide choice policies, magnet school admissions, charter school admissions, and transfer policies, according to the report. Some districts use a combination of methods, but “the most common strategy for promoting socioeconomic integration used by districts and charters on our list is redrawing school attendance boundaries.”

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But it doesn’t happen without a fight, the study notes. While parents and integration advocates in New York City, suburban Rhode Island, and Eden Prairie, Minnesota, led the fight to socioeconomically integrate their schools, parents in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Pinellas County, Florida, pushed back against those attempts—and won.

The fight to integrate is more a marathon than a sprint, says Carla Shedd, a Columbia University professor and author of the new book Unequal City: Race, Schools and Perceptions of Injustice. While white parents fighting integration are fine with the status quo, not all black parents want to see their kids travel across town every morning to attend a mostly white school.

Shedd fully supports classroom integration. “I’m definitely sympathetic to a parent who says, ‘I don’t want my kid to go somewhere else [outside the neighborhood] to get a good education,’ ” she noted, adding, “That should make us have to do something about the inequality that exists” between minority and white communities.

The difficult part, Shedd said, is convincing white parents that the benefits of integration work both ways.

“I think that’s one of the great things—it’s not only a benefit for black and brown kids,” she said. “All kids learn. All kids get a bit more in their tool kit, in learning how the world works and how they fit in it.”

At The Century Foundation roundtable, King said some communities have taken an “ahistorical” view of integration, shrugging their shoulders and insisting it’s a problem that can’t be solved. Despite federal incentives—including a $120 million White House grant program that would reward districts that voluntarily take steps to increase socioeconomic diversity—some localities would rather gerrymander districts “like a snake,” King said, than integrate.

Ultimately, he said, parents have to realize the “urgency” of the issue in a rapidly changing world, and that every student benefits from diversity.

“This is about bringing students together in a way that strengthens the experience of all students,” he said.