When President Barack Obama recently tapped former New York State education commissioner John B. King Jr. to replace Arne Duncan as secretary of education, the move was seen as a vote for continuity. The two men share views on most hot-button education issues: the Common Core, teacher accountability, and charter schools.
But King may be poised to champion a new issue not emphasized by his predecessor—or any other education secretary in recent memory: combating racial and economic segregation. Duncan’s failure to prioritize school integration in his “Race to the Top” agenda was a bitter disappointment to civil-rights activists. Now they are looking to King to revive an issue that many argue is essential to improving performance at struggling schools.
King’s commitment to racial and economic integration as a key tool to boost school performance was on full display in his first major speech as acting education secretary this month, delivered on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Research shows that one of the best things we can do for all children—black or white, rich or poor—is give them a chance to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools,” declared the incoming education secretary in a speech to Al Sharpton’s National Action Breakfast Network. King called for “innovative, voluntary locally-driven efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity in schools.”
It was music to the ears of civil-rights activists, who saw it as a sharp departure from Duncan’s emphasis on standards, testing, and charter schooling over integrating schools. When Duncan announced his “Race to the Top” program early in his tenure, civil-rights advocates had fully expected school integration to make the short list. Instead, Duncan announced $4 billion in federal stimulus funds for states that adopted Common Core state standards, data systems that judge teachers based on test scores, and plans to lift caps limiting the number of charter schools.
As civil-rights attorney John Brittain told NPR’s Nikole Hannah-Jones at the time, “I felt I was punched in the gut.” Duncan told Hannah-Jones on the same program that he supported integration, but that he thought it wouldn’t fly politically.
Duncan’s agenda to turn around academically failing high-poverty public schools ignored what many argue is a root problem: economic segregation. Indeed, the National Coalition on School Diversity on January 21 wrote the Education Department to encourage racial and socioeconomic integration under the sweeping new education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Duncan instead favored plans to bring in charter school operators or fire teachers. Duncan defended this approach, writing that as the head of schools in Chicago, “we moved the adults out of the building, kept the children there, and brought in new adults."
This rankled many educators. At a 2009 conference of the National Coalition on School Diversity, Louisville, Kentucky, public school administrator Pat Todd received an outburst of applause when she complained that it was difficult to sustain integration programs at the local level when all the rhetoric in Washington was about the virtues of charter schools and paying teachers based on test score gains.
King, by contrast, has signaled that racial integration, and especially economic integration, are now federal priorities. This squares with King’s record as commissioner of education in New York State.
In that role, King in 2014 bucked the trend at many schools of using federal turnaround funds to fire teachers and hire new ones. Instead, he used those funds to create an innovative pilot program to help struggling schools improve performance by boosting socioeconomic integration.
King’s pilot program was based on a half-century of research suggesting that children do better in economically integrated schools than those that have high poverty concentrations. In schools with a core of middle-class students, research shows, pupils benefit from being around peers who are more likely to expect to go on to college, highly engaged parental communities, and stronger teachers with high expectations.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics, for example, low-income fourth graders are as many as two years ahead of low-income students in high poverty schools. (Full disclosure: As a longtime advocate for socioeconomic school integration, this writer has provided input to incoming Education Secretary King on the topic.)
It’s worth noting that King’s recent public comments focused principally on socioeconomic status as opposed to race, even before Sharpton’s group. Given the overlap between race and class in American society, socioeconomic integration has the important benefit of producing racial diversity, which is good for students of all races. But it also has several advantages over old-style race-specific integration programs.
As a legal matter, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 erected roadblocks to using race in student assignments in two cases involving school systems in Seattle and Louisville. But the court suggested that considering socioeconomic status in such assessments is perfectly legal.
Moreover, if the goal is to boost academic achievement, socioeconomic integration delivers even better results than racial integration. Research has long found that black student achievement improved in racially integrated schools, not because there was a benefit to being in schools with students whose skin color was different but because white students, on average, enjoy more socioeconomic advantages. In places like Boston, where working-class whites and blacks were integrated in the 1970s, no achievement gains were seen.
In the era of Donald Trump, King may also see an important political advantage to emphasizing class over race. Intellectual elites rightly reject Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric, but there is a reason he has struck a chord with working-class voters. As the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio recently noted, Trump’s popularity among blue-collar whites is at least partly a function of anger over being left out. Calling education “the civil rights issue of our time,” Pondiscio argues, and focusing on inner-city charter schools, as many education reformers do, may leave working-class white families feeling ignored.
“If education reform truly is the civil rights struggle of our time,” Pondiscio writes, “it's time once again to widen the definition of rights at risk to include working class white people too.”
King’s socioeconomic integration agenda would do just that: improve the prospects of black and Latino children and the offspring of some of Donald’s Trump’s constituency. In that sense, the new education secretary truly honors the work of Martin Luther King Jr., who—during the last years of his life—expanded the civil-rights movement to focus on economically disadvantaged people of all races.
In a November 1967 meeting with leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King declared: “Gentlemen, we are going to take this movement, and we are going to reach out to the poor people in all directions in this country. We’re going into the Southwest after the Indians, into the West after the Chicanos, into Appalachia after the poor whites, and into the ghettoes after Negroes and Puerto Ricans. And we are going to bring them together and enlarge this campaign into something bigger than just a civil rights movement for Negroes.”
Dr. King did not set out to improve separate schools for black and white students, but to promote integration policies that break down barriers between all people. Indeed, in 1961 he called for the creation of a cabinet-level Secretary of Integration to focus on combating segregation in American life.
As the new education secretary, John King may be poised to reinvigorate Dr. King's dream. King's declaration that socioeconomic school integration “is one of the best things we can do for all children" signals a new direction in federal education policy. Now the question is whether King will follow his promising opening statements with action.
This story has been updated.
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