An appreciated little surprise in Education Secretary Arne Duncan's big speech today, in which he seemed to put NCLB reauthorization on the legislative agenda for 2010: While reminiscing about Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," penned in 1963, Duncan mentioned the persistence of school segregation:
This was nine years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violated the Constitution, but most minorities were still isolated in their own classrooms. Many still are today and we must work together to change that.
That's a significant hat-tip from an official not known for being deeply invested in this issue. But Duncan should put his agency's money where its mouth is. Currently, draft guidelines for the $4.3 billion Race to the Top grant program do not cite integration as a goal. Similarly, the topic never came up in Duncan's speech last month previewing the $650 million "Invest in Innovation" education reform program, another stimulus project.
What can the federal government do to foster school integration? It can create financial incentives for urban and suburban school districts to form partnerships, in which suburban kids can attend elite city magnet schools in exchange for suburban classroom seats for low-income city kids. The administration is already pressuring states to lift laws that cap the number of charter schools and prevent teacher merit pay. How about incentives for states that equalize school funding across district lines, so property tax revenue doesn't solely determine funding?
It's encouraging to see the administration moving quickly on its ambitious education agenda. But the definition of "reform" needs to be broader, even to accomplish Duncan's own stated goals.