Obama's Mixed Record on School Integration

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Education Arne Duncan, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 29, 2015, during an event to honor the teachers of the year. 

As Congress debates competing revisions of the No Child Left Behind Act over the next several weeks, lawmakers are unlikely to spend much time looking at the growing problem of segregated schools. Despite strong academic and civic benefits associated with integrated schooling, and a unanimous Supreme Court decision which ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” American public schools have resegregated quickly by race and class over the past two and a half decades.

Many advocates had hoped to see the Obama administration take steps to address rising school segregation, but so far its record has not been great. While the Department of Education has paid lip service to the need to promote integrated schools, and has included modest diversity incentives within a handful of federal grants, it refused to use larger education initiatives like Race to the Top to encourage states and districts to prioritize school diversity. In some cases, the department actually pushed policies that made segregation worse.

The Obama administration came to power at an interesting time for the integration movement. With the help of Reagan-appointed judges and justices, court decisions in the 1990s absolved many local districts from their legal obligations to desegregate schools. Between 1988 and 2006, the number of black students attending majority-white schools dropped by 16 percentage points. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of schools where at least 75 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-meals—a proxy for poverty—jumped from 12 percent to 17 percent

But many districts were also interested in racial and economic diversity, even if they weren’t legally required to promote it. And so various voluntary integration experiments began cropping up around the country. These new efforts seemed promising but quickly faced legal challenge. In a pivotal 2007 decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court rejected voluntarily desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, on the basis that their particular student assignment strategies relied too explicitly on race. But the Court did clarify that, under certain conditions, districts can use race-conscious measures to promote diversity. Justice Kennedy even endorsed specific strategies to do so, including magnet schools and interdistrict plans.

The years immediately following the Parents Involved decision sparked confusion, largely thanks to the Bush administration. While the majority of Supreme Court justices said districts could consider race in school assignments, the Bush administration posted a federal guidance that suggested only race-neutral means of pursuing integration would be legal.

In 2009, shortly after President Obama took office, a group of educators, policy advocates, and civil rights leaders came together under the banner of the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD) to try and push the new administration to take action.

“Our very first goal was to get the Department of Education to take down the guidance from the Bush administration, which told schools they could not promote racial and economic diversity,” said Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and NCSD coalition member. Their efforts were ultimately successful. By December 2011, the department posted a new guidance, which affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision and listed various ways school districts could pursue voluntary integration.

Other NCSD efforts met less success. One of their primary objectives has been to get the Obama administration to prioritize school integration within their competitive federal grant programs. While Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly said that he supports school diversity and wants to reduce racial isolation, his department has not, for the most part, translated such support into its competitive programs.

Despite NCSD’s urging, the department declined to use its largest grant, the $4 billion Race to the Top initiative, to promote racial diversity. Duncan argued that including incentives for voluntary integration would have been too difficult to get through Congress. He also said that when it comes to successful integration efforts, we can’t “force these kinds of things.”

In 2013, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, responded strongly to Duncan’s arguments, pointing out that “no education secretary has been as deft as Arne Duncan in creating incentives—both carrots and sticks—to get states to follow his favored policies that are technically voluntary.” Duncan used incentives to get states to adopt Common Core standards, to promote after-school programs and early childhood education, and even within Race to the Top, incentives were used to encourage states to adopt teacher evaluation systems tied to student test scores. But in the case of school integration, Rothstein noted, suddenly Duncan sings a different tune.

“Only in this area, apparently, does Secretary Duncan believe that progress must be entirely voluntary, unforced by carrots and sticks,” Rothstein wrote. There have been plenty of opportunities to incentivize racial integration, such as rewarding states that prohibit all-white suburbs from excluding poor people through zoning ordinances, or withholding No Child Left Behind waivers from states that allow landlords to discriminate against families using federal housing vouchers. “Adoption of such ‘voluntary’ policies could make a contribution to narrowing the academic achievement gap that is so much a focus of Secretary Duncan’s rhetoric,” Rothstein said.

Despite a frustrating first term, desegregation advocates have seen some progress in the last couple years. The Department of Education recently began to include diversity as a funding priority in several of its smaller grant programs like the preschool development grants and its charter school grants; it also announced that magnet-type integration approaches are eligible for the school improvement grants (SIG) program.

While modest, these changes have led to some important new integration experiments. At the end of 2014, New York’s education commissioner, John King, helped launch a socioeconomic integration pilot program to increase student achievement using newly available federal SIG funds. King has since moved to the Department of Education, where he now serves as Arne Duncan’s senior adviser.

Other advocates have capitalized on the Department of Education’s 2011 guidance. David Tipson, executive director of New York Appleseed, says it was an absolute game-changer for his work in New York City. “Getting that correct interpretation, with some real practical guidance for school districts, I can’t even emphasize how important that was,” Tipson said. “There was a very deliberate effort to misconstrue the 2007 [Supreme Court] decision and put fear into many school officials across the country. Everything we’ve been able to do to promote school integration has come in the wake of getting that new federal guidance in place.” New York Appleseed, along with community stakeholders, sought to design a zoning plan that would help keep a school located within a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood integrated. Officials resisted at first, but they eventually relented after advocates presented them with the federal guidance. Thus at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, Brooklyn’s P.S. 133 became the first school in Bloomberg’s administration to foster a specific mix of students based on socioeconomic status and English proficiency. At the school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, the city’s school chancellor said he believed their innovative admissions model could be replicated elsewhere.

While advocates of desegregation are happy to see the administration beginning to prioritize diversity within its grant programs, some feel these gestures are too little, too late.

In a letter sent to Secretary Duncan last July, NCSD noted that while the Department of Education has included preferences for diversity within some grant programs, in practice, the department has “consistently underemphasized” these incentives. Many grants still make no mention of diversity at all, and in cases where they do, officials tend to weigh other competitive priorities far more heavily, rendering the modest diversity incentives ineffective. For example, in one grant, applicants could earn an additional five points if their school was diverse, but applicants could earn twice as many bonus points if their school would serve a high-poverty student population.

The only federal education initiative to significantly emphasize integration is the Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP), a program first launched in 1976. However, MSAP has limited impact today due to the small amount of federal funding it receives. Even though charters are far more likely than magnets to exacerbate segregation, the department gave MSAP $91.6 million in 2014, compared to the $248.2 million it gave the Charter Schools Program.

Advocates have not given up. Next month in D.C., the NCSD will be hosting a national two-day conference, bringing together scholars, educators, parents, students, and policymakers to continue “building the movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion.” John King will be speaking on a panel there about the progress they’ve made, and further challenges they face on the federal level. NCSD hopes that King’s new role at the Department of Education will motivate the government to take integration efforts more seriously. The department’s press secretary, Dorie Nolt, told The American Prospect that “we’ve taken meaningful steps, and we want to do more.”

Yet this administration has fewer than 18 months left. And the next secretary of education could quite easily end even the modest progress that NCSD has fought for. “Promoting voluntary school integration is an area where the department has a lot of leeway to act on its own, in terms of trying to encourage state and local governments to prioritize diversity,” said Tegeler. “But that also means the next department has a lot of leeway to not act.”

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