Keeping the promise alive

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a piece in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. While Brown tore down the legal barriers that kept our schools segregated, separate and unequal education in the United States has nonetheless persisted for decades. By and large, black and white children continue to attend different schools, as do rich and poor children. Racially and socioeconomically homogeneous neighborhoods produce continuing de facto segregation in our schools. Meanwhile, courts weary of busing battles imposed increasingly tighter constraints on what progressive-minded school districts can do to lean against the rising tide of segregation.

It’s a dreary state of affairs.  Yet I held out hope that schools could still strive for the promise of Brown by getting creative about how they think about integration. Districts could rely on socioeconomic data and the racial composition of neighborhoods as proxies for diversity, taking these characteristics into account when assigning students to schools.

The city of Berkeley was at the leading edge of this effort, carving up the city into more than 400 mini-neighborhoods and coding each based on its relative disadvantage. It then factored these codes into its student assignment algorithm, yielding impressive classroom diversity.

This type of program, I wrote, proved that many communities still have “tools at their disposal that can ensure that segregated neighborhoods don’t result in segregated schools.” There was still hope for the promise of Brown.

That hope gleams a little brighter today. The Century Foundation recently released a report finding that at least 91 different school districts and charter networks weigh socioeconomic criteria in their assignment plans in order to cultivate more diverse schools. This is more than double the number of districts that considered these criteria just eight years ago.

These districts employ a variety of strategies to push back against segregation. Some expand their attendance zones to capture a more diverse mix of neighborhoods. Others use district-wide school choice programs to scramble the connection between housing patterns and school attendance. Still others rely on specialized thematic magnet schools to draw voluntary student integration.

These efforts are vital and valuable to providing a good education. The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has one of the nation’s longest-running “controlled choice” socioeconomic integration programs. The Century Foundation notes that under this program, Cambridge has seen “seen steadily rising scores on state and national tests, as well as elevated high school graduation rates.”

This is consistent with a bounty of evidence showing that students benefit immensely from socioeconomic integration. In 2010, researchers studied the academic performance of students living in low-income housing in Montgomery County, Maryland. They found that low-income housing students who attended economically integrated schools significantly outperformed those who attended high-poverty schools in reading and math.   Other studies back up these academic gains, finding that socioeconomic integration improves graduation rates and college enrollment, and boosts test scores.

Because socioeconomic status also correlates closely to race, socioeconomic integration plans have the added benefit of breaking down racial segregation in schools. This too is hugely beneficial for schools and students. Integration has been found to promote racial tolerance and better prepare students for success in a diverse workforce.   Students who attend integrated K-12 schools have also been found to develop stronger critical thinking skills in college.   Integration also has historically led to higher lifetime earnings for minorities. In a study of black children born between 1950 and 1970, researchers found that those who spent at least five years in a desegregated school earned 25% more during adulthood than those who did not.

Given these academic and lifetime gains, it’s no wonder more and more districts are taking proactive steps to achieve integration. And these districts recently welcomed a powerful (if belated) ally to their fight.

In his final budget, Obama proposed a $120 million “Stronger Together” initiative that would help school districts invest in fostering socioeconomic diversity. The initiative is structured as a competition where local districts compete over a limited pool of grant money by submitting plans to combat socioeconomic isolation in schools.

This proposed initiative is something of a do-over of Race to the Top. The 2009 stimulus education program, which awarded grants to states based on their adoption of certain school reforms, inexplicably left school integration out of its rubric of grant-worthy reforms. Now, with a new Education Secretary who has been a long-time champion of school integration, Obama is proposing to dangle federal financial incentives in front of districts to encourage more integration.

Of course, “Stronger Together” will not soon become law. Despite the clear benefits integration has for kids, Obama’s plan is dead on arrival in Congress. Congressional Republicans won’t even give his budget a hearing and have rejected it sight unseen.

But in his final year in office, Obama has put school integration back on the table as an important education reform worth fighting for. It’s a fight that schools across the country are increasingly taking up on their own, resisting the harmful effects of segregating kids from one another, and keeping the promise of Brown alive.

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