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School Integration Advocates Highlight Wins and Losses, Possible Capitol Hill Action

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 26, 2018 4 min read
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Researchers and advocates who support school integration had a message on Capitol Hill Thursday: There are several setbacks to creating integrated schools, but new opportunities as well.

In a panel discussion on integration here hosted by the National Coalition for School Diversity, they highlighted the downside of what they characterized as the Trump administration’s recent U-turn on diversity efforts, court rulings that have undermined local desegregation efforts, as well as what they said was the resegregation of America’s schools.

But they also highlighted additional funding for the office for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, as well as efforts in Congress to remove barriers to integration efforts.

Action on Capitol Hill to promote integration includes House and Senate education appropriations bills for fiscal 2019 that for the first time since the 1970s removes language barring federal funding from being used for transportation to create more integrated schools.

In addition, Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., plans to introduce legislation after the House August recess that removes a prohibition on using federal education aid for this purpose that’s currently part of the federal General Education Provisions Act.

“The threats that we’re facing right now ... are not the same threats as the massive resistance of the 1960s. They are shape-shifting,” said Damon Hewitt, the executive director of the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, who moderated the panel. “They threaten to erase the dream of [Brown v. Board of Education].”

The Obama administration put diversity and integration center stage in education policy debates, especially during the latter stages of Barack Obama’s presidency. Then-Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said schools that are diverse and socioeconomically integrated can be education powerhouses. And in late 2016, the Obama administration announced a $12 million grant competition to help schools boost diversity.

However, the Trump administration has a very different approach to these issues. It scrapped that $12 million grant program, for example. And more recently, the Trump Education and Justice Departments withdrew Obama-era guidance on racial diversity in education because they said it went beyond what the Constitution requires—advocates at the panel singled out that move in particular for criticism.

‘Just a Pure Coincidence’

Cara McClellan, a fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, highlighted a school desegregation effort in Hartford, Conn., that that she said punctures the myth that racially isolated schools exist only in the Deep South. The effort grew out of the Sheff v. O’Neill ruling from the state supreme court, and among other things resulted in a network of 40 magnet schools connecting black and white students from different areas of metro Hartford.

“They bring Hartford and suburban students together in actual integrated classrooms,” she said. “There are students there who say: ‘I’ve never interacted with a black person, or I’ve never interacted with a white person, before coming here.’” McClellan also noted that the magnet system is the subject of a lawsuit because, as she put it, the system doesn’t have the capacity to serve all students who apply for it.

James Ford, North Carolina’s teacher of the year for 2014 and a principal at Filling the Gap education consultants, noted that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district went from being a “beacon” for school integration thanks to busing efforts in the late 20th century, to “the most segregated school district in North Carolina” today, citing a study by a nonprofit advocacy group in the state. He honed in on a bill passed by North Carolina’s legislature to—in practice—allow mostly white communities to create municipal charter schools separate from the local school system.

“I’m sure it’s just a pure coincidence that this was initiated,” Ford joked.

And recent history has shown how difficult it can be to integrate schools and school districts, once funding systems become captive to local, wealthy interests, said Zahava Stadler, the director of policy for EdBuild, a school funding research organization. (The group’s 2017 report “Fractured” showcases efforts to create breakaway school districts, and points out that only a handful of states require a study of a proposed district’s impact on socioeconomic and racial diversity.)

“Those boundaries become a fence,” Stadler said of district lines. “They fence in resources and they fence out kids.”

Integration continues to be one of the more controversial topics in the education policy community. Skeptics of the power of integration, for example, say that a wholesale push for the practice ignores school choice and creates a new excuse for the poor performance of many public schools.

Recent efforts to integrate selective high schools in New York City have also turned out to be politically explosive.

For a look at recent wild swings at federal data on school desegregation, click here.

Photo: James Ford, North Carolina’s teacher of the year for 2014 and a principal at Filling the Gap education consultants, speaks at a forum on school integration on Capitol Hill Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)

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