Originally published in The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on October 7, 2015
In August I wrote about the Obama administration’s record on school integration, and while it’s been mostly disappointing, there have been some encouraging recent developments. Specifically, the administration has moved to include diversity as a funding priority in more of its smaller grant programs. At the end of 2014, New York’s education commissioner, John King, spearheaded the first socioeconomic integration pilot of its kind, using newly available federal dollars.
Soon after, King moved to the Department of Education, where he served as Arne Duncan’s senior adviser. Last week, Duncan announced that he would be stepping down, and King would assume the role of secretary of education.
Journalists quickly published a bunch of “Here’s What You Need to Know About John King” pieces. A few mentioned his support for school integration (see MSNBC and The 74) but not all ( Vox, The Washington Post).
I had the opportunity to hear John King speak at the National Coalition of School Diversity’s conference last month, just a week before he took over for Arne Duncan. It was at the same time that Pope Francis was traveling up the East Coast, and King pointed this fact out to the audience. This is a moment, he said, “where we as a country ask ourselves what kind of country do we want to be?” King then went on to declare that “schools that are integrated better reflect our values” and that he “sees our diversity not as a challenge or a problem but as a strength.” While some other conference speakers noted their dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s record on school diversity, attendees seemed to generally embrace King’s speech.
Today ChalkbeatNY published an important article that looks more closely at how King’s pilot program is faring in New York. The reporter, Patrick Wall, finds that, “it’s far from certain that the initiative will spur much integration” in the nine local districts participating. (A 2014 study found that New York has the nation’s most segregated schools.)
Wall points to several factors. The noncompetitive grants were relatively small, and came with restrictions. Districts also had a very short amount of time to apply for them, which can impact how they’re implemented. There are also questions about how comprehensive these plans are across participating districts.
Wall interviews several experts excited by the pilot, because they feel that regardless of how it fares, the pilot creates space for more far-reaching policy down the line. He talks to Susan Eaton, an academic who studies school integration, who says that the pilot could have a greater impact with more political support and increased funding. She notes, however, that the initial grant proposals, and the effort put forth by the administration, “fell short.”
Jeanne Beattie, a spokesperson for New York’s Education Department said many districts set “initially modest” integration goals, but they could be increased in the future, especially if the federal government starts to earmark funds specifically for integration. (I’ve written before about why there’s still a significant role for the federal government to play when it comes to these issues.)
Yet there are risks associated with failure, too. Wall quotes Michael Hilton, from the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (which co-sponsored the school diversity conference), who says that while he’s hopeful, he worries that if goals are too modest or poorly implemented, the political momentum around tackling school segregation could diminish.
At the conference, King pledged his commitment to working more concertedly on these issues. He’s now in an even greater position of power than he was when he spoke those words. Advocates will be playing close attention to where this all leads.