An Unusual Idea for Fixing School Segregation

Originally published in The Atlantic on May 23, 2018.

Many proposals for addressing school segregation seem pretty small, especially when compared to the scale and severity of the problem. Without the power of a court-ordered desegregation mandate, progress can feel extremely far off, if not altogether impossible. Some even believe—understandably though mistakenly—that no meaningful steps can be taken to integrate schools unless housing segregation is resolved.

But a new theory from Thomas Scott-Railton, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, provides reason to believe there are still new ways to think about this issue. Railton’s approach does something that’s all too rare in education-policy debates: He takes what are normally viewed as discrete issue areas—K–12 segregation, college admissions, and the lack of diversity at top universities—and says, what if those can all be addressed together? What if, in fact, it’s impossible to address them apart? Scott-Railton’s proposal, which he published in the Yale Law & Policy Review, is to reduce K–12 segregation by reforming the college-admissions process.

Scott-Railton began thinking about this last fall, after listening to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reporting on This American Life about school segregation in the St. Louis metropolitan area. The radio broadcast featured wealthy white parents in a St. Louis suburb distressed by the prospect of black students from a neighboring town enrolling in their public schools. The black children’s district had recently lost its accreditation due to poor academic performance. (It was the same district that Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by police in August 2014, had graduated from.) If a Missouri school district loses its accreditation, the state permits any student enrolled to transfer to a nearby accredited one.

Packed at a school-board meeting, white parents one after another spoke out about their fears of this new incoming student population—that they’d bring increased crime, violence, and disease. And, some parents feared how the black students’ test scores might threaten their own children’s academic standing. “Once [they come] in here, will that lower our accreditation?” asked one parent, to thunderous applause.

But Scott-Railton knew that the parents were right about one thing: Integrating the school could mean that the school’s rating would drop, and schools with lower ratings tend to pay a penalty in the highly competitive college process. Universities tend to give a leg up to affluent, high test-scoring suburban schools—which then incentivizes wealthier parents to seek out segregation. But what if those incentives could be changed?

And thus Scott-Railton’s idea was born: to take demographics of schools into account in college admissions—giving priority to applicants who attended schools with a certain threshold of low-income students (say, above 40 percent). In other words, admissions officers would look favorably on students who attended an economically integrated school, much as they do those who have had unusual travel experiences or outstanding extracurricular achievements.

In a nutshell, he argues, this idea would drive integration in three ways: It would create an incentive for middle class and wealthy parents to enroll their students in socioeconomically integrated schools, it would create countervailing considerations for white parents considering leaving currently integrated school districts, and it would provide an incentive for private schools to enroll more low-income students. Middle-class students would likely benefit more from Scott-Railton’s idea than low-income students, since his proposal doesn’t inherently change the financial barriers to attending college. But millions more would benefit from the increased K–12 integration, which decades of research show improves public schooling.

It wouldn’t be the first time colleges sought to change applicant behavior by altering admissions incentives. In 2016, deans and admissions officers from more than 50 elite universities signed on to a report—Turning The Tide—a first-of-its-kind effort led by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to signal that going forward, colleges will work to de-emphasize resume padding and hyper-competitive achievement, and prioritize communal values and work taking care of others. The colleges recognized that they were powerfully positioned to transmit different cultural messages to applicants and their parents.

One strength of Scott-Railton’s proposal is that colleges and universities would not have to sacrifice much to make it work. It would be relatively cost-neutral to implement, and wouldn’t require schools to accept any particular students. As he puts it, the plan operates within higher education’s “existing institutional constraints.” But that also means it would be unlikely to substantially increase campus diversity, at least initially, and for that reason Scott-Railton says his idea should not be seen as an alternative to measures like affirmative action and Pell Grants.

Nevertheless, Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy and an expert on college admissions, said one of the biggest challenges this kind of proposal faces is just institutional inertia. “A lot of this will come down to courage,” he said. “Universities get bogged down in political constraints, caught up in managing competing interests, and it can sometimes just be easier to do nothing, rather than try something new.”

But if colleges could work up the will to try it, another benefit of this idea would be that it seems to be on solid footing legally. In the wake of Supreme Court decisions that have challenged both K–12 desegregation plans and university-level affirmative-action policies, advocates for diversity have been wary of pursuing new strategies. Scott-Railton took that into account in crafting his proposal, which recommends that admissions boosts come primarily from taking the poverty level of a school—not its racial makeup—into account, and for this reason it is more likely to withstand any kind of constitutional challenge.

“My sense of his plan is that it probably threads the needle pretty effectively,” said Sam Erman, a law professor at the University of Southern California who has studied integration and affirmative action. “There are some ambiguities in the legal doctrine, but it’s hard to see how you would launch a successful attack on this idea.”

Fear that the Supreme Court would eliminate race-based affirmative action has led other scholars to propose a college-admissions focus on school or neighborhood demographics. For instance, in her 2014 book Place Not Race, law professor Sheryll Cashin proposed substituting race-based affirmative action with a geographically-based system that took segregation into account. Scott-Railton’s idea builds upon this sort of notion by focusing more explicitly on using admissions to transform the makeup of K–12 institutions.

As Erman told me, without some kind of new experiment, integration advocates shouldn’t expect much to improve. “Most of what we’ve seen implemented are ideas that nibble at the margins, that make relatively small adjustments to things that the court has already approved,” he said, noting that unless the court swings left, it’s reasonable to expect the legal constraints to narrow even more.

“This is a very smart and strategic way of dealing with what has been the overwhelming obstacle to school integration, which is white and middle-class resistance,” said Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a longtime scholar of segregation. Kahlenberg said he likes the idea not only because it creates incentives for hyper-competitive affluent families, but also because it creates a way for universities to have more students who arrive with experience navigating diverse environments. “Elite universities need more bridge-builders,” he said. “I think this is a win-win.”

While the idea remains in its infancy, some other researchers have launched efforts to develop it further. Ilona Arnold-Berkovits, an education researcher at Rutgers who also began thinking more deeply about these issues after listening to the same This American Life episode which inspired Scott-Railton, launched a website,, to begin mobilizing other policy experts, researchers, and funders around this idea of voluntary incentives.

There may be room for additional development. Scott-Railton’s idea could offer a real bulwark against white flight, but it is ultimately focused on integrated schools more than the truly disadvantaged schools. If an incentive-based policy like this were to be truly successful, leaders would need to coordinate it with efforts that directly address schools where racial and economic segregation are far worse. A strategy that preserves integration in schools that are 40 percent low-income may have no impact at all in a school that’s 90 percent low-income.

Perhaps one of the strongest merits of Scott-Railton’s idea is that it advances a new way of thinking about some very old problems, and encourages thinking about two issues—K–12 integration and diversity in higher education—together, rather than apart.

“In reality, for students, it’s a seamless web,” said Kahlenberg. “One impacts the other, and it’s not really until this proposal that we’ve seen those two worlds come together.”


Obama’s Mixed Record on School Integration

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 31, 2015.
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 advisor.

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.”