Is School Diversity a Priority for Obama?

Desegregating America’s schools remains low on the president’s agenda

(Image: File)

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.

[Related: SAT Scores Are the Lowest in a Decade]

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% of students qualified for free or reduced-meals—a proxy for poverty—jumped from 12% to 17%.

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 challenges. In a pivotal 2007 decisionParents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court rejected voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, on the basis that their particular student assignment strategies relied too explicitly on race.

Read more at American Prospect.