Does Obama Believe in School Integration?
by Richard Kahlenberg
Over the past 10 months, we’ve heard a great deal about the Obama Administration’s support for charter schools, education standards, and performance pay for teachers. But what does the Administration think of racial and socioeconomic school integration?
On Friday, a slew of major civil rights organizations held a national conference at Howard University Law School and invited several key Obama Administration officials to speak, including Carmel Martin, Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the Department of Education; Russlynn Ali, the Education Department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights; and Derek Douglas, Special Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs in the Domestic Policy Council. The event, a portion of which was broadcast on C-SPAN, was marked by “respectful tension,” as Ohio State University’s john powell noted.
Martin, Ali, and Douglas, all of whom I know and like, seemed to disappoint most audience members. While each argued that racial and socioeconomic integration was important, members of the audience asked, where was the Administration’s commitment in resources and policy? With an unprecedented federal education budget of $100 billion, one audience member asked, what is the budget line for integration? (Answer: $100 million for magnet schools, plus some other moneys for programs that might indirectly promote integration.) Jack Boger, the dean of the University of North Carolina law school, noted that in the just-released rules for the $4.35 billion Race for the Top fund, states receive not a single point for promoting integrated schools. By contrast, they win substantial points for improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance (58 points), promoting charter schools (40 points), turning around low performing schools (40 points), and developing and adopting common academic standards (30 points).
Carmel Martin did make one very important overture, suggesting that the Administration was looking for ideas about how to create incentives to provide opportunities for students in failing schools to transfer across school district lines to better performing public schools. (This was an idea championed by Senator John Edwards during the presidential campaign.) As Amy Stuart Wells and Bill Taylor noted during the conference, St. Louis provides a very successful inter-district choice model, as thousands of African American students have been provided the opportunity to attend middle-class suburban schools. Achievement and graduation rates soared, and white middle class students benefitted from the increased diversity in suburban schools.
But for the most part, participants were shaking their heads about the Administration’s lack of commitment. Susan Eaton of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School called for a more significant departure from George W. Bush administration policies, which focused on exceptional high poverty schools that worked rather than the rule that segregation defeats good education. Eaton pointedly said she heard “echoes” of Bush policies in Obama’s strong support for charter schools, which evidence shows can increase segregation.
Individual school districts from outside of Washington D.C. pleaded for more support. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has restricted the use of race in student assignment plans, a growing number of districts – roughly 70 – integrate primarily by socioeconomic status, a perfectly legal practice. Louisville, Kentucky, which had its racial integration policy struck down by the Supreme Court, but now integrates students primarily on the basis of socioeconomic status, was represented at the conference by student assignment executive director Pat Todd. Todd brought down the house when she said that in dealing with real estate agents and other skeptics, it would be helpful if Washington were affirming the importance of integrated schools, rather than implying that all poor kids need are charters and pay for performance.
The administration’s silence on school integration puts civil rights supporters in an awkward position. Powell noted that the civil rights community has many friends in the administration, but he said it is as important to confront friends as opponents. And that process began at the conference. When Derek Douglas of the Domestic Policy Council said we needed to pursue both strategies – lift up high poverty communities, and provide opportunities for integration – moderator Phil Tegeler of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council agreed, but noted that virtually all the administration’s focus was thus far on the former to the exclusion of the latter.
As if to underline the point, on the very day the civil rights groups were meeting in Washington, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rev. Al Sharpton in Baltimore, visiting a high poverty charter school which has tangled with teacher unions. The trio also assembled on “Meet the Press” Sunday, where there was mention of Brown v. Board of Education, but no mention of Brown’s solution – school integration – and considerable focus on the problems presented by teacher unions.
The fixation on teacher unions rather than segregation as a central problem made eminent sense for Newt Gingrich, but it defies mountains of research that put poverty and segregation as the fountainheads of school inequality. Politically, it may be easier to scapegoat unions than to attack school segregation, but a growing number of districts are recognizing that economic segregation must be addressed. The latest includes Obama and Duncan’s hometown of Chicago, which announced last week a new plan to integrate its magnet and selective enrollment schools through socioeconomic status.
With its strong commitment to pre-K programs, the Administration has shown an important willingness to address poverty. Will the Administration put its resources behind the related issue of school poverty concentrations? School integration advocates were disappointed last week, but some still hold out hope for a president who campaigned for “One America” and who said in education, we must focus on what works.