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U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Leading Charge to Diversify K-12 Schools

WASHINGTON — With a proposed $120 million in federal grant funding as an incentive, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday in his ongoing push to make America’s public K-12 schools more diverse along lines of race and socioeconomic class.

“This is a pivotal moment in education,” King said during a Congressional briefing hosted by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

King lamented the fact that, despite being more than 60 years removed from Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court that ordered the desegregation of the nation’s public schools, America’s students today are more racially and socioeconomically isolated than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

Indeed, a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that there has been a “large increase in schools that are the most isolated by poverty and race,” with the percentage of high poverty schools comprised mostly of Black or Hispanic students increasing steadily from 9 percent in the 2000-01 school year to 16 percent in the 2013-14 school year.

King used Wednesday’s briefing to tout the Obama administration’s proposed $120 million “Stronger Together” initiative, a voluntary grant program that would “support the development and expansion of new and existing, community-driven strategies to increase socioeconomic diversity in America’s schools.”

“Our goal is to support those creative solutions because the evidence is clear: students do better in those diverse contexts,” King said. “There is evidence from across the country that shows students who go to economically and racially diverse schools not only do better in K-12 but go on to success after graduation.”

Some education scholars said the Stronger Together proposal is worthwhile but may be too little too late for a lame duck administration to usher into existence in its final year in office.

“The Congress hasn’t shown any leadership at all on this issue,” said Pedro Noguera, distinguished professor of education at UCLA. He charged that the issue of school diversity is not mentioned in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA does call for greater diversity but only in two provisions for competitive grants for magnet and charter schools.

“If it [Stronger Together] requires congressional approval, we’re in trouble,” Noguera said.

Asked if integration was the only way to achieve better academic results for non-White children, Noguera said history shows that “resources follow the White children” in the United States.

“Unless you can find a way around that, you’re going to always relegate Black students to a second-class education,” Noguera said.

Noguera also criticized the Obama administration for being silent on the increasingly segregated nature of America’s public schools — including during the 60-year anniversary of the 1954 Brown decision — until recently.

Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, agreed, but said it’s “better late than never.” Orfield also said the Stronger Together initiative was a worthwhile program to pursue.

“It’s not about forcing anyone to do anything but giving tools to communities to deal with challenges more creatively and creating a better future,” Orfield said. “It’s a positive step that I wish had happened sooner.”

How exactly to achieve more diverse schools at the K-12 level has been an elusive goal — one that became even more challenging after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 2007 decision in the case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, which prohibited most race-conscious school choice policies that were “effective and popular ways of accomplishing integration,” Erica Frankenberg, an associate professor of education at Penn State University, argues in a forthcoming paper about segregation and diversity in America’s schools.

Frankenberg, who also spoke at the briefing Wednesday, pointed to the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) system in Kentucky as an example of a school district that may be a model for how school districts can achieve greater diversity in a post-Parents Involved era.

“To me it’s a really encouraging plan,” Frankenberg said.

Orfield noted that both he and Frankenberg collaborated to come up with JCPS’s plan, although he said the one that was ultimately adopted was modified from the one that they proposed.

Frankenberg’s forthcoming paper goes into more detail about how JCPS — which resorted to a “generalized use of race” after the Supreme Court restricted the use of a students’ race in school assignment policies — may represent a “best-case scenario in assessing whether alternatives to individual race-conscious policies can create diverse schools.”

Under such a generalized use of race plans, the racial demographic of a unit — in this case the racial and economic diversity of students’ neighborhoods — can be considered as a measure of diversity, Frankenberg’s paper states.

Frankenberg said diversity at the K-12 level is not just important for Black students because of the academic and ultimately the earnings advantages that it brings, but for all students, in that it lowers prejudice and better enables them to work across racial lines.

That notion is being put to the test almost daily, as evidenced in headlines about various racial incidents at high schools throughout the nation. One of the most recent cases, for instance, involved White students at a high school in Detroit who were filmed saying Black people were “worthless” and should be put back into slavery and traded for alcohol or sent back to Africa.

Sen. Murphy said he planned to introduce legislation next week that would support the Stronger Together initiative.

“There’s no more important topic in America today than to talk about the continued racial and socioeconomic segregation of our schools, and our moral responsibility — as a nation and particularly as charged by the constitutional protection of liberties and equal access of the law — to attack this continued segregation and isolation,” Murphy said.

Murphy, of Cheshire, Connecticut — where the population is 84 percent White and the median household income is $108,000 — said the issue is of particular importance in Connecticut, which has the “highest per capita income in the country and some of the poorest schools in the entire nation.”

“We in Connecticut need to be leading the fight,” Murphy said, “and I’m very glad to be able to tuck myself under the umbrella that Secretary King has created with the Stronger Together initiative.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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