Will the Obama Administration Start Focusing on Desegregating Schools?

By Evette D. Champion

Once Arne Duncan ends his term as Secretary of Education in December, John King will take over. While we don’t expect much to change when it comes to federal education policy, there may be one positive change in the future. King might take the necessary steps to focus the department’s energy and resources on encouraging school districts around the country to create integrated schools, based on King’s actions in the past and his recent statements.

When he was the Education Commissioner of New York, he started to allocate federal money to entice schools to cultivate a more diverse student population. Although this is a novel approach to use federal grants for school improvements, which employed a few tactics such as converting disadvantaged schools into charter schools or even replacing staff members. However, none of the proposed programs acknowledge that most of the troubled schools are segregated, or that the student population consists mostly of disadvantaged minorities.

Richard Kahlenberg from the Century Foundation reports, “Clearly, Duncan, to his credit, put turning around failing schools at the very top of his agenda. And yet his primary method for doing so was to fire teachers, or bring in charter school operators. The idea that you would actually tackle the underlying cause of the problem — segregation — didn’t enter into the equation.”

Kahlenberg has written often about how much of an impact socioeconomic integration has on children from poor families. Investigators suggest that poor children can learn better when they are in a classroom mixed with children from wealthier families. The research also shows that middle-class students are not affected by the integration of children from low income families.

When Kahlenberg met with King privately, he believes that when King takes over as Secretary of Education, things very well may change in the classroom.

“President Obama has been taking on issues toward the end of his term that he wouldn’t touch in earlier years,” Kahlenberg said. “So to me, the moment is ripe for the administration to take some important steps on integration.”:

You have a new secretary of education who is deeply committed to the issue,” Kahlenberg continued. “You have a president who appears willing to expend some political capital toward the end of his term to address issues that are important to him. And you have the backdrop of unrest in a number of segregated urban areas. There’s more focus on this issue than there has been in a long time.”

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