In the last year of his second term, President Obama must commit to the fight against racial and economic segregation in American schools. After six years of pursuing the elusive goal of educational excellence through tests and standards (a policy approach many saw as an extension of the Bush Era tactics of No Child Left Behind) President Obama has a significant opportunity working with newly appointed Secretary of Education John King to move towards the ideals of equality established 60 years ago in Brown vs. Board of Education.
The Vision of Brown Unrealized
According to a 2014 University of California, Los Angeles report, “minority students across the country are more likely to attend majority-minority schools than they were a generation ago.”
Following a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District No. 1—which essentially drove the last nail in the coffin for school desegregation based on race—advocates have had to come up with alternative avenues to promote integration.
New York state is home to some of the nation’s most segregated schools. Acknowledging this fact, John King, who was then the state’s education commissioner, initiated a state-funded grant program called the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program (SIPP).
The program encouraged schools to develop plans to integrate some of the most segregated schools on the basis of socioeconomic status. School districts have 18 months (currently underway) to develop plans and another 30 months to implement them. This includes turning selected schools into those resembling magnets, changing enrollment policies, and developing community investment and awareness.
Magnet schools have been around for decades and were originally conceived to achieve the goals of innovation and integration. Over the years, they have lost some of the spotlight to charter schools, but there is strong evidence that magnet programs can be valuable tools in the pursuit of school integration.
The SIPP grant intends to quell past concerns that magnet schools perpetuate racial inequality by instituting a controlled choice model, an enrollment policy designed to ensure a diverse mix of racial and economic groups.
There is a wealth of research showing that “students in integrated schools benefit from a higher level of parent involvement, graduate at higher rates, complete more years of education, earn higher degrees and major in more varied disciplines,” despite their backgrounds. Furthermore, genuine school integration not only benefits students across the economic spectrum, but it can help to stabilize communities.
A Chance to Revive the Ideals Of Brown
There are many in the education community who have reservations with John King’s stances on testing, Common Core and teacher evaluation. Nonetheless, taking a step to combat educational segregation is a viable and valuable option that will allow President Obama to push the state of public education into a new direction.
With a stalled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and a completely ineffective Congress, the pessimism felt by many advocates is understood. However, there are examples outside of education that may point to a President willing to take action without waiting for Congress to act: signing the Deferred Action Plan (DACA), raising the federal minimum wage for federal workers, brokering an historic nuclear deal with Iran and re-establishing ties with Cuba (just to name a few).
By expanding the SIPP grant program on a national level, Obama and King can finally call attention to the elephant in the room and reaffirm that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.”
By refocusing on educational equality, President Obama can work to fulfill his original promises of hope and change, and thrust the issue onto the national agenda for the 2016 presidential election.
The ball is in your court, Mr. President.