Obama's New Socioeconomic Integration Program to Prioritize Diversity
By Toni-Anne Richards Published January 1, 2017President Obama's 2017 fiscal budget released on February 9th contained very ambitious plans for US education. Most notable was the $120 million competitive grant program called "Stronger Together." This grant will initiate 5-year projects in districts to encourage the creation and implementation of programs that foster socioeconomic diversity in the classroom through what the incoming US Secretary of Education John King Jr. called "a robust process of parental, educator and community engagement and analysis". The closest comparison to this program would be Race to the Top in 2009 — a competitive grant program created to incite and reward state and local district K-12 education. However, this new program is different because it focuses less on fixing high poverty schools and more on giving low-income students the chance to attend good middle class public schools.
Past federal attempts at school integration based on race have been met with absolute, and sometimes violent, opposition while also running into issues of legality. For example, Louisville's old race-based program resulted in an elementary school being half black and half white, but virtually all students were poor and the school continued to struggle academically. The Supreme Court struck down racial-integration plans in Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle in 2007 for violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. According to a 2014 study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, schools in the South, West and Midwest are significantly less segregated than they were in the 1960s, but more segregated that they were in the late 1980s and 90s.
With this new grant program, the new socioeconomic-integration proposal would emphasize choice over coercion and socioeconomic status over race, which might be more politically viable today than forced busing for racial desegregation in the 1970s. There is also lesser likelihood of a constitutional violation in the program's implementation.
A recent study by The Century Foundation looked at school districts and charter schools across the country with integration policies that considered socioeconomic status in their enrollment in numerous ways. The strategies they took to achieve integration included, redrawing school attendance boundaries, and consideration in the admission and transfer policies. According to their research, identified districts and charters with socioeconomic integration policies have increased from 2 in 1996 to 91 by 2015. This indicates willingness on a local and state level to use these policies and tailor them to each school and districts individual needs. The Cambridge Public School District in has seen steadily rising state and national test scores and higher graduation rates after moving from a race-based to class-based integration plan, while still managing to maintain a racial balance within its district.
Most of the reactions to the new initiative have been ambivalent at best. There is much doubt as to whether Republican lawmakers who control education spending committees would want President Obama to solidify his legacy in any way as he leaves office. On the other hand, advocates who feel the administration has not done enough on the integration issue would feel satisfied and the next presidential administration could further the idea as well.
This form of integration is beneficial on a political and constitutional level because it is not as alienating to those who feel that the federal government should not be able force integration of any kind (particularly race) on what has usually been an issue for the states. Incentivizing integration by socioeconomic levels still leaves room for racial diversity, which can only help prepare students in a steadily diversifying workplace.
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