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Secretary John King: Integration and Diversity Can Power School Improvement


Racial diversity and the socioeconomic integration of schools can be powerful tools to help improve educational opportunities for students, but much depends on whether states and local communities prioritize them, Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. stressed in remarks here on Monday.

Speaking at the Education Writers Association National Seminar, King also highlighted what he said results from the "systematic lack of investment in high-needs communities" and how that impacts not just school funding, but also how communities tackle problems such as subsets of schools educating an extremely high share of students in poverty. 


"There's a new sense of urgency in the country of talking about race and class," King told education writers. 

Much of the country still treats racially segregated schools and schools dealing with a high share of disadvantaged students as if they are simply part of the natural order of things, but that's simply not the case, King said.

"The reality is that segregation is the result of policy choices, policy choices around schooling and around housing," King said.

To put a fine point on the key theme of his comments, King highlighted President Barack Obama's "Stronger Together" initiative, a $120 million proposal in the president's budget that would incentivize schools to become more socioeconomically diverse. They would be targeted at districts with big achievement gaps and difficulties socioeconomically integrating schools.

More broadly, King said his department has also made diversity a priority as it deals with charter schools, the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program, and school improvement efforts. 

The secretary also pointed out how inadequate and inequitable resources impact various K-12 policy issues. King noted, for example, that while federal regulations designed to ensure that federal money does not simply fill in funding gaps left by states and districts might seem like an extremely wonky topic, it impacts school-level conditions like the hundreds of students that individual guidance counselors in under-resourced schools have to deal with.

"In many schools, counselors have totally unreasonable workloads," King said.

And while some teachers who are not teaching students effectively need to be dealt with, the secretary also said that states in particular have a responsibility to ensure that they provide enough money to ensure that teachers are appropriately paid. King also pointed to the Obama administration's "Best Job in the World" initiative, another proposed competitive grant program (this time to the tune of $1 billion) designed to improve not just teacher salaries, but teacher working conditions and professional development.

As he has before, King said his work will also continue to focus on students from high-needs backgrounds who go on to higher education but struggle to obtain a degree. 

'Hateful Laws'

King also commented on a few other hot-button issues raised during a question-and-answer period.

He declined to tip his hand regarding how the U.S. Department of Education will respond to new laws dealing with transgender and gender identity policy in Mississippi and North Carolina. But he make his view clear: "They are hateful laws and they should be repealed."

And he dodged a question from moderator Greg Toppo of USA Today about whether he plans to stick around past January, when a new administration will take over—King said he's focused on the next eight months and what he can do in that span of time. 

Speaking before King at the seminar, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh pitch his city's sector-agnostic approach to educational success for students. He highlighted, for example, his city's creation of a "chief of education" post, filled by Rahn Dorsey, who serves as a liaison to the city's public, private, and charter schools to create new and better relationships between them and Boston. (Both the city and Massachusetts have been having long-running, complicated disputes about the proper place of charters in the K-12 system.)

"I don't mind how a child is educated, as long as the child is put on a pathway to success," Walsh said.

And Walsh also highlighted his city's attempts to overhaul various policies, from expanding pre-K to 4-year-olds, to diversifying the number of Beantown public schools that send children to elite schools like Boston Latin and providing two years of college tuition to high school graduates who meet certain conditions.

Walsh echoed a point made before him in a speech by Nick Donohue of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Donohue told the national seminar that while graduation rates may be at relatively high levels in New England, for example, where the foundation works, that shouldn't be taken as a clean, easy, and final measure of success.

"We need almost everyone to succeed in some form of postsecondary experience," Donohue said.

Photo: Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., right, speaks with USA Today reporter Greg Toppo at the Education Writers Association National Seminar in Boston. (Stephen Sawchuk)

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