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Do Democrats' School Diversity and Integration Ideas Match What Advocates Want?

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UPDATED

Before taking over the House in November, Democrats pledged to make civil rights a top priority in the chamber's education committee. On Thursday, they put the spotlight on school integration and diversity and advanced two bills dealing with those issues out of the committee. But do they go far enough for the advocates who work on those issues? And how did Republicans respond? 

First, a bit of background about those bills. 

  • The Strength in Diversity Act, authored by Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, would create U.S. Department of Education grants to promote school diversity and encourage districts to work (and collaborate) on things ranging from school assignment plans to employee practices. These grants could support studies of and local solutions to segregation, revise or break up district boundaries, and expand public school choice zones, among other activities. (A companion bill was introduced by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.)
  • The Equity Inclusion and Enforcement Act, authored by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee chairman, would allow private individuals to file lawsuits claiming disparate impact under the Civil Rights Act's Title VI, in order to allow students and parents to seek redress from discriminatory education policy. It also would create Title IV "monitors" to investigate complaints of discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and create an assistant secretary position at the U.S. Department of Education to focus on equity and inclusion. 

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"We need meaningful solutions to dismantle racial and socioeconomic segregation in America's schools," Fudge said Thursday, speaking about her Strength in Diversity Act. (Both bills passed the committee Thursday by a 26-20 vote.) 

Bills in Congress are one thing. But there's been a vigorous amount of research and debate recently about the racial and socioeconomic isolation of schools and school districts, and what the federal government could do about it using both carrots and sticks. 

The Century Foundation, for example, has focused significant energy on school integration and diversity, in part by pushing an agenda for the federal government. We asked Halley Potter, a fellow at the foundation, what she thought of the legislation. She highlighted that the foundation is a big supporter of the Strength in Diversity Act as a way to highlight the issue and support schools that want to address diversity and integration in different ways. 

As for the Equality Inclusion and Enforcement Act, "Restoring the private right of action to file disparate action claims under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act wasn't on our list of eight priorities," Potter wrote in an email, "but it is certainly something I support and dovetails with the goals of other items on our list."

However, Potter noted that the bills don't address several priorities for the Century Foundation. Among those left out of the bills, in the words of the foundation:

  1. "New legislation to make exclusionary zoning policies and other forms of economic housing discrimination illegal." (This would mean curtailing bans on apartment buildings and multi-family dwellings, for example.)
  2. "Requiring federal pre-clearance of efforts of school districts' efforts to secede." (By secede, the foundation refers to breaking away from current district zones to form new districts.)
  3. "Recalibrating the Title I funding formula to remove penalties for school integration and create safe harbors for schools that lower poverty rates as a result of integration efforts." (The foundation sees the Title I priority for high-priority schools as a penalty in this realm, since integrating could put a school below the threshold for qualifying as a Title I school.)
  4. "Add priorities for diversity into the federal Charter Schools Program."

Those and other foundation priorities are big asks, and arguably the first two in particular would be momentous changes in federal law and policy.

EdBuild, a nonprofit that studies school finance and the impacts of district boundaries on funding and racial demographics, for years has taken the view that two Supreme Court rulings have led to the creation of inequitable districts, while also cutting off legal remedies for disadvantaged schools and students.

Rebecca Sibilia, EdBuild's CEO and founder, said the bills are the best that could be expected out of the committee, and she's happy lawmakers are addressing the issue. But she said that, compared what the federal government should be doing to enforce fair housing policies and conduct mandatory reviews of school district boundaries, they lack real steel. 

"I think that what these bills demonstrate is the complete lack of teeth that has been given to the federal government" in the wake of those court rulings, Sibilia said. "There are states that over time that have been offering these sorts of incentives that haven't moved communities to actually do the sorts of things these bills are hoping to incentivize."

As for GOP views on the bills? Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the ex-chairwoman of the committee and its top Republican, said she sympathized with Democrats' motives behind the bills. But she said she had "major reservations about their efficacy" and that they would not stand up over the long term.

The better solutions for inequitable education, she said, would be more school choice and the creation of Opportunity Zones, which are designed to bolster community investment in low-income rural and urban areas. "Our Democrat colleagues' good intentions have resulted in short-sighted legislation," Foxx said. 

There are also GOP concerns about increasing the size of the Education Department's bureaucracy. And Rep. Van Taylor, R-Texas, also said that while he benefitted personally from having attended integrated schools, he had heard from districts that the Equity Inclusion and Enforcement Act could result in "meritless lawsuits" while also hurting teachers and students. 

Photo: Students at Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C., make their way to class late last year. The school has a student body that is 50 percent African-American. (Gerry Melendez for Education Week)

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