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ESSA Helps Realize Dr. King's Dream of Deeper Learning for All

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This post is by Sean Darling-Hammond, an education lawyer based in Washington, DC.

Before he was Doctor King, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in the Morehouse College newspaper,

Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only . . . accumulated knowledge . . . but also the accumulated experience of social living.

Even as a college student, decades before modern educational research breakthroughs, King saw the value of deep learning--of an education that elicits empathy and cross-cultural understanding.

For King, one barrier to such an education was "de facto segregation in public schools," which he saw as "sociologically untenable," "politically unsound," and "morally wrong and sinful" because it gave "the segregator a false sense of superiority" and "left the segregated with a false sense of inferiority."

His dream was of an integrated society and an integrated school system, where "little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers."

Integration Can Work, and Has

King was right to dream of integration as a means of achieving deeper learning and connection for students. As NPR recently reported, studies have found that students in diverse schools have more empathy and less prejudice. An amicus brief by 553 social scientists echoes this finding, and others, finding that students in diverse schools

  • have more tolerant and inclusive viewpoints about individuals of different racial groups;
  • consider it wrong and harmful to exclude a student based on their group membership;
  • have lower levels of intergroup prejudice (especially when in schools with optimal conditions for intergroup contact); and
  • report that interracial schooling experiences have been valuable and have made them better prepared to live and work in diverse communities.

Teachers in integrated schools similarly find that diversity improves learning, as well as productive economic and civic participation in society. And experimental and field studies in higher education have concluded that interactions with a diverse group of students can lead to higher and deeper levels of thinking.

All the while, study after study has confirmed that desegregation has little or no measurable negative impact on white student test scores. Black students, meanwhile, experience sizeable gains that bring us closer to realizing King's dream. As reported in The Atlantic, recent research by Rucker Johnson has found that:

black Americans who attended schools integrated by court order were more likely to graduate, go on to college, and earn a degree than black Americans who attended segregated schools. They made more money: five years of integrated schooling increased the earnings of black adults by 15 percent. They were significantly less likely to spend time in jail. They were healthier.

Segregation Now

But the promise of integration has been repeatedly stymied. In 1974, the Supreme Court held in Milliken v. Bradley that school districts were not required to use state funds to ensure desegregation across school district lines. More states could have one school that was entirely black a few miles away from one that was entirely white so long as the schools were in different districts. Meanwhile, courts across the country steadily released districts from desegregation orders. Thus, unless states voluntarily elected to spend their own money on integration, or could secure federal funding, segregation would persist. And in 2001, this latter opportunity was largely foreclosed by Section 5308 of No Child Left Behind, which outlawed the use of federal funds "for transportation," making it financially prohibitive for many school districts to integrate schools. Then, in 2007, the Supreme Court held that school districts could not voluntarily desegregate by assigning students to schools based on race, so even if states had the resources, they couldn't easily use them to require students to integrate.

The result of these trends has been massive backsliding on integration, and a stalling of progress towards realizing King's dream of an integrated and fair society.

Today, 12 percent of black students in the United States attend an "apartheid school"--a school whose students are 1 percent or less white.  And these deeply segregated schools are failing students. The Atlantic reported in 2014 that "[h]igh-poverty, segregated black and Latino schools account for the majority of the roughly 1,400 high schools nationwide labeled 'dropout factories'--meaning fewer than 60 percent of the students graduate."

In addition, these schools are doing little to decrease segregation in our society.  In fact, the Washington Post recently reported that blacks have ten times as many black friends as white friends, and whites have 91 times as many white friends as black friends. This provides far too few opportunities for individuals to accumulate the experiences of social living King knew were essential to a full education and a thriving democracy.

New Hope from the Every Student Succeeds Act and Another King

When President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law last month, he helped create a new pathway to achieving Dr. King's dream. The act makes strategic changes to the Magnet Assistance Program (MSAP), which provides funding for magnet school programs. Specifically, under ESSA, states can:

  • secure federal funding to develop inter-district magnet programs to build integrated schools
  • use federal funds to transport students across district lines.
  • access a growing pot, as MSAP funding will increase from $91 million to $108 million by 2020
  • receive larger grants over longer periods of time

So now states can help black and Latino students in largely low-income districts go to school with wealthier, white students--and vice versa. They can create and support schools that provide the kind of deep learning that children of all backgrounds deserve, all while reducing the racial achievement gap.

In addition, John King Jr., the interim Secretary of Education, has indicated that integration "has a long history and substantial evidence" as a means of improving educational outcomes--and that it will be a major priority during his time as Secretary.  As Education Commissioner in New York, he provided grants to increase diversity in high-poverty school districts, and is quoted as having said "Diverse schools create important educational opportunities" and that "students shouldn't be isolated because they come from struggling neighborhoods."

The renewed federal commitment to integration can provide another road to deeper learning--the kind of learning that allows young people to see and appreciate multiple perspectives, become culturally competent and interpersonally skillful; and collaborate with a wider range of peers, creating renewed progress toward Dr. King's--and America's--dream.  

With these new federal opportunities, as Dr. King said, "[n]ow is the time to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time."

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