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John B. King Jr. Advocates for Racially, Socioeconomically Diverse Schools

The intersection of decades of education, housing, and transportation policy has left the nation's schools at a crossroads, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said Tuesday.

Even as the nation's population of students is increasingly diverse, public schools are becoming more segregated, with a majority of black and Latino students attending poor-performing, racially isolated schools with high concentrations of poverty. This has happened despite research showing that students do better academically in racially and socioeconomically diverse schools.

School attendance zones that snake through neighborhoods, housing policies that isolate the poor, and transportation policies that limit access to jobs have all played a role, King said. While acknowledging the past, he said policies that isolate children in poor-performing schools aren't etched in stone.

"The decisions were a set of choices we've made. Just as they were made, they can be changed," King said while delivering the keynote at a forum hosted by The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

Since his appointment last fall, King has championed diversity as a route to produce better outcomes for all students, arguing that more racially and socioeconomically balanced schools can help address big gaps in resource equity. During Tuesday's forum he touted Stronger Together, the Obama administration's proposed $120 million competitive-grant program aimed at helping schools become more socioeconomically diverse.

The grant program would aim to help districts, or groups of districts, that have big achievement gaps between white and non-white students and problems with socioeconomic integration. With the extra funding, districts would develop plans to address the problems or to implement a strategy that's already been devised.

As previously explored by Education Week's Politics K-12 team, the emphasis on school integration pops up several times in President Obama's budget request. Obama also wants $115 million for magnet schools, up from $96 million currently, in part for competitive grants to support desegregation efforts.

The Century Foundation has released two reports in 2016 examining the potential benefits of racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, including a study that identified 91 school districts and charter schools across 32 states that have policies designed to foster diversity within their schools.

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