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School Integration Champions Say Broad Support on Capitol Hill Is Possible

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Can advocates for school integration leverage local control as a winning argument in Congress? The answer to that over the long term could be key to some Democrats' biggest, and perhaps one of their most aspirational, policy goals in Washington. 

Last week, advocates and elected leaders hosted a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill featuring Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., among others. The gathering showcased Murphy's Strength in Diversity Act, a bill he introduced last Congress that would provide grants that districts or groups of districts could apply for in order to improve diversity or reduce the socioeconomic or racial isolation of their schools. The Century Foundation also discussed its new report on key steps the Congress can take to support integration efforts, including a $500 million fund under the Title I program for districts to use to address integration. 

Perhaps the most controversial element of the foundation's agenda is to require federal preclearance of school districts wishing to secede from existing local systems. Advocates have consistently highlighted the links between these breakaway districts and rising segregation in the nation's public schools. In 2017 and again this year, the nonprofit group EdBuild, which studies school finance and segregation, found that the ongoing fracturing of district lines can contribute to sharp divisions along race and class lines

Recent federal statistics indicate that the share of racially isolated, high-poverty schools is rising. It's also fair to wonder, however, how much support the idea of federal preclearance would get in the age of the Every Student Succeeds Act and after a long-term decline in the number of federal court desegregation orders. Even the U.S. Department of Education's district-reported data on long-standing desegregation orders are all over the place. 

The most tangible and recent win inside the Beltway for backers of robust integration efforts was probably last September, when Congress agreed to lift a long-standing prohibition on the use of federal transportation funds to aid school integration efforts; lawmakers lifted the ban through a change in fiscal 2019 spending legislation. However, advocates say that separate language to the same effect in the General Education Provisions Act remains on the books and should be removed.

Broadly speaking, the language in that law is probably inhibiting districts from using last year's spending bill changes in order to tackle integration, said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and one of the authors of the foundation's agenda. 

And there's been at least one notable setback for  integration supporters: Last year, the Trump administration revoked Obama administration guidance from 2011 that was designed to encourage racial diversity in public schools. (In a Wednesday hearing on Capitol Hill, when asked about that decision, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said she was unfamiliar with the guidance.)  The guidance mandated nothing, but it underscored Republicans' skepticism about the federal role in integration efforts, as well as their dim view of the Obama administration's approach to guidance in general.

"There not only is not federal support for work on school integration, but it sounds like not even an acknowledgment that this is an issue that needs to be addressed," Potter said.

However, there's at least one general political tack DeVos and integration advocates like Potter share: they want participation to be voluntary and not mandatory. Just as DeVos emphasizes that her new pitch for $5 billion federal tax credits for educational choice would be based on voluntary donations to scholarship-granting groups, Potter stressed that school districts would get to decide for themselves whether to seek federal grants to improve integration and address socioeconomic and racial isolation.

But would this idea of local control really resonate among Republicans who don't like a big federal fooprint in education? (Murphy's bill and the Century Foundation are both calling for more federal education spending, after all.) Asked if folks on her side would need for Democrats to control the presidency and the House, as well as 60 votes in the Senate, to get traction on their agenda, Potter said no. 

"That's an issue that should be able to bring a number of different people to the table," Potter said. "We should be able to get multiple people behind the idea that we should leave it up to states and districts to decide how best to spend their funds to support school performance."

One crucial difference between DeVos' pitch and what the Century Foundation wants, of course, is that while DeVos wants a program targeted at parents and students, the foundation wants districts and schools to be the direct recipients of a new federal initiative. 

Supporters of integration policies convened a similar Capitol Hill gathering last year shortly after DeVos revoked the 2011 Obama guidance. To see how discussions inside the Beltway about integration have or have not evolved, see this Education Week article from 2009

Photo: A pair of 4th graders mind the exit doors at Wilt Elementary School, a diverse school in Louisville, Ky., in 2014, 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

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