On MLK Day, Some Thoughts on Segregated Schools, Arne Duncan, and President Obama - Dana Goldstein
American schools are more segregated by race and class today than they were on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, 43 years ago. The average white child in America attends a school that is 77 percent white, and where just 32 percent of the student body lives in poverty. The average black child attends a school that is 59 percent poor but only 29 percent white. The typical Latino kid is similarly segregated; his school is 57 percent poor and 27 percent white.
Overall, a third of all black and Latino children sit every day in classrooms that are 90 to 100 percent black and Latino.
This is a sad state of affairs in a pluralistic society, and it is borne of two factors: 1) residential segregation and 2) purposeful drawing of school district boundaries to isolate middle class and white families from poor families of color. So it is absolutely a good thing that last Thursday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote a letter chiding the Wake County, North Carolina school board--which has been taken over by Tea Partiers--for dismantling a groundbreaking school integration program.
The Wake County program located high-achieving, themed magnet schools within poor neighborhoods, and opened them up to any interested student. For each seat at the magnet school occupied by a middle class or affluent kid from across town, an inner city child was given the opportunity to bus to the neighborhood school the wealthier kid would have attended, if he hadn't chosen the magnet instead. Such schemes are known in wonk world as "voluntary intra-district transfer programs," and in many of the cities where they exist (such as Milwaukee, Hartford, and Seattle), they are popular and vastly oversubscribed.
The problem is that Arne Duncan's words of support for the Wake County integration plan have never been backed up by Obama administration policy. Neither of the Department of Education's two big school reform grant programs--Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation--provide any funding at all for districts that wish to pursue magnet school-driven integration as a reform tool. And make no mistake--integration is one of the most powerful school reform tools in the kit.