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Posted at 5:51 PM ET, 04/13/2010

Race to the Top should help desegregate schools

By Valerie Strauss

The Justice Department Tuesday announced that a rural Mississippi county was being ordered by a federal judge to stop segregating its schools. The judge said that the Walthall County school system was grouping African American students into all-black classrooms and illegally allowing white students to transfer to the county’s only majority-white school.

Good for the Justice Department. The 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools led to more than 25 years of such efforts. But the de facto resegregation of American schools has been underway for more than 20 years now, and federal officials, Democrat and Republican, have pretty much ignored it until now.

President Obama recently promised to marshal more resources to drag into court school systems that have ignored civil rights laws and allowed schools to resegregate. And Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently that he is increasing enforcement of civil rights laws in schools and colleges and will announce steps he is taking soon.

But it seems fair to ask why Obama and Duncan did not try to further this goal when they had the chance with their Race to the Top competition?

The $3 billion Race to the Top is a contest in which states compete for funds by promising to reform schools with initiatives favored by Duncan. In the first round, Tennessee and Delaware beat out 14 other finalists. Some of those initiatives include expanding expanding charter schools and linking teacher merit pay to student test scores.

Jim Horn, who teaches at Cambridge College in Cambridge, Mass., noted in an Answer Sheet guest post recently that “no points (0.00) are offered in Race to the Top to incentivize potential grantees toward novel or innovative solutions to the accelerating re-segregation of American schools.”

Furthermore, some of the efforts supported by Duncan, including an expansion of charter schools, have been shown to be part of the resegregation problem.

Gary Orfield, now the head of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, who warned back in the 1990s that desegregated schools were becoming resegregated, released a report in February saying that charter schools were a key factor in the phenomenon.

Nearly 3 out of 4 black students in charters were in “intensely segregated” schools with student populations that are at least 90 percent minority -- twice the rate of non-charter public schools, the report said.

The Civil Rights Project issued a report in 2008 that showed the opposite for public magnet schools, saying that a significant share of magnet school programs “has a clear policy favoring integration and that those with such policies had better outcomes.”

Today, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers, almost half of America’s black students and nearly two-fifths of Latino students attend high schools that they label “dropout factories.”

It isn’t enough for the Justice Department to fight this battle. The Education Department should use Race to the Top to help this effort.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 13, 2010; 5:51 PM ET
Categories:  Race to the Top  | Tags:  Justice Department, Mississippi school and desegregate, Race to the Top, court and Mississippi school, court order and desegregate and school, federa court and desegregation, resegregation of schools  
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Your point that magnet schools are better at desegregating than charters is a good one, especially since the real issue may be segregation due to income level.

I think potentially Race to the Top may further segregate schools. Since the whole thing is based on test scores,giving extra money to highly performing schools could mean giving more to the wealthier districts.

You mention "drop-out" factories. That is a very sad situation, but it will take more than a year to turn around those schools. That is because those kids don't see education as helping them, or are too far behind, or because they have to work to help their families. Very creative and flexible ideas will have to be called into play to get those schools turned around. I think schools will have to do more to help kids who want to drop out. Just focusing on test scores won't do it. I have had students tell me as early as seventh grade that they will be going into the military. When I ask, "Why not college?" the students say that they know their family cannot afford it. I am not against people going into the military, but I do notice that in the Race to the Top articles I read, it seems to be assumed that everyone wants to go to college. Even very bright students from poor families are not going to be able to afford college. Well, maybe that is another topic entirely but it is something I have noticed.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 13, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

Magnets are allowed to screen out students they don't want - and federal research shows that more than half of secondary magnets do exactly that. There are some great magnets but many of them frustrate inner city families whose youngsters can't get into them.

When we worked for several years in Cincinnati, our organization found, for example, that the magnet high schools averaged less than 5% students with disabilities. That meant that neighborhood high schools had 25-33% students with disabilities.

I don't think that publicly funded k-12 schools should be allowed to have admission or auditions tests.

Joe Nathan
St. Paul, Mn.

Posted by: jnathan2 | April 14, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Nathan: "I don't think that publicly funded k-12 schools should be allowed to have admission or auditions tests."

If we as a nation feel that it is important to give potential artists, composers, engineers, or scientists something extra to help them develop their gifts, why shouldn't we?

Posted by: clevin | April 14, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Would it help to tell Obama and Duncan that charter schools are helping re-segregate America. Probably not. I think that is a fact that they choose to ignore.

Posted by: jlp19 | April 14, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Obama’s education reform blueprint brings us full circle, as it itself is an innovation built upon knowledge gained during NCLB (in fact, growth-model testing was piloted during NCLB after the Bush administration observed the negative effects of over-emphasis on standardized testing). That sort of wisdom learned the hard way is intrinsic to American resiliency: it began as a “great experiment” and it continues towards "a more perfect union." We experiment with new policies, and the content of those new policies remembers the value of our innovative, creative spirit.

Posted by: ChristopherCarr | April 16, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

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