Amid political tension in schools and looming U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the fate of race-conscious affirmative action, diversity in education is once again in the spotlight. Having just passed the sixty-ninth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, what is the federal government doing to foster educational equity and create diverse, inclusive learning environments? Recently, to answer this question, the Bridges Collaborative came together with the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD) and Magnet Schools of America (MSA) to discuss the progress made since the landmark 1954 decision and explore pathways the federal government could pursue to advance meaningful integration.

During the one-hour event, guests shared insightful research, personal experiences, and exciting funding opportunities available to districts interested in improving school diversity. Amongst these opportunities is the newly announced Fostering Diverse Schools Demonstration Grant Program (FDS) from the U.S. Department of Education. The competitive grant program provides $10 million in federal funding for innovative ideas and plans to foster integrated learning spaces. These funds signify a growing federal awareness of the need to integrate our schools.

This unique moment presents a prime opportunity to reflect on the work that needs to be done, locally and nationally, to actualize the just aims of Brown. To this end, this commentary highlights five key takeaways from the event regarding the ongoing effort to achieve school integration.

1. Increasing school diversity, at all levels, is an explicit priority of the U.S. Department of Education.

“As a whole, this administration has put academic acceleration at the forefront of its agenda, and equity and school diversity is absolutely a part of that,” said Kayla Patrick, special assistant in the Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. As articulated in the Secretary’s Supplemental Priorities, grantees receiving discretionary grants should demonstrate support for underserved communities and promote racial and socioeconomic diversity through “evidence-based policies or strategies.”

A commitment to developing more well-rounded, diverse learning supports is embodied through the new FDS program as well as existing funding streams such as the Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP) and the Hawkins program. Each of these programs are crucial supports for projects centered on strengthening student and educator diversity.

The department also awards applicants coordinating diversity efforts across different agencies and their region. Such a priority highlights how imperative collaboration is to expanding diversity in educational settings. Without cross-agency and regional coordination, interdistrict segregation—accounting for an estimated two-thirds of public school segregation—will undoubtedly persist, and likely intensify.

2. There are two key legislative proposals working through Congress focused on improving school diversity.

The Strength in Diversity Act and the MAGNET Act propose making federal dollars available for voluntary integration plans and building up magnet programs. Bipartisan action on the two pieces of legislation is critical for states with long histories of desegregation efforts and those at the very beginnings of integration work.

Notably, iterations of the Strength in Diversity Act have moved through Congress several times since 2016. The Biden administration has rekindled Obama-era support for community-led integration initiatives, creating a new window of opportunity for states ready to make change in their schools. Comparatively, the MAGNET Act could lift financial hardship off magnet schools by expanding MSAP and authorizing a new grant to increase diversity in magnets.

The proposals, Senator Chris Murphy noted, “should not be political or partisan because this is not a heavy hand from the federal government.” The voluntary nature of the plans allows states to engage in integration efforts in a way that is best for them. Congressional leaders are aware of the dangers that can emerge if America slips further in social isolation. While these federal funds could prevent this social siloing, they won’t come to fruition without bipartisan support.

3. Magnet schools are uniquely positioned to advance diversity and reduce racial isolation.

Magnet schools were designed as one of the primary tools to integrate students during the Civil Rights era. Since the 1980s, supporting desegregation efforts has remained one of MSAP’s primary goals. As the only federal program with statutory language focused on eliminating racial isolation, magnet programs are a crucial part of federal efforts to advance school diversity.

Today’s magnet schools have “the ability to really harness school choice to try to move from desegregation to integration,” said Ramin Taheri, CEO of Magnet Schools of America. Going beyond mere numerical diversity in favor of inclusive, diverse learning environments is at the center of magnet schools’ mission.

The United States has over 4,000 magnet schools, serving almost 3.5 million students. Each of these students, and millions of their peers, deserve access to quality curriculum and a robust community of folks from different backgrounds. Funding for magnet programs has slightly increased, but overall levels remain low. Funding reached “a high point of $139 million this year,” said Sara Plasencia, policy advisor with the Learning Policy Institute. Continuing greater investment in magnet school development could transform the diversity of education for the better.

4. Greater federal investment and guidance is key for successful, sustainable integration.

The event underscored how the federal government is re-engaging as an essential partner in school integration work. For instance, Congressional action recently ended the nearly fifty-year prohibition on the use of federal funds on transportation to support school integration. Similar federal actions that remove obstacles and expand financial assistance for integration plans will make the difference between inclusive, equitable education and incessant social isolation.

“Our role is to back you up,” said Dr. Bernadine Futrell, deputy assistant secretary for equity and discretionary grants and support services. Whether receiving federal funds or technical assistance, states should take advantage of pre-existing supports focused on school integration. Even more, they are encouraged to push the federal government to be more creative and intentional about approaches to school integration, including mechanisms aside from competitive grants.

Moreover, the federal government has the unique capacity to compile and disseminate effective strategies to foster school diversity. As TCF senior fellow Halley Potter said, “the federal government can be a huge resource for helping to share those lessons and to provide tools for leaders who are doing the work on the ground.” Practitioners in communities seeking to fulfill Brown’s promise of equal educational opportunity could make tremendous gains by actively working with the federal government.

5. To sustain (and hopefully increase) federal funding for integration, states and districts must engage with grant opportunities.

The $10 million provided under the Fostering Diverse Schools grant is a tenth of the amount initially proposed in the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget. The initial investment is progress in the right direction but there is more to be done. To increase funding and potentially reach the proposed $100 million, demand for federal funding must be demonstrated.

“The response to this program from grantees… is going to determine what happens in the future,” Phil Tegeler, executive director at Poverty & Race Research Action Council, said. “We need to see a robust turnout of folks applying for these funds. It’s going to help us, at the Department of Ed and in Congress, to get more funds next year.”

The FDS program is accepting applications through July 7, 2023. An estimated four to five planning grants and two to three implementation grants will be awarded. Application hurdles are real, but support is available. The Department of Education is available for questions at [email protected], and the TCF Bridges Collaborative team is willing to answer questions and brainstorm projects at [email protected].

Integration plans are no stranger to contention and resistance. Despite challenges over the past sixty-nine years, many effective integration plans have thrived across the country. Whether a district has decades of work under its belt or has yet to develop strong support for integration, they have an opportune moment right now to improve the quality and diversity of their schools. Local educational agencies and consortia, take the time to apply. Every application shows the federal government our commitment to improving school integration is unwavering.