Last week, PDK International released results from its annual public opinion poll on education, which this year featured more questions than did past surveys on racial and socioeconomic diversity in education.

The biggest takeaway from the poll’s results on school integration is that a majority of parents value racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools. Almost three-quarters of all parents say that it is somewhat or very important to them that their public schools are racially diverse, and a similar percentage say that economic diversity is important. Seventy percent of parents also said they would prefer to send their child to a racially diverse school, all else equal, and 61 percent of parents said the same about an economically diverse school.

Figure 1

These findings echo survey results published by the Center for American Progress earlier this year, which found that nearly two-thirds of Americans thought school segregation was an important issue and 70 percent thought that “more should be done to integrate low- and high-poverty schools.”

Moving beyond this general support, however, parents’ views of school integration were not always so rosy. More subtle results from the PDK poll point to some of the political stumbling blocks that can hold up school integration efforts.

Being mindful of these potential obstacles could help to strengthen school integration outcomes overall. Thus, based on the PDK poll findings, here are two possible strategies for increasing political support for school integration programs.

1. Stop talking about the length of the bus ride.

The PDK poll asked parents whether they would prefer “a closer but less diverse school or a farther away but more diverse school.” When framed this way, only 25 percent of parents said that they would prefer a longer commute in exchange for a more racially diverse school, and only 20 percent were willing to make the tradeoff to attend a more economically diverse school located farther away. If school integration depended solely on convincing parents to accept longer transit times in exchange for increased diversity, then integration proponents would be fighting a losing battle.

The idea that school integration requires long bus rides is widespread and longstanding, but it is not necessarily an accurate or helpful picture of how school integration works.

The idea that school integration requires long bus rides is widespread and longstanding, but it is not necessarily an accurate or helpful picture of how school integration works. Historian Matthew Delmont documents the way that mainstream white media emphasized the story of “forced busing” at the expense of other narratives during the Civil Rights Movement. “[The media’s representation is] a problem because it makes us begin the story of busing in the 1970s when really, even in Boston, it began at least two decades earlier,” he said in an interview. “But it also forces us to pay attention and focus our energy on the anger and frustration of white parents as opposed to the constitutional rights of black students. When we think of Boston we think of white South Boston people throwing rocks at buses, but the whole reason those buses were there is that Boston had intentionally segregated their schools for decades.”

In the present day, it’s true that residential segregation is a huge contributor to school segregation: TCF fellow Richard Kahlenberg notes its impact in a recent report examining how housing policy could be a tool for school integration. But there are still plenty of situations in which school boundaries could be redrawn to create a much more equitable distribution of students without significant increases in travel times. For instance, in urban areas, the attendance zones for highly stratified schools may lie just a few blocks apart, as is the case for two New York City elementary schools on the Upper West Side–one 6% low-income and the other 78% low-income; and gerrymandered school district borders can result in jigsaw puzzle- or Swiss cheese-like patterns that carve out high-poverty school districts, like Ansley Public Schools in Nebraska, from more affluent surrounding jurisdictions. Furthermore, to the extent that long commutes to public schools exist, integration is certainly not the only reason for them. Choice-based enrollment, transportation budget cuts, and school consolidations may also be to blame.

In cases where housing patterns and geography do necessitate longer commutes in order to make integration possible, there are successful examples of school choice systems which promote diversity by giving parents additional factors to consider, thereby enticing them to accept a longer commute in exchange for other, and frequently higher, priorities. Districts like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Champaign, Illinois use a controlled choice system that allows parents to choose from among all schools in the district—with different educational themes at each school—and then balances those parent choices with an algorithm to ensure that all schools fall within a range of diversity reflective of the district as a whole. In Greater Hartford, Connecticut, a robust network of inter-district magnet schools attracts families from suburban districts as well as Hartford proper. Increased racial and socioeconomic diversity at these schools is a draw for some families, but the differences in educational model, school climate, and quality of education at these schools appear to be the factors guiding many families’ choices.

When district leaders or community members present options for school integration, it is important not to accept the simple narrative that integrated schools require long commutes. Instead, myths about travel times must be dispelled, and plans for integration created that emphasize diversity as one of multiple benefits for families.

2. Lift up the voices of Hispanic students and families.

As the figure below shows, the PDK poll found that black parents were consistently more supportive of school integration than were white parents. These results are perhaps not surprising, given the history of school segregation faced by black students and the important role that black civil rights leaders, parents, and students have played in the fight for desegregation.

Figure 2

What might be unexpected, however, is the comparatively low support for school integration among Hispanic parents, and across several measures. Hispanic parents were less likely than were black or white parents to prefer sending their children to a racially diverse school, or to accept a longer commute in order to make that happen. They were also less likely to prefer an economically diverse school, or to believe that economic diversity improves the learning environment.

While it’s hard to say for sure what explains these differences (having more data from PDK on results by race that control for other factors would be helpful in this regard), one possible contributing factor is that Hispanic students and families are often left out of the narrative around school integration.

The contributions that Hispanic students and families have made to advance school integration are often overlooked in historical accounts of school desegregation. For example, the famous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education is often used as the beginning of a timeline for school integration, but the first federal ruling in favor of school desegregation actually came in the 1947 Ninth Circuit decision in Mendez v. Westminster, a case brought by Mexican American students in California arguing that the education in their segregated “Mexican Schools” was inherently unequal to that in the public schools that their Anglo peers attended.

Discussions about the benefits and challenges of school integration today also often fail to consider how integrated schools can meet the needs of English Language Learners, roughly 80 percent of whom are Hispanic.

Discussions about the benefits and challenges of school integration today also often fail to consider how integrated schools can meet the needs of English Language Learners, roughly 80 percent of whom are Hispanic. However, this need not be the case. School integration and support for English Language Learners can go hand-in-hand in two-way dual language models, where schools blend classrooms in which half of the students are native English speakers and half speak another language at home, with the goal of all students becoming proficient in both languages. Spanish-English dual language programs with this design have shown educational and political success in both blue states like Massachusetts and red states like Utah.

The politics of school integration are complex and often vexed, as they cut to the heart of American’s views on race and class and sometimes cause parents’ professed ideals to bump up against the decisions they are willing to make for their own children. But understanding how the American public views the prospect of school diversity provides important information for developing education policies and communication strategies that can make school integration attractive to parents. A majority of them agree, at least in theory, with the overall vision of integrated schools. We need strategies for school integration that, through inclusive political framing and thoughtful program design, can help translate this theory into action.