On the heels of a terrible week of racial strife—in which black men were shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, and white police officers were gunned down by a sniper in Texas—an important plan was unveiled this morning to help promote greater racial harmony and social justice for the next generation of Americans.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH), U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten made a powerful case that in order to provide social cohesion in our democracy, and social mobility in our economy, our nation needs to address rising economic and racial segregation in our schools.
Murphy and Fudge introduced the Stronger Together School Diversity Act of 2016, which builds on the Obama administration’s Stronger Together budget proposal, providing $120 million to support voluntary local efforts to promote socioeconomic and racial diversity in schools.
In a call with reporters, Secretary King made a direct connection between racial turmoil over policing and integration of schools. “This feels especially relevant,” he noted, after “a hard week.”
Indeed, at this time of racial tumult, it is important to remember the insight of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: that schools are critical in shaping the type of society we want. “Unless our children begin to learn together,” Marshall wrote in 1974, “then there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”
Attending integrated schools does not guarantee that graduates will appreciate and celebrate racial and economic diversity, but a recent Century Foundation report noted a wide body of research suggesting that students who attend integrated schools are less racially biased and also learn a great deal from fellow students.
At the same time, the Stronger Together proposal backs means for achieving school diversity that are not themselves a source of significant friction. Unlike court-ordered compulsory busing for desegregation that sometimes led families to feel powerless and to rebel, Stronger Together supports voluntary, democratically-adopted local efforts that often rely on parental choice and positive incentives for integration, such as magnet schools.
The introduction of the Stronger Together Diversity Act, whether or not it is ultimately adopted, represents an important turning point in American politics.
The introduction of the Stronger Together Diversity Act, whether or not it is ultimately adopted, represents an important turning point in American politics. For a generation, school integration was seen as so politically toxic that even progressive presidents and members of Congress shied away from the issue. School integration was not a priority during the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, or Bush II administrations, nor through most of the Obama administration—until now.
The support of AFT president Randi Weingarten and teachers is also politically significant. We expect civil rights groups to advocate integration, as they long have. But it is notable that teachers are part of the coalition supporting Stronger Together. Educators know firsthand that test scores are not the sole measure of success or failure in schooling and support integration as a way of promoting an integrated democracy. In the press call, Weingarten worried that segregated schools promote “fear of ‘the other.’” Teachers also know that reducing concentrations of school poverty increases their chances of success with students. In fact, teachers were the impetus for the nation’s first socioeconomic integration plan in La Crosse, WI because educators in high poverty schools there felt overwhelmed and knew economically integrated schooling was better for teachers and students alike.
In supporting school integration, Weingarten is following in the footsteps of Albert Shanker, the president of the AFT from 1974–1997, who knew that integrated public schools provided the “glue that has held this country together.” Shanker wrote: “A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving. He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn’t remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other…. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we became a wealthy and powerful nation—the freest the world has ever known… Public schools played a big role in holding our nation together.”
At a time when the United States seems to be coming apart at the seams, the ideas behind the Stronger Together proposal may be just what our country needs.