Now is a moment of increased recognition of the ills of school segregation, says Ujju Aggarwal, professor at The New School and a grassroots desegregation activist in New York City.
“We’ve reached a point where the political problem of segregation has been recognized across the board,” Aggarwal says. “So many studies and reports have illustrated not only the intensification of the problem but also the impact, and so this generally presents a question of what are we going to do about it?”
While it’s certainly not the case everywhere, more local and state policymakers are exploring what to do about it — desegregation strategies like revamping school district boundaries, expanding magnet schools, and encouraging the establishment of diverse-by-design charter schools. In New York City, with some of the most segregated schools in the nation, new Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent shockwaves in April with a tweet calling out white parents who opposed a plan to bring more black students into schools with their children.
But the question of how to ensure that all students can access desegregated schools remains thorny, and costly — which is why civil rights advocates are speaking out against two decades-old provisions from a “bygone era” that have once more crept into federal appropriations bills for the coming fiscal year. The provisions, or riders, officially known as Sections 301 and 302, bar federal funds from going toward transportation for school integration purposes. In effect, it leaves states and municipalities exclusively responsible for paying to transport students around for the sake of school desegregation.
Dozens of civil rights groups signed onto letters sent to the House and Senate last week, calling on legislators to remove Sections 301 and 302 from the next and future rounds of federal appropriations bills.
“It is alarming that such legislative language would still be present in 2018, at a time when racial re-segregation of our public schools has surged, where a majority of members of the Supreme Court have declared school diversity to be a ‘compelling government interest,’ and where many districts are working voluntarily to promote racial and economic integration for the benefit of their children and communities,” the letters state.
Such anti-diversity provisions have been included in appropriations bills since at least 1974, established in a political era of fierce opposition to desegregation mandates.
Signatories to the letters included the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the ACLU, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Democrats for Education Reform, and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.
“We must no longer passively accept the status quo of their presence in appropriations bills,” stated the National Coalition on School Diversity, a network of more than 50 civil rights groups, university-based research centers, and education practitioners. “It’s time for a shift that puts the federal government firmly on the side of local communities that desire to use their federal funds to bolster school integration efforts.”
Momentum to remove these provisions began last year, when it became evident that the decades-old riders conflicted with the Every Students Succeeds Act, the federal education overhaul passed in 2015. That law gives states and local districts greater flexibility to implement evidenced-based school improvement strategies. Decades of research have shown that racial and socioeconomic integration can lead to a wide-range of academic and social benefits — which many state and local policymakers hope to provide for students.
Civil rights groups managed to convince legislators to exempt the federal magnet school program from the riders in last year’s appropriations cycle, and Congress pledged to “consider a longer term solution” on the issue this year. According to Nicole Dooley, policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, these new letters represent advocates’ attempts to hold Congress to its word. For too long, Dooley says, Sections 301 and 302 just “flew under the radar” and no repeal attempts were even tried.
The most vocal legislative champion of removing these provisions has been Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) who pushed unsuccessfully for removing the provisions altogether in 2017. Scott released a statement this year “vow[ing] to fight again” for the removal of “discriminatory education policy riders that discourage efforts to increase public school integration.”
Funding for transportation can make a significant difference in school desegregation efforts, given that housing markets across the country still tend to be heavily segregated. Erica Frankenberg, an education policy research at Penn State University, says that studies show magnet schools that offer free transportation are more likely to attract African-American families, and magnet schools that do not provide free transportation are more likely to be segregated.
Repealing Sections 301 and 302 could also help make more funding available to deal with another threat to busing as a strategy for desegregating schools — rising fuel costs. As the costs to transport students goes up, many school districts have been looking for ways to reduce expenses. Eliminating busing across school district lines has been one strategy that localities have turned to.
“These [integration] issues can’t be disentangled from the broader cuts we’re seeing to transportation funding,” says Frankenberg.
Rachel Cohen is a D.C.-based freelance journalist and a contributing writer for the Intercept.