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Changing The Narrative: Leveraging Education Policy To Address Segregation

Our guest authors today are Jennifer Jellison Holme, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the University of Rochester. Holme and Finnigan have published several articles and briefs on the issue of school integration, focusing on regional policy solutions to address segregation and inequality, and the link between segregation and low-performing schools. Recent publications include articles in Teachers College Record and Educational Law and Policy Review as well as a research brief for the National Coalition on School Diversity. This is the second in a series on this topic.

In our first post on this topic, we likened the education policy approach to low-performing schools to what happens when you ignore a decaying tooth: when you treat the symptoms (e.g., low achievement, high dropout rates) without addressing the root causes (e.g., racial and economic segregation), the underlying problem not only will persist, but is likely to worsen. In that post, we used demographic maps to show what this looked like in Milwaukee, illustrating how the approaches pursued by policymakers over several decades do not seem to have significantly improved achievement for students across the system, while patterns economic and racial segregation have worsened.

In this blog post, we outline a set of strategies based on our research that seek to address these issues through specific education policy leverage points: the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and two federal grants programs (Stronger Together and the Magnet School Assistance Program).

ESSA: New Opportunities for Integration

In December, ESSA was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, providing a new framework for school accountability for schools across the country. Some in the civil rights community worry that the changes could result in less attention to historically under-served students. However, the increased flexibility in the law could provide states with opportunity to take the lead on reducing segregation and promoting racially diverse schools.  We see three specific ways this legislation could be used to promote educational equity.

First, ESSA presents an opportunity for states to reward, rather than penalize, diversity in their state accountability systems. In our research on inter-district choice programs, we found that NCLB discouraged educators in predominately white schools from embracing policies that promoted diversity on their campuses. Given the high-stakes nature of accountability at the school and teacher level, as well as the association between race, poverty and lower standardized test scores, some educators told us that they feared that increasing diversity would mean their schools would be subject to negative labels and sanctions. ESSA not only shifts the focus away from penalties, thereby reducing this disincentive for diversity, it also adds new measures for student progress that can, if used strategically, reward schools for becoming more diverse.

Under ESSA, states are required to identify four indicators of student progress, including three related to academic proficiency and at least one related to “school quality or student success.” School diversity could be incorporated as this fourth measure, allowing states to both measure progress in this area and reward schools and districts that make strides towards increased diversity by race and/or income by showing marked improvement toward matching the school-age demographics of their metropolitan area. For example, a suburban school that is 90 percent white, 5 percent Asian, and 5 percent African American in a metropolitan area that is 65 percent white, 25 percent African American, 5 percent Asian, and 5 percent Latino would have to show progress toward increasing the non-white populations each year over a certain time period. This approach would require that states provide funding and technical support - especially in the area of teacher training and student services – which, we found in our research (see, for example, Finnigan et al, 2015), is critical for ensuring schools are culturally inclusive and equitable.    

A second way the law could be used to reduce segregation is by incorporating diversity into school turnaround strategies. ESSA requires states to intervene in three categories of schools: those graduating less than one third of their students; the lowest 5% of schools receiving Title 1 funds; and schools where subgroups are struggling. States are allowed to set aside up to 7 percent of funds for “evidence based” interventions, up from 4 percent in NCLB. Integration could qualify as one such intervention, as there is evidence that the racial and socioeconomic composition of schools affects both student achievement in the short term (see, e.g., Reardon, 2015; Schwartz, 2010) and student attainment in the long term (see, e.g., Guryan, 2004; Johnson, 2015).

Integration as a “school turnaround strategy” has been piloted in New York state through the Socioeconomic Integration Grant Program, which was developed by U.S. Department of Education Secretary of Education John King while he was New York State Commissioner. The Rochester City School District is using their funding to work with surrounding districts to develop new programs in the city that would draw white, middle class families into the predominately non-white city schools, in much the same way some African American and Latino families leave the city for their schooling through the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program.  Though Rochester’s efforts are still in the preliminary stages, the funding through this grant has led to increased collaboration around cross-district solutions.

A final, even more radical way that the federal government and states could reward diversity in their redesigned accountability systems under ESSA is authorizing the designation of schools that explicitly use admissions policies to enhance diversity as “intentionally diverse schools.” States could allow schools to receive this designation if they promote racial and/or economic diversity through their admissions policies, and if they have made concrete strides towards improving diversity on their campuses (vis-à-vis district and/or metropolitan demographics) over the course of several years. States would need to make these schools eligible for funding to support these efforts - e.g. for transportation, facilities, teacher training, etc. The designation on students’ high school transcripts as having attended an “intentionally diverse school” may provide an advantage in an increasingly competitive college admissions environment, and thus provide an incentive for family participation.

Improving Racial and Socioeconomic Integration Across Regions Through Strategic Grant Programs

Our first blog post on Milwaukee illustrated a key challenge for many urban districts: because they are so segregated by race and class, they are simply unable to create diverse schools within their own borders (see Holme, Finnigan, and Diem, 2016). In those contexts, the creation of diverse schools requires cross-district or regional collaboration between city and suburban school districts.

Our research has focused on city and suburban school systems that collaborate for school diversity through inter-district school choice programs.  We studied all of the current programs in operation and found that they require strong financial incentives for districts to participate, as well as funding for professional development and support for students that we mentioned earlier as being so critical (see Finnigan et al, 2015). One key financial source could be the new $120 million Stronger Together grant program proposed in the Obama Administration’s FY 2017 budget, which would provide funds for the development of voluntary plans to increase diversity as well as to support existing programs.

Another way to address between-district segregation is through inter-district magnet schools, like those implemented in Hartford, Minneapolis, and Omaha (see Finnigan et al, 2015). These schools promote diversity by drawing students from multiple districts across a region, and they have been shown to yield improvements in academic achievement for students who participate (see Bifulco, Cobb and Bell, 2009). ESSA reauthorized and increased funding for the $96 million Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), and for the first time allowed MSAP funding to be used for magnet schools created by a collaboration of multiple school districts (i.e. city and suburban districts joining together). This shift represents a significant step forward in encouraging cooperation between districts across a region to address city/suburban segregation. The reauthorized MSAP program also allows funds to be used for student transportation, which has long been a challenge for these types of diversity-focused inter-district choice programs.

Moving Forward: Strong Leadership and Comprehensive Action

ESSA and federal grant programs can provide an opportunity for states to begin to address the segregation and concentrated poverty that fuels poor performance in schools. But in order to meaningfully reduce school segregation, strong state leadership is imperative, particularly in efforts to address long-standing patterns of segregation like in the Milwaukee metro area. We found in our research that while several communities engaged in efforts to address between-district segregation voluntarily, many only did so-- or continued to do so-- after they were prodded by courts and/or state governments (Holme and Finnigan, 2013).

Local leadership is also critical. As a Century Foundation report recently noted, there are many districts that have taken on the task of reducing within-district segregation voluntarily (Potter, Quick and Davies, 2016). These local efforts can be supported by the policy changes within ESSA that we suggest above.  

These problems, of course, cannot be addressed through the educational system alone. A key underlying cause of school segregation is the concentration of affordable housing in high poverty neighborhoods. Strong leadership is needed to ensure that federal funds are used to reduce, rather than exacerbate, housing segregation by expanding the availability of affordable housing in high opportunity neighborhoods. (These efforts have been recently bolstered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s AFFH Rule, and the US Supreme Court ruling in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.).

Taken together, the tools we have outlined can help the educational system move away from a decades long focus on the symptoms of educational failure, and address one of the key roots of the problem. We cannot afford to wait any longer.

Issues Areas


It was refreshing to read your thoughts about ESSA and how it can be used to integrate more diverse students into schools. However, this has made me wonder whether it is helpful to be considering school integration as something that has to be awarded? The reason for this is that once schools are awarded for appearing to be more “diverse” are they not merely ‘coloring’ in their schools demographic to appear to be more integrated? Further to this,as this problem which derives in part from socio-economic disparities, is ESSA merely a band-aid to address segregation?

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