Trump Administration’s Rule Change on Affirmative Action Will Solidify Segregation in K-12 Public Schools

It seems unlikely that last week’s action by the Trump Justice Department—to rescind rules on affirmative action implemented by the Obama administration—will materially affect local school districts’ capacity to integrate K-12 schools by race. Although in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.  Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” a 2007 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts had already caused school districts to step significantly back from a commitment to racial integration in elementary and secondary schools.

Roberts’ decision in the 2007 case, Parents Involved, banned the use of race as a factor to be explicitly considered in school assignment plans unless, of course, the school district remained under court order to remedy government-imposed de jure segregation (purposely maintaining separate schools for black and white children). Now, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, fewer and fewer Southern school districts that explicitly maintained separate schools remain under court order.

Today, school districts attentive to school segregation have been more likely to try to create within-district, voluntary policies to mix children by race and income across the district’s schools. Like a number of school districts, Louisville (Jefferson County, Kentucky) and Seattle had been using racial balance as an explicit factor to balance school enrollment. In 2007, two lawsuits, one in Louisville and another in Seattle, were combined into the case we now know as Parents Involved.  Here is the essence of Chief Justice Roberts’s decision: “The Fourteenth Amendment prevents states from according differential treatment to American children on the basis of their color or race… The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination the basis of race.”

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote: “These cases consider the longstanding efforts of two local school boards to integrate their public schools.  The school board plans before us resemble many others adopted in the last 50 years by primary and secondary schools throughout the Nation… We have approved ‘narrowly tailored’ plans that are no less race-conscious than the plans before us.  And we have understood that the Constitution permits local communities to adopt desegregation plans even when it does not require them to do so.” “Brown held out a promise. It was a promise embodied in three Amendments designed to make citizens of slaves.  It was the promise of true racial equality—not as a matter of fine words on paper, but as a matter of everyday life in the Nation’s cities and schools. It was about the nature of a democracy that must work for all Americans. It sought one law, one Nation, one people, not simply as a matter of legal principle but in terms of how we actually live.”

The 2007 Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved has already had a chilling effect on school districts’ voluntary efforts to integrate their schools.  Some school districts have continued to make the effort—using family income as a sort of proxy for race. Cambridge, Massachusetts is the example we read about most often.

The Washington Post‘s Nick Anderson and Moriah Balingit describe the history of race-based affirmative efforts to integrate K-12 schools since the 2007 decision. They also describe how the recent Trump Justice Department’s action to revoke Obama-era guidance may affect public school districts across the country: “Revoking the Obama-era guidance on affirmative action could affect elementary and secondary schools that have grappled with racial imbalances. In 2007, the high court sharply limited how school districts could use race in enrollment. The ruling struck down race-based policies in Seattle and Louisville. It confused school officials, who worried that their policies for assigning students ran afoul of the law. The following year, the Bush administration advised schools to use ‘race-neutral methods’ to determine where children go to school, suggesting that officials use socioeconomic status instead of race. The Obama administration in 2011 issued its guidance, which spelled out how schools could use race in enrollment policy to promote diversity and avoid isolating students of one race in a single school. The 2011 guidance sought to help school districts thread the needle when using race or other factors in enrollment policies. That guidance also cautioned school officials that they should be careful when using race and that they could do so only in limited circumstances.”

Anderson and Balingit describe the reaction of Rachel Kleinman, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to last week’s withdrawal by the Trump administration of the Obama era guidance and its return to Bush-era rules: “Rachel Kleinman… said withdrawing the guidance could deter districts from implementing policies to increase diversity. Those districts will no longer be able to rely on the Education Department, she said, to help them craft a policy that complies with the Supreme Court’s decision (in Parents Involved). Kleinman is quoted, saying the recent action of the Trump Justice Department “might chill school districts from doing anything at all.”  She further explains that the reversion to the older Bush guidance “will have no impact on laws that govern school integration and admissions, nor will it affect the hundreds of schools under desegregation orders.”

Considering the current and future makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is unlikely that Parents Involved will be overturned any time soon.  It is therefore unlikely that school districts will be launching innovative school integration programs. That is a sad reality.  Reflecting on last week’s Trump administration action to rescind Obama-era guidance on school integration and affirmative action, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss quotes Richard Rothstein, whose recent book, The Color of Law, examines all sorts of government policies that have contributed over the decades to the racial segregation of our society.  Rothstein, who strongly supports racial integration, believes these actions—in the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, for example—have in reality segregated our society in ways that could, with another kind of Supreme Court, be remedied because they are examples of de jure segregation by government.

Strauss quotes a 2014 article by Rothstein in The American Prospect in which Rothstein explains why affirmative programs in public schools remain absolutely necessary to remedy the damage of slavery and Jim Crow: “Even for low-income families, other groups’ disadvantages—though serious—are not similar to those faced by African Americans. Although the number of high-poverty white communities is growing (many are rural)… poor whites are less likely to live in high poverty neighborhoods than poor blacks.  Nationwide, 7 percent of poor whites live in high-poverty neighborhoods, while 23 percent of poor blacks do so. Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place showed that multigenerational concentrated poverty remains an almost uniquely black phenomenon; white children in poor neighborhoods are likely to live in middle-class neighborhoods as adults, whereas black children in poor neighborhoods are likely to remain in such surroundings as adults.  In other words, poor whites are more likely to be temporarily poor, while poor blacks are more likely to be permanently so…. Certainly, Hispanics suffer discrimination, some of it severe… but the undeniable hardship faced by recent, non-English speaking, unskilled, low-wage immigrants is not equivalent to blacks’ centuries of lower-caste status. The problems are different, and the remedies must also be different….”

Sunday’s 2017 Budget Agreement Isn’t as Bad for Education as We Feared

James Hohmann of the Washington Post explains the significance of the budget deal reached on Sunday night to keep he government operating until the 1st of October: “A spending agreement was reached… that will keep the government funded through the end of September.  This will be the first significant bipartisan measure passed by Congress since Donald Trump took office.  The White House agreed to punt on a lot of the president’s top priorities until this fall to avert a shutdown on Friday…. But Democrats are surprised by just how many concessions they extracted in the trillion-dollar deal considering that Republicans have unified control of government.”

Since October the government has been operating on what is called a continuing resolution. Sunday night’s agreement merely replaces the continuing resolution until the fiscal year ends on September 30th. During this period, Congress and the administration will be negotiating the 2018 fiscal year federal budget.

So… what about the education priorities in the budget agreement reached on Sunday?  In the Department of Education as in other areas, the administration has been willing to set aside  some of the priorities proposed in  President Trump’s 2018 fiscal year budget proposal—or at least to delay the fight with Congress.  And for many of the Department’s most important programs, at least until September 30, Congress managed to keep federal education pretty much at the levels we have expected.

Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week that the Department of Education’s largest and most important grant programs will remain intact: “Federal lawmakers have agreed to relatively small spending increases for Title I programs to districts and for special education…. Title I spending on disadvantaged students would rise by $100 million up to $15.5 billion from fiscal 2016-2017, along with $450 million in new money that was already slated to be shifted over from the now-defunct School Improvement Grants program.  And state grants for special education would increase by $90 million up to $12 billion… The budget deal doesn’t appear to include a new federal school choice program, a top K-12 priority for the Trump administration.”  Omitted from the new agreement is the President’s proposal for $1 billion added to Title I, but diverted  for Title I Portablity vouchers.

Ujifusa adds that despite fears that President Trump and Education Secretary Besy DeVos would destroy the the Office for Civil Rights, in the new 2017 agreement Congress increases funding for the Office of Civil Rights to $109 million. Congress boosts Head Start (administered by Health and Human Services)  by $85 million to a total of $9.3 billion. Congress increases Impact Aid for schools on military bases and American Indian Reservations by $25 million to a total of $1.3 billion. The 21st Century Learning Center after-school program that Trump threatened in his 2018 budget proposal to eliminate altogether is increased modestly by Congress in this new agreement, up $25 million to a total of $1.2 billion.

In the new agreement, Congress increases funding through this year for college preparation programs Trump cuts in his 2018 budget proposal.  Here is Danielle Douglas-Gabriel for the Washington Post: “Sunday’s budget deal also increases funding for two college preparation programs, TRIO and GEAR UP, that the Trump administration has earmarked for millions of dollars in cuts. Congress has agreed to up the budget for TRIO by $50 million, while pouring an additional $17 million into GEAR UP…  TRIO, named for three initiatives that date to the 1960s, houses programs such as Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services that aid high school students in getting into college or keeping them on track once they enroll. GEAR Up (the acronym stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) serves entire classes of children in high-poverty districts through grants to states and community partnerships.”

Douglas-Gabriel also reports that in Sunday’s agreement, Congress endorses summer Pell Grants: “The budget deal expands the Pell Grant program for low-income college students by offering up to $2,960—half of the maximum award—to recipients taking summer courses during the 2017-2018 academic year. That way, students can take a full load of courses year-round, earn a degree faster and avoid taking on a lot of debt… Instead the White House budget maintains the current funding level for Pell grants.”  Both the President’s budget and Congress eliminate a $3.9 billion reserve in the Pell Grant budget, as explained here by POLITICO: “Democrats and student aid advocates had pushed against such a move, which they call ‘raiding’ the Pell grant’s surplus. Still, the bill (the Sunday night budget agreement) calls for the same level of discretionary spending on the Pell grant program this year. Because of mandatory funding increases, the maximum Pell grant award will increase $105 to $5,920 starting in the coming 2017-18 school year.”

As part of the 2017 budget agreement, however, Emma Brown reports that  Congress is fulfilling one of the priorities of President Trump and Betsy DeVos.  Sunday night’s 2017 budget agreement reauthorizes—through fiscal year 2019—the federally funded Washington, D.C. school voucher privatization program.  Trump and DeVos prioritized D.C. vouchers in the 2018 budget proposal.  Ironically a new Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program was just completed and published by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance—an evaluation that deems the program unsuccessful in raising the achievement of the students enrolled.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown describing the program and summarizing the results of the new evaluation: “The D.C. program serves about 1,100 students, giving them up to $8,452 to attend a private elementary or middle school and up to $12,679 for high school. Participating private schools must be accredited by 2021 but otherwise face few requirements beyond showing that they are in good financial standing and demonstrating compliance with health and safety laws.  D.C. students who used vouchers had significantly lower math scores a year after joining the program, on average, than students who applied for a voucher through a citywide lottery but did not receive one.  For voucher students in kindergarten through fifth grade, reading scores were also significantly lower… For voucher recipients coming from a low-performing public school—the population that the voucher program primarily aims to reach—attending a private school had no effect on achievement.  But for voucher recipients coming from higher-performing public schools, the negative effect was particularly large.”

Andrew Ujifusa, in Education Week describes other programs whose funding is reduced by Congress in Sunday’s 2017 agreement. The office of Education Innovation and Research is cut by $20 million. Like President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, Congress also cuts Title II grants for teacher development; the new agreement cuts the program by $294 million.  A new Title IV block grant under the Every Student Succeeds Act is funded in the new agreement at $400 million, “a lot less than the $1.6 billion envisioned for Title IV under ESSA.”

Things may not be great, but—at least for now—our fears about federal funding for education were worse than what is turning out to be the reality.