Obama’s Act II: The issue he can’t ignore

Obama as Harvard law student

President Obama now has an opportunity to do something different in regard to education reform in his second term. Here Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, explains how that could look. This appeared on the website of the nonpartisan foundation,  which undertakes critical analyses of major economic, political, and social institutions and issues.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

Barack Obama’s re-election—made possible by a strong African American, Latino, and female vote—liberates the president to return to the central questions of equal opportunity that first motivated him to seek public office.  According to David Maraniss’s biography of Obama, the future president was inspired to apply to Harvard Law School and enter public life after he heard a presentation by William Julius Wilson on the effects of de-industrialization and isolation on low-income urban blacks. As Wilson (a longtime Century Foundation trustee) observed in “The Truly Disadvantaged” a quarter-century ago, the Civil Rights Act freed middle-class black Americans to move out of racially segregated ghettos, an enormous advance in human dignity, but this development also left poor blacks in concentrated poverty that was worse than ever before.

Obama’s election to a second term allows him to think big about the providing better opportunities to  truly disadvantaged children. If the economy continues to grow in the second term, as many are predicting, the president can move beyond rear-guard efforts to avoid an economic depression. Under these circumstances, Americans will be in a more generous and large-spirited frame of mind to tackle difficult issues. 

Of course, in America, politicians obsessively focus on the middle class, but there may be an opening in the next term for a more robust discussion of how best to provide ladders for people stuck in concentrated poverty to join the middle class. Reviving the American Dream and reducing economic inequality is the “defining issue of our time,” President Obama declared in his most famous speech during the campaign, delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas. Far from being politically risky, Drew Westen has noted, Obama’s populist themes were highly resonant with American voters.

To address America’s “defining issue,” the president should return to the central problem raised in William Julius Wilson’s work: economic segregation and isolated poverty.  On one level, President Obama understands this. In his 2008 speech in Philadelphia on America’s struggle with race, he declared, “Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.”

Yet in the first term, the administration pushed a center-right education agenda of charter schools, which are typically even more segregated than regular public schools, and performance pay for teachers, rather than backing voluntary public school choice and magnet schools that promote economic and racial integration of schools. Research suggests that low-income four-grade students stuck in high poverty schools are two years behind low-income students in more affluent schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math. And a 2010 study of Montgomery County Maryland public schools found that students assigned to public housing in low-poverty neighborhoods and permitted to attend low-poverty schools fared far better than students assigned to public housing in higher-poverty neighborhoods, even though the schools in those neighborhoods spent $2,000 more per pupil.  A 2012 cost-benefit analysis of socioeconomic school integration found that investment in public school choice pays for itself three times over.

While the administration has portrayed its Race to the Top education initiative as bold, it did nothing whatsoever to address the bedrock problems of concentrated poverty that Wilson identified. Meanwhile, some 80 local school districts—and a handful of charter schools—have sought to bring together low-income and middle-class students with considerable success. Even conservatives such as the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli are recognizing the importance of addressing concentrated poverty in education. 

In Act II, the president should return to the lessons of Bill Wilson’s work and think creatively about how to give all American schoolchildren a chance to attend high quality economically integrated public schools. To begin with, the president could advocate doubling federal funding for magnet schools that draw middle-class students into urban schools and provide financial incentives for middle-class suburban schools to accept transfer students from low-income areas. That approach is likely to be far more effective than continued efforts to try to make separate schools equal.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · November 8, 2012