The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will the Obama administration now focus on desegregating schools?

John King, left, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attend an awards ceremony at Patterson Elementary School in the District. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

When Arne Duncan steps down as education secretary in December and John King takes over, nothing much is expected to change in the world of federal education policy.

Except for maybe one thing.

King will perhaps take steps to focus the department’s energy — and money — on encouraging states and school districts to create integrated schools. That’s what a number of activists, lawyers and researchers are hoping, based on King’s past actions and recent statements.

In one of his last acts as New York’s education commissioner, King used federal money to encourage schools to create more diverse student populations.

This was a novel use of federal school improvement grants, which were aimed at a handful of tactics, such as turning troubled schools over to charter operators or replacing school staff members. But none of those programs acknowledged that most struggling schools are segregated, and filled with poor minority children.

John B. King Jr. thanks President Obama after being named secretary of education. He is taking over for Arne Duncan, who resigned on Oct. 2 (Video: The White House/ Youtube)

“Clearly, Duncan, to his credit, put turning around failing schools at the very top of his agenda. And yet his primary method for doing so was to fire teachers, or bring in charter school operators,” said Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

“The idea that you would actually tackle the underlying cause of the problem — segregation — didn’t enter into the equation.”

Kahlenberg has written frequently about the power of socioeconomic integration; research has shown that poor children do better in mixed-income classrooms than in segregated ones, and middle-class children are no worse off.

He said he met with King privately and was convinced that the next education secretary is serious about trying to encourage school integration.

“President Obama has been taking on issues toward the end of his term that he wouldn’t touch in earlier years. So to me, the moment is ripe for the administration to take some important steps on integration,” Kahlenberg said.

“You have a new secretary of education who is deeply committed to the issue. You have a president who appears willing to expend some political capital toward the end of his term to address issues that are important to him. And you have the backdrop of unrest in a number of segregated urban areas. There’s more focus on this issue than there has been in a long time.”

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has chronicled a resurgence of segregated schools as courts have released districts from desegregation orders over the past several decades. She wondered why Duncan, arguably the most powerful education secretary in history, didn’t use the tools at his disposal — such as the multibillion-dollar Race to the Top grant program — to encourage school integration.

In an August episode of the radio show "This American Life," Hannah-Jones and fellow journalist Chana Joffe-Walt asked Duncan to explain, especially given that he said the administration cared deeply about addressing the problem of segregated classrooms.

“I think it would have been very difficult to get that through Congress at that point,” Duncan said in response. “Congress had to approve this. And there were other tools to try and get at this.”

Activists’ hopes that King will move more aggressively on this front were stoked last month when he spoke at a conference of the National Coalition on School Diversity in Washington.

King told the audience of several hundred that he hopes Congress will take concrete steps to encourage school diversity as it works toward a deal to revise No Child Left Behind, the nation’s main federal education law.

“I remain hopeful that there are opportunities in the reauthorization to specifically incentivize socioeconomic integration, to take steps that will improve the racial integration of our schools,” he said at the Sept. 25 conference at Howard University Law School.

King also said that the department will use competitive grants to encourage diversity, and — nodding to the links between housing and school segregation — said the department is working with other federal agencies on a partnership to create more integrated schools and communities.

“One thing I think he’s begun to make clear in his own voice is his interest in the subject of integration,” said David M. Steiner, who preceded King as education commissioner of New York. “I think that’s something new.

“I’m not saying that no one’s ever mentioned it,” Steiner continued. “But to have someone at that senior level is both brave and timely and complicated. I would never try to guess how John is going to take that issue and run with it, that’s obviously going to be up to him. But it’s clear from the signals that he’s going to focus on it.”