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Trump’s Education Department nixes Obama-era grant program for school diversity

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reads to second-graders at Carderock Springs Elementary School in Bethesda, Md., on March 23. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s Education Department has decided to nix an Obama-era grant program meant to help local districts devise ways to boost socioeconomic diversity within their schools, a program that some advocates considered a barometer of the new administration’s commitment to integrated classrooms.

The Education Department said through a spokesman that the $12 million grant program was discontinued because it would not be a wise use of tax dollars, in part because the money was to be used for planning, not implementation. The decision says nothing about the administration’s interest in diversity, the spokesman said.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, speaking at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, said she believes socioeconomic and racial diversity is “a real benefit in schools.” But advocates say her words don’t match her actions.

“This was the secretary’s first opportunity to show her commitment to school diversity, and she failed to come through,” said Philip Tegeler of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, one of nearly two dozen scholars and advocates who signed a letter to DeVos earlier this month, urging her to move forward with the program.

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Members of the Congressional Black Caucus had also urged the secretary to maintain the program, calling it a “small, but meaningful, federal investment in school diversity” and pointing out that successful modern integration efforts often rely on expanding choice for parents — something DeVos heartily endorses.

Research has shown that poor children who go to mixed-income schools fare better academically than poor children who go to high-poverty schools and that such integration doesn’t hurt the performance of affluent students. And yet U.S. public schools have become more segregated by race and class over the past two decades, according to a federal analysis released last year.

The diversity grants, called “Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities,” were announced in December by then-Education Secretary John B. King Jr., who used his year-long tenure at the helm of the agency to bring new attention to the advantages of integrated schools. Many advocates, who had been disappointed by federal inaction on school diversity issues during much of President Barack Obama’s time in office, cheered the grants as a small but symbolic move.

The Trump administration’s decision to pull the grant money feels similarly symbolic, they said. “I’m very concerned that if the Trump administration is not willing to continue even a small program for school diversity, then it’s clearly not much of a priority for them,” said Richard Kahlenberg, who focuses on school integration as a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Trump and DeVos have made clear that they believe the Education Department is too big and has its hands in too many issues that should be handled by states and local districts.

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In January, 26 school districts from throughout the country said they intended to apply for the grants, which — according to a Federal Register notice — were designed to help local officials boost student achievement by devising blueprints for “innovative, effective, ambitious, comprehensive, and locally driven strategies to increase socioeconomic diversity in schools.”

The money came from funds set aside for improving student achievement at the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

The dollars were authorized during fiscal 2016, and so moving forward with the program would not have required new spending by the department, which faces $9 billion in cuts under Trump’s proposed budget. It is not clear how or whether the Education Department intends to spend the money now; if it hasn’t been spent by the end of September, it will be returned to the general treasury.

Tanya Clay House, a former Education Department official who played a key role in designing the grant program, said the decision to do away with the program feels like a “slap in the face.” The money is there, she said. “Why not allow the districts to use it?”