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White House Calls On Schools To Establish Voluntary Integration Programs

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This week, we've been looking at the legacy of the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, aimed at ending segregation in public schools. And next, we're turning to John King, the U.S. secretary of education.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Before his gig with the Obama administration, he was the chief of education for New York state, which he says has some of the most segregated schools in the country. There, he pushed for schools to use magnet programs, school rezoning, whatever they could to improve classroom diversity.

CORNISH: Now, King says he wants to try the same thing nationally. The White House has backed a bill that would spend $120 million on voluntary integration programs that use income, not race, as a factor. I asked him what that would accomplish that race-based programs could not.

JOHN KING: The reality is that socioeconomic status in many communities overlaps heavily with race and ethnicity. But there's also the political reality that socioeconomically diverse schools are going to have the political leverage to ensure good resources to support things like art and music and school counselors. And in many communities where there are high concentrations of students in poverty, those schools are under-resourced, getting less access to effective teachers, less access to advanced coursework.

CORNISH: But are you saying that that is because those communities aren't asking for those resources? I mean, lots of people would say they are.

KING: They're asking for it, but, you know, the decision-making about resource allocation at the local and state level often doesn't direct resources to the highest-needs communities. And where you have students of concentrated poverty, they often have less political power to ensure that they're getting the resources they should.

CORNISH: Now, we spoke with someone who studies this, Arizona State professor Matthew Delmont. And, essentially, he argues that, if you rely on choice, you're not going to accomplish what you want. Here's why he says that's the case.

MATTHEW DELMONT: White parents simply don't want to send their kids to schools that have large numbers of African-American or Latino students, even if they consider themselves to be liberal and might say, in theory, or in the abstract, that they're in favor of integration.

CORNISH: Is that something that you are concerned about?

KING: Well, you know, certainly the evidence from the last few decades around residential segregation gives one cause to worry. That said, we certainly have heard a lot of enthusiasm as we've talked about the stronger-together approach around the country for the idea of locally-led initiatives to create diverse schools. So I think there is demand. I think there are white parents and affluent parents who want diverse schools for their children.

CORNISH: Is that - is - are you talking about pockets of support? I mean, I think some people are wondering that, if you rely on choice, why wouldn't the same patterns that are part of the legacy of de facto segregation repeat themselves?

KING: Look, that's a fair worry. I think, at the end of the day, that what we want to do is make progress. And to the extent that there are communities that are eager to put in place efforts to have diverse schools, we should support those and invest in those. Now, there are some places that are so geographically isolated that that won't be possible, and so we need strategies for those communities as well. You know, there's not a silver-bullet solution in education policy, but to the extent that we can increase access to diverse schools, we should. And that's what our proposal would do.

CORNISH: You took this job in the final months of this administration. Why spend the last few months of your time on an issue that some people would look at as intractable?

KING: Because it's the right thing for the country. I think we will be a stronger country if our students have the opportunity to have diverse experiences in school. And it's something that's important to me as a parent. My kids go to Montgomery County schools.

CORNISH: And this is in Maryland.

KING: That's right. And one of the things I really appreciate about the Montgomery County school system is the commitment to diversity. And I grew up in New York City, going to public schools that were intentionally diverse, where programs were in place to ensure diversity in those schools. And those schools made a huge difference in my life. If not for the teachers I had in those New York City public schools, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today.

CORNISH: John King is the secretary of education. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.