John King Jr. doesn’t have much time to carry out his goals as the country’s education secretary. Having been tasked earlier this year with rounding off Arne Duncan’s term, King’s core duties, one could argue, should involve little more than ensuring existing programs run smoothly, keeping prevailing policies in place, and preventing some sort of catastrophe. With less than four months left on the job, that’s all one can really do.

Yet King is endeavoring to help President Obama accomplish the unthinkable: He wants to integrate schools.

Although Brown v. Board of Education decided more than six decades ago that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, children today are more racially and socioeconomically isolated than they have been in decades. Critics often attribute that regression in part to the failure of policymakers to take action—policymakers like Duncan, who in a high-profile episode of This American Life last August acknowledged, “We haven’t done enough.” King wants to change that: “We must find ways to make our schools better reflections of the diverse society we have become.”

Still, King is well aware of the political obstacles that prevented Duncan—who undoubtedly believed in the importance of diverse schools—from using the bully pulpit to enforce an integration policy. So, the current education secretary is taking what’s perhaps the safest approach politically: calling for voluntary integration. “Instead of worrying about diversity, we should be embracing our diversity,” King recently told me. “We also have to acknowledge as we look at some of the tensions around the country around issues of race and class ... [that we need to] create school communities that are genuinely diverse.” Mindful of the racial confrontations tactics such as mandated busing or campus reassignment could cause, King doesn’t want to force anyone to attend a school they don’t want to attend. He wants integration to happen on its own—almost as if it were an organic process.

Secretary John King Jr. is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. The importance and benefits of diversity is a theme Secretary John King Jr. has been discussing around the United States since he took office earlier this year.
Secretary John King Jr. (Susan Walsh / AP)

According to King’s plan, integration would indeed naturally result from efforts like magnet programs, dual-language schools, or district-wide choice, strategies that can help draw middle-class white kids into high-poverty neighborhoods. Obama’s “Stronger Together” initiative would help make that possible, more than doubling federal funding for school-integration efforts by doling out $120 million in competitive grants to districts that encourage voluntary programs. The idea, according to King, is to ensure parents are “making the affirmative choice to participate in a community that is socioeconomically diverse.”

But Congress needs to pass a bill for that funding to become a reality, which, given the realities on Capitol Hill these days, is almost certain not to happen. And even if it did, would initiatives that simply give parents the option of choosing a “diverse” school suffice? Based on evidence from some pockets of the country, there’s good reason to be optimistic that progressive urbanites who believe in the value of integrated classrooms for all children will do their part to help schools fulfill the intent of Brown. That optimism, however, doesn’t hold across vast swaths of the nation. Many experts and advocates fear that while integration programs based on choice are necessary—anything that doesn’t give parents a choice is doomed to fail—they also have clear limits. That’s the narrow path any successful integration policy will have to navigate.

“All of the choice-based reform efforts that they’ve come up with over the last 20 years have been designed to bring back all the white people who left after Brown v. Board. But the irony is that, if [districts] keep relying on choice, they’re going to be set up for failure because white people will not enroll their children in schools unless they’re already [predominantly] white,” said Natalie Hopkinson, a black parent and journalist, referring to extensive research showing privileged, white parents tend to send their kids to schools that they perceive as “high status.” “So the segregation keeps repeating itself as long as you rely on choice as a way to make the change.”

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In the years following the Brown decision, desegregated schools looked like they were becoming a reality. Some of that was a result of voluntary-integration policies, the kinds of programs from which King himself benefited as a child. King’s Puerto Rican-American mother, a public-school teacher, died when he was in the fourth grade, and his African American father—a fellow teacher who for years struggled with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease—died soon after, when King was 12. “Home was this very unpredictable place,” King said, describing the years leading up to his father’s death and, more generally, the kind of instability that pervades the lives of so many of today’s disadvantaged children. “I just didn’t know what my father was going to be like, and I didn’t know why, from one night to the next.”

The Brooklyn elementary school King attended in the early 1980s was the one place that made sense. That’s in large part because of a teacher he’ll never forget: Mr. Osterweil. He “just showed us a whole world of possibility beyond Brooklyn, and that really sustained me through that whole period.” School also made sense to King because it reflected his community. It had a magnet program that “celebrated” and expanded diversity in an effort to prepare students to be “citizens of the world.” King’s Coney Island high school, too, strived for integration by getting families to opt in: It was a selective program to which students had to apply that was, according to King, “careful to make sure they had a diverse student body when they administered that admission screen.” For King—who went on to get degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Columbia and started his career as a high-school social-studies teacher—interacting with an array of different people has been invaluable. If it weren’t for all of these strong educational experiences, King said, he certainly wouldn’t have made it into (and eventually beyond) the middle class—let alone to the helm of the U.S. Department of Education. “My teachers could have looked at me when I was a kid and said, ‘Here’s an African American, Latino kid; family in crisis; going to a New York City public school—what chances does he have?’” King said. “They could have written me off.”

Desegregation is never a smooth process, though. In many places, it prompted white flight to the suburbs, while in others, it led to boycotts and riots; often, it was a combination of both. So, beginning in the 1980s, a series of legal changes, combined with the assumption that busing had done its job, started to eat away at formal integration programs. And this trend has hardly let up since: In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-based integration plans in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle for violating the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, effectively limiting the ability of schools nationwide to use race as a factor in student assignment and admissions. In that decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy instead promoted the kinds of voluntary programs highlighted by King.

Meanwhile, the school districts that are still bound by desegregation orders continue to experience legal headaches. In the Birmingham, Alabama, area, a predominantly white suburb has for years sought to secede from the surrounding Jefferson County—a move that supporters say is intended to give the suburb’s residents more control over their children’s education but that opponents say is an implicit attempt at racial isolation.

The U.S. government is currently placing the burden of desegregation on parents. Here's why that may not work.

As integration policies fizzled, the resulting return of neighborhood schools—a convention in which a child’s residence determines where she attends—helps explain why the students attending today’s public schools are even more racially isolated than they were in the 1970s. That and the severe restrictions on using race as a factor in school assignment. When you can’t measure race as a means of gauging whether you’ve achieved your diversity goal, “and you let things happen as they will, those schools find it very difficult to maintain the kind of diverse representation they might want to achieve,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, a clinical psychologist and the former president of the historically black Spelman College who has written extensively on school segregation. “As long as neighborhoods remain highly segregated, schools are going to remain highly segregated.”

All the trauma caused by busing students across districts and the distinct discomfort with explicitly using race as a metric in public policy have also meant that, once the official mandates started to fade away, politicians stopped making integration a priority. According to Jonathan Kozol, the educator, activist, and author of The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, racial isolation in schools has been addressed “as an injustice that was caused by the particulars of politics and funding practices at local levels, with the moral obligations of the nation as a whole almost entirely shunted out of view.” This pattern continues to this day. As The New York Times’s Nikole Hannah-Jones highlighted on This American Life, the Obama administration could have incentivized desegregation plans through its $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant program. But it didn’t. Historically, policymakers have “made certain choices, and that has been to exclude, marginalize, and under-resource black children,” said Hopkinson, who lives in D.C. “The idea that, all of a sudden, that will naturally be undone is absurd.”

Today, roughly four in 10 black and Latino students nationwide attend schools that are at least 90 percent nonwhite, according to a Civil Rights Project analysis of Department of Education data, while a typical white student attends a school where three-quarters of her classmates are white. Economic segregation has also intensified in the past two decades, primarily affecting students of color—what the Civil Rights Project calls “double segregation.” In almost every major U.S. metropolitan city, nonwhite students are far more likely than their white peers to attend public schools that suffer from concentrated poverty. A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that schools with high numbers of poor black or Latino students grew from 9 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2013.

The idea behind “separate but equal”—the very principle Brown overturned—persists. In fact, segregation is a significant reason the country has struggled to eliminate race-based disparities in achievement. Decades of research, including a 2010 review of dozens of studies on the relationship between school composition and student achievement in math, clearly and unambiguously demonstrate that diverse schools produce better outcomes for children.

Indeed, as racial integration produces better results, segregation is widely believed to be a key contributor to growing racial disparities in achievement. It isn’t surprising that black-white differences in performance on math and reading tests narrowed sharply from the early 1970s through the late 1980s, when many of the desegregation orders were lifted—nor that they started to plateau through much of the 1990s.

John King's first-grade class photo, in 1980, shows how diverse his school was.
John King Jr. is shown in the last row with his first-grade class in 1980. (Courtesy of John King Jr.)

One 2006 study concluded that black-white score differences were much higher in more segregated cities—and that, keeping factors like family background constant, moving from a highly segregated city to an integrated one reduces the black-white SAT-score gap by about a quarter of its size. More recently, Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, along with his colleagues Demetra Kalogrides and Kenneth Shores, found that the most affluent school districts tend to have the largest achievement disparities between white children and their nonwhite peers. (One of Reardon’s more recent studies finds that the income-based achievement gap has narrowed in the last 15 years, what researchers attribute to factors such as the increasing availability of preschool programs.)

Better test scores, of course, aren’t the only reason diverse schools matter. Integration is inherently good for all children. The cross-cultural exchange it allows prepares them for the real world—and, perhaps more importantly, to be good citizens. As Kozol put it, there’s an innate value in children from different backgrounds interacting with each other “in all the ordinary ways that children come to know each other when they go to school together and play games with one another and share secrets with each other and grow bonded to each other by those thousands of small pieces of perplexity and fantasy and sorrow and frivolity of which a child’s daily life is actually made.”

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School districts across the country have certainly sought to integrate their campuses using the kinds of strategies King espouses—like establishing school-choice zones or creating unique magnet schools in disadvantaged areas that lure in families with means. Today, 91 school districts and charter networks use socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment—up from just two districts 20 years ago, according to a Century Foundation report published earlier this year. For supporters of integration policies, that’s impressive growth.

“The places that have been most successful have been very thoughtful about ensuring that parents can see that their child will get a quality academic program in a diverse setting,” King told me. We can’t “have people feel like they’ve lost control of their child’s school experience, so I think it’s important to ... approach diversity not as something you achieve by [abruptly] hitting a switch.”

Still, those 91 school districts and charter networks that look at socioeconomic factors serve just 8 percent of the country’s public-school students. And every integration tactic has its downsides: Some of those schools are not drawing in enough diversity to promote truly inclusive schools, while others are constantly under attack by parents who feel like integration is being imposed on them.

Take Charlotte, North Carolina, which is currently one of the worst places to live in the United States when it comes to economic mobility. Poor children there—who are far more likely to be black or Latino than they are white—are almost certain to live in poverty their entire lives. The school system, unsurprisingly, embodies this inequality: Just 23 percent of white students in Charlotte attend majority-poverty schools, compared with 77 percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students. Achievement gaps in the district are huge: This year, just 46 percent of black students passed the state exams, compared to 85 percent of their white peers.

Those numbers are particularly striking given that Charlotte was once a national leader on school integration. Having implemented a busing program early on, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district was the subject of the landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case that eventually led to widespread busing throughout the South as a desegregation tool. But in the late 1990s, the Court lifted the city’s desegregation order, and the district subsequently ceased to exist as it once was: The area has been resegregating ever since.

Students at Ballard High School in Seattle before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race can not be used as a factor in school assignment.
Students at Ballard High School in Seattle in 2005, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race cannot be used as a factor in public-school assignment. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

Many parents seem to like it that way. As the school district’s policy currently stands, a student’s address pretty much determines which public school she attends. But the school board is in the process of reevaluating that policy, and, as The American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen has reported, families from the suburbs are engaged in a fervent campaign to retain the neighborhood-schools model. Some suburban parents have threatened to send their kids to private or charter schools, while others have disseminated warnings that any changes to the status quo would amount to forced busing—even though school-board officials have insisted that parents will have options. A community survey this past January found that 82 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg parents said they disagreed with the statement “I would be okay with a longer bus ride if it meant my child(ren) attended a more diverse school,” including 61 percent who said they “strongly disagreed.” The new student-assignment plan, which is still under deliberation, is slated to go into effect with the 2017-18 school year.

These kinds of controversies are happening across the country. Various initiatives to diversify student populations in New York City, for example, have been met with resistance from parents concerned about the prospect of sending their children to a lower-performing, or faraway, school. Proposals to integrate mostly black and Latino children living in public housing with peers at predominantly white public schools on the Upper West Side—plans that cited student diversity as an explicit goal—were in part stymied by affluent parents who complained about inconvenience. The vitriolic response to the Big Apple’s school-rezoning efforts is reminiscent of similar clashes tracing back decades.

The reality is that desegregation seldom happens organically. Whether in Charlotte-Mecklenburg or New York City, policies that rely on the goodwill of parents and merits of individual schools have struggled to create wholesale, lasting integration.

And, as the Century Foundation report’s authors argue, these programs only work when integration is an explicit and shared goal. Many districts that are successful in ensuring greater student diversity at individual schools have abandoned traditional neighborhood-assignment policies in favor of universal choice; those districts typically assign children to schools based on an algorithm—one that factors in how parents rank the choices. That kind of participation in the process combined with an overarching goal to diversify is crucial. As Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project, once wrote: “Choice, left to itself, will increase stratification. Nothing in the way choice systems actually work favors class or racial integration.”

At the high-school level in New York City, for example, all students choose which school to attend, often subjecting themselves to rigorous application processes. The idea is to free the city’s high-schoolers from the confines of their default neighborhood schools—to, in theory, give everyone access to the public school of their choice. But this policy tends to favor families with means, those with the know-how and resources to shop for schools and prep for admissions tests. Nevertheless, New York City parents are often the force behind getting schools to integrate. Late last year, parents and advocates managed to get the Education Department to adopt a new admissions-lottery policy to give priority to disadvantaged students at certain schools.

Then there are the charter schools, which often offer white, or middle-class, parents a de facto means of seceding from regular public schools. Last year, findings from a study conducted by Duke University researchers suggested that charter schools in North Carolina were indeed exacerbating inequality. In 1998, less than 10 percent of charters were overwhelmingly white (90 percent or more); in 2014, 20 percent were. While it’s impossible to gauge the exact causes behind the enrollment trends—popular charter schools that use a lottery cannot make race a factor in admissions—the researchers did note that white parents expressed more satisfaction overall with predominantly white schools than they did with predominantly nonwhite schools. This, they wrote, indicates that “many white parents are using the charter schools, at least in part, to avoid more racially diverse traditional public schools.”

Back in New York City, charter schools effectively do the opposite, targeting low-income students of color. In a 2010 analysis, the Civil Rights Project found that in almost every state and large metropolitan area in the country, charter schools were more racially isolated than traditional public schools. Seventy percent of black charter-school students attended schools where at least 90 percent of the population consisted of underrepresented minorities. Overall, nearly 75 percent of the average black charter-school student’s classmates were also black—a troubling amount of segregation, the report’s authors wrote, considering that black students accounted for less than a third of charter students nationwide.

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Many critics and civil-rights activists argue voluntary integration is a flawed ideal to begin with because, even when a school system isn’t tethered to neighborhood segregation and parents have a choice, people’s inherent biases continue to dictate the compositions of classrooms. School forums are rife with parents worrying about their child being “the only white student at the school,” about their kid being picked on and bullied because she’s more privileged—concerns that are well-intentioned, of course, but often stem from racial stereotypes. One analysis looked at parental preferences in Washington, D.C., where families can enter a lottery to apply for schools outside of their neighborhoods. In analyzing the lottery data, rather than talking to parents themselves, the researchers were theoretically able to more authentically assess parents’ reasons for choosing certain schools—reasons that might not be politically correct or comfortable for a parent to acknowledge. Parents, they found, preferred schools that reported high test scores, were closer to home, and comprised relatively high percentages of their child’s own race and class. In a district in which close to two-thirds of students are black and just a small percentage are white, a middle-school parent was 12 percent more likely to choose a school where kids of the same race as her child made up at least a fifth of the student population.

“Schools will start to integrate and then very quickly lose that integration because we know that white parents are attracted to other white parents … When you talk about a ‘bad’ school, we can close our eyes and we know what color the kids are in those seats,” said Hannah-Jones on a recent panel. “We have to disentangle, somehow, 400 years of racial history and what automatically comes into well-meaning white folks’ minds when they think about a good school.”

Hannah-Jones and others have documented how these inclinations shape parents’ decisions—even progressive middle-class parents who live in diverse cities, people who champion integration and condemn schools that are homogeneously affluent and white. In fact, the Washington, D.C., study found that white parents prioritized schools where roughly 60 percent of the student body was white but tended to avoid schools where the white-student population was higher than that. In her widely read New York Times Magazine essay “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” Hannah-Jones, who lives in Brooklyn, described this custom as “carefully curated integration”—“the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations.” Urban, progressive, white parents, she argues, want their kids to be around peers of color—but only to a certain extent.

These inconsistencies between belief and action have shaped school-integration efforts ever since their inception. In 1973, for example, most Northern whites (75 percent) said they supported the Brown decision, yet few actually supported desegregation in their own areas. Similarly, various modern-day surveys have suggested that most Americans agree that racially diverse schools are a good thing, but when asked whether they support government-managed diversity, they tend to shy away. The trauma and taboo associated with the busing era only exacerbates that disconnect.

Principal Sandra Soto, far right, of Public School 705, Brooklyn Arts and Science elementary school, addresses a gathering of parents a on tour of the school in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Gentrification has been coming fast to the school's Crown Heights neighborhood, with the influx of wealthier, white residents being reflected in the hallways, but a pilot program will let PS705 and six other New York City elementary schools tweak their admissions policies to foster diversity by setting aside spots for low-income kids.
Sandra Soto, the principal of P.S. 705, addresses a gathering of parents a on tour of the school in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, which has seen an influx of wealthier, white residents. A pilot program will let P.S. 705 and six other New York City elementary schools tweak their admissions policies to foster diversity by setting aside spots for low-income kids. (Bebeto Matthews / AP)

Today, plans such as those touted by King get flack for being heavy on rhetoric and light on details—but that’s because details can be dangerous. Diversity is a nice idea, and few would say it’s not a priority, but when it comes to one’s children, a parent is seldom going to say diversity takes precedence over everything. And it’s hard to blame them: For those on the privileged side of the spectrum, force-fed diversity often translates into a sacrifice or risk that very few parents would knowingly take.

That’s why parents like Christy Stewart—a white, middle-class mother of two who lives in Brooklyn—are opting for the kind of schools that fall somewhere in between. Earlier this year, Stewart was distraught after learning that her 5-year-old son wasn’t accepted into the overcrowded, predominantly white P.S. 8. Instead, he was assigned to P.S. 307, a predominantly black school that serves a nearby housing project. At first, she was horrified; she pictured her “precious blond boy going to a school with a towering housing project in its shadow.” But she went on a tour of P.S. 307 anyway and was dazzled by its academic climate and principal. In fact, unlike most of her parent-friends, she ended up registering her son for the school. “P.S. 8 wasn’t my dream school—I just knew it was safe,” she told me.

Actually visiting P.S. 307, and witnessing what an inviting and thriving school it is, challenged Stewart’s biases: Kids were engaged in hands-on science projects; classrooms were orderly and classes were small; the educators, particularly the principal, really cared. Stewart is an elementary-school teacher herself, and she has always valued diverse classrooms—but when it came to her own children, those values became more nuanced. It wasn’t until processing her reaction to her son’s school assignment that she realized she was misguided. “Something was percolating in me,” she said. “Do I want my kid to go to a school where the status quo will stay, or do I want him to go to a school where I feel like he’s going to learn things that are going to eventually make the world a better place?”

And yet, Stewart ultimately withdrew her registration at P.S. 307, largely because the principal—the one who had impressed her so much during the tour—announced she was leaving. The school’s poor test scores didn’t help. So Stewart enrolled her son at P.S. 261—a school that has a pretty even spread of races and ethnicities; serves a sizable, but not overwhelming, percentage of low-income students; and enjoys above-average test scores: “261 feels more like a choice … It feels like we’re all buying into it.” For Stewart—and so many American parents—that kind of agency matters, and for good reason. “You’re buying into a social network of friends—it’s not just your kid. It’s who you want to hang out with on the weekends, what kind of places do you want to play, and that’s complicated,” she continued. I wanted a place “where I belong and feel comfortable and feel like my kid is becoming a good person.”

Hence, policymakers’ focus on choice-driven integration. Ensuring privileged parents have access to this sweet spot, they feel, is the best shot at desegregating schools. “I think we have to acknowledge some of the anxieties about school performance. So folks will say: ‘I want to make sure that my child goes to a school that has strong academic programs, and I’m worried that merging into another school, or changing our school-assignment policy, will result in my child going to a school that offers less opportunity,’” King said. “That’s a real worry, and we’ve got to address that.”

An African American student walks to school in the relatively diverse, though still segregated, neighborhood of Bloomingdale in Washington, D.C.
A student walks to school in Washington, D.C. (Daniel Lombroso / The Atlantic)

Ultimately, many civil-rights scholars acknowledge that, however imperfect, voluntary schemes are the only viable option. “If people have the opportunity to choose the school their kids go to out of an array of schools available, people are going to choose the school that they think is the best if they have easy access to it,” said Tatum, the former Spelman president. “A lot of things may interfere with that choice”—transportation, scheduling, lotteries, and so on—“but at the end of the day, yes—I think if you’ve got a strong [public] school that is delivering positive results for the children who attend … there will be families who will want to send their kids to that school across lines of race and ethnicity. The trouble is: There’s not enough of those schools.”

To be sure, integration isn’t everything. As Tatum—who grew up in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in the 1960s and was one of the few black children in town—noted, “The question of providing quality education is not just about who’s sitting in the chairs.”

Some schools might be diverse but have poor educational offerings. Other schools might be internally segregated, with students from one demographic group dominating the advanced-placement classes. “It’s very important that schools convey that: ‘We’re going to be a place that celebrates diversity, that creates equitable opportunities within our building,’” King said. “It’s thinking more holistically about how we ensure every child is having a positive learning experience.”