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.
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.”