By coincidence, as the news of the program’s discontinuation broke, proponents of school diversity, including King, were gathering at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a strategic-planning conference on school-diversity efforts. The day-long meeting, sponsored by Harvard’s Reimagining Integration program, the National Coalition on School Diversity, and The Century Foundation (where I work), brought together 50 scholars, civil-rights activists, and educators to plot out new strategies for school diversity in the age of Trump.
The decision by Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to kill Opening Doors was a reminder, if any was needed, that proponents of school diversity need to look beyond the federal government for support during Trump’s administration. The decision on whether to proceed with the Opening Doors program, Philip Tegeler of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council told Patrick Wall in an Atlantic article last month, was “going to be a real test of her commitment to school integration.” And now she had failed.
At the conference, King called the decision a “heartbreaking signal” on an issue of utmost importance. Students of color represent more than 50 percent of public-school students, King noted, and “the fate of the country” will be determined by how well it decides to educate this new majority of students. School integration is also tied to “the fate of our democracy,” he suggested, because segregated schools allow politicians to scapegoat minorities, while integrated schools remind students of what they have in common as Americans. Research finds that school diversity reduces racial prejudice and improves academic attainment, which, in turn, is tied to higher voter participation.
The death of a small federal school-integration initiative is connected to a much larger concern that DeVos’s primary education-reform idea—using public money for private school vouchers—will produce poor academic results for students, and Balkanize students by religion, race, and class. As my Century Foundation colleague Halley Potter noted in a new report, “voucher programs on balance are more likely to increase school segregation than to decrease it or leave it at status quo.”
King reminded participants, however, that this was not a moment “to admire the problem,” but a time to engage in fresh thinking about new approaches. What options do supporters of diversity have? Could progressives capitalize on DeVos’s rhetoric around school choice—particularly, the compelling need to liberate kids from struggling, high-poverty schools—to encourage choice within the public-school system that is designed to bring children of different backgrounds together? Should progressives pivot from Washington to focus on progressive states and localities? What is the role of foundations? What about state courts?