Segregation Is Preventable. Congress Just Isn’t Trying.

Again and again, federal efforts to promote integration have been whittled down almost to nothing.

Students sit in an integrated classroom at Anacostia High School in 1957.
An integrated classroom at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., in 1957 (Reuters)

When the Supreme Court struck down school segregation 65 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education, it overturned the doctrine that separate institutions for black and white people were constitutional so long as they were equally funded. Yet in the White House and in the halls of Congress, the old approach has shown enormous staying power. For decades, federal lawmakers have poured far more money into racially and economically segregated schools than they have invested in trying to integrate them. And the imbalance keeps getting worse.

Today the federal government’s main tool for promoting integration is the aid it provides to magnet schools, which offer specialized academic programs to attract a racially and economically diverse student body. In 1989, President Ronald Reagan proposed $115 million for the magnet-school-assistance program—and $4.6 billion for the Title I “compensatory education” program, which offers extra money to schools with a high concentration of poor children. In other words, the federal government was willing to spend 40 times as much on alleviating the effects of poverty and school segregation than on preventing segregation in the first place.

Since then, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have retreated on integration even further. In fiscal year 2019, the federal government provided $15.9 billion to Title I, compared with a paltry $105 million through the federal magnet-school-assistance program—a ratio of a staggering 151 to 1.

In no way do we quibble with Congress’s decision to set aside more for high-poverty schools under Title I. That money is essential. However, making integration little more than a rounding error in the nation’s education budget defies decades of research suggesting that socioeconomic and racial integration is one of the most effective strategies for improving outcomes for disadvantaged students.

In an important 2010 Century Foundation study of students in Montgomery County, Maryland, the researcher Heather Schwartz of the Rand Corporation looked at children whose families were randomly assigned to public-housing units in a way that allowed her to compare the relative impact of compensatory spending and integration strategies. Some students were assigned to public housing in relatively high-poverty areas where schools spent $2,000 extra per pupil for reduced class size in the early grades, better professional development for teachers, and other initiatives. Other students were part of a housing-integration program that allowed low-income students to live in middle-class neighborhoods and attend middle-class schools that spent less per pupil. Both approaches helped, but the outcomes for students in the integrated schools and neighborhoods were far better.

During the very brief period—roughly a decade—in which Congress and the federal courts did prioritize desegregation, the results were very encouraging. When Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination, and the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided federal funding to schools, the combination created an important leverage point: School districts that didn’t desegregate would be barred from receiving the new influx of federal funding. The federal pressure worked, particularly in the South, where schools saw sharp reductions in segregation. Black students’ test scores rose, and white students’ scores stayed high.

In the face of white backlash against school desegregation, however, Congress and the courts lost their nerve. In the early 1970s, a bipartisan group of legislators—including then-Senator Joe Biden—voted to prohibit the use of federal funds for transportation to achieve integration. Richard Nixon appointed conservative Supreme Court justices who cut back on the possibility of urban-suburban desegregation plans. Starting in the 1980s, the Reagan administration and its successors put little pressure on schools to desegregate.

In the years since, efforts to integrate schools have also been hampered by segregation in the housing market. The federal government’s investment in addressing this problem, too, has been exceedingly modest. The 1990s Moving to Opportunity program, which allowed low-income families to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, was funded at just $70 million. It ran into trouble when Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, killed an expansion of the program due to resistance from suburban-Baltimore constituents.

Again and again, federal efforts to promote integration have been whittled down almost to nothing. The result for children has been predictable: increasing school segregation by race and class. According to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report, the percentage of schools in which more than three-quarters of students were low-income and black or Hispanic grew from 9 percent in 2000–01 to 16 percent in 2013–14. This is bad for our democracy, which is fractured along the fault lines of race, ethnicity, and religion. It is bad for social mobility, which used to be a defining feature of American life. And it is bad for middle-class and white students, who are deprived of the deeper learning that occurs when students bring different life experiences to classroom discussions.

Washington is still capable of doing much more. In a newly released Century Foundation report, we outline several ideas for reinvigorating the federal role in school integration in 2020 and beyond. As a first step, Congress could pass the Strength in Diversity Act, introduced by Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, which would provide $120 million in new competitive grants to districts to support voluntary local efforts to reduce school segregation. Even bolder, Congress could make money available—perhaps $500 million or more—to all districts that wish to take more steps toward integration.

Because 75 percent of students attend neighborhood public schools, housing policy can also play a critical role in integrating schools. The United States needs an Economic Fair Housing Act—as a supplement to the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The new legislation would reduce discriminatory zoning policies that effectively exclude low-income and minority families from certain schools by banning apartment buildings and other multifamily units in nearby neighborhoods.

There are many other steps Washington could take: mandating a federal review of efforts by wealthy and predominantly white school jurisdictions to secede from integrated school districts; ending the federal prohibition on using funds to transport students for integration; and making diversity a priority in charter-school programs.

A generation ago, the federal government briefly took the lead on promoting school diversity, and the nation greatly benefited. Restoring that commitment has proved exceedingly difficult. Congress after Congress has decided that integration isn’t worth the fight. But especially at a moment of profound political division and growing inequality, the United States should be working harder than ever to bring children of different backgrounds together in high-quality integrated schools.