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With the nation in turmoil, Ed Secretary King’s quest to diversify schools is the right pursuit

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Degree of  Interest

Here is something worse than the current racial tensions in New Orleans and other cities: The outcomes caused by racial biases in our policing, schooling practices and stark economic inequality between black and white families.

Negative quality of life outcomes and racial strife evidence our failure to learn how to live together, which compromises our national security, making diversity a federal education policy issue.

But like other cities, New Orleans’ private, public and charter schools are as much a vehicle for segregation as our residents’ attitudes toward black and poor folk.

Research shows that students who attend diverse schools have higher academic outcomes, and they are more likely to work, learn and live in integrated settings. But public schools don’t look like the public. And neither private nor public schools are creating the requisite diversity to influence communities for the better.

According to the analysis by the Cowen Institute, among about 80 public schools in New Orleans only four represented the racial demographics of the city and only two represented the racial demographics of youth. Whites represent approximately 30 percent of the total population but about 60 percent of the private/parochial schools. Blacks comprise about 60 percent of the city but 90 percent of public schools and 35 percent of the private/parochial market.

John King, the first African American and Puerto Rican to be appointed as the U.S. Secretary of Education, is thankful for attending diverse schools and attributes those schools to his advancements. As the country’s principal, King also understands we must be intentional in efforts to create diverse schools.

“The evidence of American history is that in the absence of intentional policy choices we get more segregation – not less; we get more inequality – not less,” King said in a meeting curated by New Schools for New Orleans on July 2 during his visit to the Essence Festival.

King was responding to a small group of educators, parents and community leaders on creating diverse schools. “Diverse by design” is the latest jargon to describe intentional efforts to integrate schools.

A certain level of numerical diversity is requisite. But forcing diversity and desegregation in large districts through busing obviously generated minimal results or in some cases made matters worse. For this, I’m not convinced that lottery systems, which force people together through algorithms, are that promising, particularly in the city with the highest percentage of its school-aged population attending private schools. Also, the promise of improved academic outcomes didn’t harken whites back to New Orleans public schools, particularly those with black principals.

And no, we shouldn’t have to gentrify schools to make them effective, nor should black and brown families have to wait for whites to feel safe in order to get a quality education.

The federal government has a very limited set of carrots and sticks to encourage diversity.

The Obama administration is helping communities take the leap of faith through incentives like Stronger Together, which would offer grants to help districts create and implement strong voluntary, community-developed plans to increase socioeconomic diversity in their schools while improving student achievement. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, both Democrats, introduced the Stronger Together School Diversity Act of 2016 last week. That’s in addition to making strategies to promote diversity a priority in numerous incentive funds the Department of Education provides.

The federal government is right to support neighbors who commit to learning together.

It’s a commitment the founders of Morris Jeff Community School made, with encouraging results. Featured in a King editorial, Morris Jeff worked with the natural diversity of Mid-City and public will to create a diverse school that is quality. Morris Jeff’s leaders didn’t set out to create a great option for poor children. They wanted a great community school. With a “B” grade, Morris Jeff is well on its way.

Stronger Together represents some redemption for schools like Morris Jeff, which was denied start-up charter grants because of its mission.

Inequality is also structural as much as attitudinal. I would argue the tax breaks that private school families receive in Louisiana is the real voucher program.

King is also right to work alongside housing and transportation heads to close achievement gaps with safe and affordable housing, public transportation networks and safe streets.

We may not change adults’ negative views of black and brown children, but we can change structures to make community-building more likely.

The feds must also shut down charters that are public in name only. In New Orleans for instance, schools like Lusher Charter School maintain manicured populations through processes that are an affront to the primary goal of education.

Martin Luther King’s dream of little black boys and black girls joining hands with their white counterparts hasn’t been fulfilled. And this lack of fulfillment has negative consequences for society and worse for black families. We can assume a public school to be the setting of MLK’s dream, for where else would that occur?

The goal of reform is not to improve schools; the goal is have schools improve communities. The government must encourage communities that understand that essential purpose and fight those who don’t.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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