July 29, 2019

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Guest Blog Post: Of Schools, Busing, Integration and Outdated Federal Policy

Today's guest blog post is published in coordination with the latest episode of the AASA PEP Talk podcast, which focuses on an arcane provision in federal policy--an outdated anti-busing provision that continues to exist merely because Congress hasn't erased it. The guests on the podcast penned this related blog post, and we are happy to share it here with you:

by Philip Tegeler, Executive Director, Poverty & Race Research Action Council; and Sunil Mansukhani, Principal, The Raben Group

Few expected busing to be a major issue during the June 27 Democratic debate.  The spirited exchange between Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden was unexpected by just about everyone, since this issue has largely been considered to be a relic of a bygone era.  However, some of this past history still stubbornly lurks in federal legislation to this day, in the form of harmful federal restrictions that prevent school districts from using federal funds for transportation for school integration purposes.  Such a restriction handcuffs school districts at a time when cross-racial understanding is more important than ever.

Until the beginning of this fiscal year, there were two provisions in federal appropriations laws that contained this ban.  Thus, a school district that wanted to voluntarily take steps to counter increasing racial segregation would not be able to use federal money to help pay for the transportation that would inevitably be needed.  For over 40 years, these two provisions were re-authorized without much discussion.  Yet, when the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD) brought these provisions to the attention of Congress a couple of years ago, no one could give a reason for their continued presence today.

We are delighted to report that Congress finally removed these appropriations provisions at the beginning of this fiscal year.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.  There is a similar provision (Section 426) in the General Education Provisions Act (GEPA) that has also been on the books for over 40 years.  GEPA is a law which governs the Department of Education.  Again, no credible reason for keeping Section 426 has been presented.  Inertia can be a formidable opponent to progress. 

This archaic provision could be removed at no cost to the federal government.  Furthermore, removing Section 426 would provide school districts with greater flexibility to choose how to best allocate their federal funds for the benefit of their communities.  Removing Section 426 of GEPA should be, and is, achievable.  Allowing school districts to have more flexibility in how they spend federal funds is something that we can all agree on.

Ongoing research at Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights (CECR) demonstrates that transportation remains central to school integration efforts in districts across the country.  Specifically, CECR’s research included public K-12 districts who confirmed with CECR that they are actively implementing a formal voluntary (i.e., not court ordered) integration plan.  A recent CECR report revealed that 59 school districts across the country, which collectively serve about 3.7 million students, are voluntarily pursuing school integration plans.

As CECR’s research indicates, removing Section 426 would have an immediate impact on school integration efforts that are happening now.  Most notably, it would make federal funds available for student transportation for the four most common methods of contemporary school integration - magnet schools, attendance zone boundary changes, controlled choice, and student transfers. Transportation is crucial as NCSD research has shown how school choice relies upon proactive measures like free transportation to be an effective tool in promoting equity.

In addition to the school districts identified by CECR’s research, numerous other districts could benefit from repealing Section 426, including those that engage in inter-district integration programs, those districts whose Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP) funds are ending, school districts that have magnet schools but do not receive MSAP funds, and the approximately 150-200 districts that are currently under a court order to desegregate.  In the “The State of Integration in 2018,” the NCSD describes these, and other, forms of school integration underway across the country.  Organized in short state-level summaries, the report describes many efforts that could be accelerated with repeal of Section 426, such as New York state’s Every Student Succeeds Act state plan, which affirms the use of federal Title I funds “to support the efforts of districts to increase diversity and reduce socioeconomic and racial/ethnic isolation.”

In addition to supporting existing efforts, repealing Section 426 may lead more districts to pursue new school integration efforts.  As a follow up to the CECR report described above, CECR researchers have conducted case study interviews with leaders in a select number of districts.  Although conclusive findings from this work are not yet available, a clear theme is evident across interviews.  As detailed on CECR’s blog, district leaders are confused about what forms of integration are acceptable and are fearful that their plans may attract a legal challenge.  By removing a key barrier and clarifying what is legally permissible, repealing Section 426 will help open the doors to additional district efforts to pursue integration.

We urge you to call your senators and House member to request this harmful provision be removed from GEPA.  The United States Capitol switchboard can be reached at (202) 224-3121. It is time for Section 426 to go.  

FOOTNOTE: 

 

  1. The National Coalition on School Diversity is a growing network of civil rights organizations, university-based research centers, and state and local coalitions working to support government policies that promote school diversity and reduce racial isolation. NCSD also support the work of state and local school diversity practitioners.
  2. There is an exception to GEPA Section 426 in the MSAP program.

 


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