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Race and Beyond: We Need Diversity in Education

SOURCE: AP/Matt Houston

Vernestine Strickland, an eighth-grade teacher at Gwynn Park Middle School, in Clinton, Maryland, talks with Ashlei Gray, left, and Simone Hoggs about classroom schoolwork.

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If anyone doubts the impact of having a progressive president in the White House, then consider the Education and Justice Departments’ joint guidance last week that corrects the Bush administration’s misreading of a set of Supreme Court decisions on the use of race to achieve diversity in the nation’s public schools.

Reversing a pair of 2008 “Dear Colleague” letters sent by Bush officials in the Education Department, the Obama administration told college administrators and kindergarten-through-12th-grade school officials that using race wasn’t forbidden by the high court. Indeed, as Education and Justice Department officials argue, there may be instances when taking race into account is not only permissible but also the wise thing to do.

“The Departments recognize the compelling interest that [schools] have in obtaining the benefits that flow from achieving a diverse student body,” the 10-page guidance sent to college administrators stated. “As the Supreme Court has made clear, such steps can include taking account of the race of individual students in a narrowly tailored manner.”

A separate 14-page guide sent to K-12 school officials made the case even more strongly. “Racially isolated schools often have fewer effective teachers, higher teacher turnover rates, less rigorous curricular resources … and inferior facilities and other educational resources,” it stated. “Reducing racial isolation in schools is also important because students who are not exposed to racial diversity in school often lack other opportunities to interact with students from different racial backgrounds.”

Such clarity in defense of multiculturalism in public education is a far cry from the way President Bush interpreted the Supreme Court’s rulings. Adhering to the narrow line advanced by conservative activists hostile to federal defense of racial diversity, Stephanie J. Monroe, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Bush administration’s Education Department, warned college admissions officers they risked losing federal funding if they promoted racial diversity on campus. “[I]f a postsecondary institution seeks to use racial classification in admissions, it will bear the burden of providing sufficient detail about its process to enable [Education Department lawyers] to determine whether the institution is complying with Title VI,” Monroe wrote. (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits any federally funded government agency to discriminate based on race.)

In other words, the Bush administration refused to defend the value of diversity and forced school officials not to value it either. By contrast, the Obama administration takes diversity as a given and seeks to empower school officials to find ways to make it happen. As The New York Times reported, the new guidelines “focus on the wiggle room in court decisions” to grant administrators wider latitude to encourage diversity.

This is as it should be. Our nation is changing anew, becoming increasingly more racially diverse. Our schools are on the frontlines of this change, producing the citizens—many of them coming from historically disadvantaged and minority communities—who will become the workforce, the taxpayers, and the voters of the future. The Obama administration makes a convincing case that it’s in the nation’s best long-term interest to make diversity a part of this country’s competitive edge.

The Supreme Court said as much in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, which affirmed that universities can take race into account as a factor in admissions, a point the new guidelines highlighted. “The skills students need for success in ‘today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints,’” the guidelines said, quoting the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision.

Now isn’t the time to run away from efforts to increase diversity in education. The struggle for equality in education opportunity stretches back to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which should have put to rest any doubt that unequal education cripples every American. For the better part of the last half of the 20th century, Americans labored earnestly to find the correct formula to make the ideal of equal education opportunity a reality for every citizen, only to see a retrenchment during the past two decades or so.

Racial segregation and poverty are all too common in many of the nation’s public schools, especially in urban and minority communities. The rise of separate and unequal schools is a national shame, reflecting the failure of local and federal politicians to demonstrate leadership that makes a virtue of diversity.

No more. With the Obama administration taking an aggressive and proactive stance on school diversity, it gives proof to the saying that “elections have consequences.”

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here