Education Secretary John King takes on income segregation in schools

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Since becoming education secretary in March, John King has been advocating for greater income diversity in America's schools. While King only has a year or so left in his term as secretary, he is taking the right approach to improving outcomes for schools and students.

After all, our nation's education system has become deeply segregated by income. More than 70 percent of low-income kids attend schools where most of the other students are low-income, according to one recent report.

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What's more, peers have a significant impact on student performance, and a wealth of studies have found that students who attend more income diverse schools have improved results. These students post better scores on tests and are also more likely to land a high school diploma.

To help address income diversity in schools, King has recently rolled out a number of new policies, shifting the focus of some of the administration's key education initiatives. Last week, for instance, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the competitive grant program known as the Investing in Innovation Fund will place a greater priority on projects that specifically focus on income diversity. Schools and districts can now receive funds under the grant program by proposing innovative ways to promote greater economic integration.

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Last month, the department also announced that they're looking into exploring how the School Improvement Grants program – a federal school turnaround program – can "be used to promote voluntary, community-supported efforts to expand socioeconomic diversity in schools."

In speeches, King has made sure to sell the department's proposals. At a Century Foundation event last week, King argued that income diversity in schools is something that policymakers should address, noting that school integration policies are something that policymakers control. "The decisions were a set of choices we've made," King told the audience. "Just as they were made, they can be changed."

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King also argued that the issue of income diversity has greater societal benefits: "There's no question that the urgency around socioeconomic integration in our schools is drawn not only from our desire for better academic outcomes," King said, "but also from the understanding that ours is diverse world."

Still, the department could do more. One option would be for the administration to use its technical assistance resources to promote innovative approaches to increasing income diversity within schools. For example, the Center on School Turnaround could provide support to states looking to boost income diversity. The center could also highlight good practices like using "weighted lotteries based on family income" and promoting Spanish immersion schools.

Still, there are potential landmines. When it comes to income integration, the public is leery of any type of mandated initiative, and although the department's efforts have clearly focused on voluntary programs, administration staff should remain focused on communication. Thoughtful messaging around any effort in this area is crucial.

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Plus, school integration efforts need time. Wealthier parents must be able to see a school as a viable option before they're willing to enroll their children in that school, and schools and districts should have a long timeline in order to implement income integration reforms thoughtfully.

But what's clear is that the department is taking steps in the right policy direction. The nation's schools and students would undoubtedly benefit by increased income diversity. As King himself has argued, "We must ensure our students are prepared to succeed in a diverse 21st century society."