What it means when Democratic frontrunners say they support the Strength in Diversity Act

When Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred on the Democratic primary debate stage, they launched a national conversation about school desegregation and prompted questions about how candidates would tackle the issue as president.

Their exchange also raised the profile of legislation known as the Strength in Diversity Act, which several Democratic frontrunners have endorsed. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were both early co-sponsors of the bill, and Harris signed on just this week.

The legislation would create a federal grant program to fund racial and economic school integration efforts across the country. Even supporters acknowledge it’s a fairly modest proposal, limited only to communities that want to participate. But candidates who support it, they say, are signaling that they believe school segregation is a problem and that the federal government should play a role in fixing it — a departure from the increasingly hands-off approach federal officials have taken in recent decades.

“This is a glass of water in a desert of policy in this area,” said Gary Orfield, who co-directs the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and recently co-authored a report documenting the rising level of racial and economic segregation in the nation’s public schools. “This is not a bill that’s going to change the world, but it could change the discussion.”

What is the Strength in Diversity Act?

The latest version of the Strength in Diversity Act was introduced in May by U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Murphy pointed to “unconscionable levels” of school segregation in his state when the two lawmakers first proposed similar legislation in 2016.

In its current form, the bill would allow districts to apply for one-year planning grants or multi-year grants to start school integration efforts.

The planning grants would fund efforts to collect data, explore different approaches, and come up with a community engagement plan. The implementation grants would be used to try out an existing integration model or a promising new idea.

Districts could spend this money to recruit or train staff, fund specialized academic programs or buildings, or transport students to and from school. (Congress would have to first eliminate a decades-old ban on using federal money to pay for transportation in school desegregation efforts.)

Though past versions of the bill have focused more on economic integration, this version gives preference to districts that would explicitly tackle racial segregation, as well as plans that would involve multiple school districts. That’s notable because inter-district school desegregation efforts have been among the most stymied in the wake of a pivotal 1974 Supreme Court decision.

The idea for the Strength in Diversity Act is rooted in the work of John King, who launched a similar grant program in New York when he was the state’s education chief. After President Obama tapped King as his education secretary in 2016, King included a $120 million grant program aimed at economic integration in the administration’s federal budget proposal. But Congress wouldn’t fund it, so King announced a scaled-back, $12 million version of the grant program at the end of 2016.

“If you have a federal program of this kind, it … reinforces that we as country value racial and socioeconomic diversity,” said King, who now leads The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for student civil rights.

Twenty-six districts said they planned to apply for those grants, but the Trump administration’s Education Department cut King’s program in early 2017. Since then, lawmakers have stepped up their efforts to get the initiative enshrined in federal law so it wouldn’t be vulnerable to changes in presidential administration.

Right now, there’s no dollar amount attached to the legislation, but as of last year, lawmakers were still suggesting $120 million.

Why does the Strength in Diversity Act matter?

Though the proposed funding is relatively small and the legislation has little chance of passing this Congress, proponents say the Strength in Diversity Act is still important, both practically and symbolically.

First, it lays out a road map for how the federal government could get involved in school desegregation efforts today, given some of the restrictions put in place by the Supreme Court.

“The right next step for what federal government involvement in this issue could look like is finding the low-hanging fruit,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who has studied and supports school integration efforts. “And that’s part of what Strength in Diversity Act is about: finding the places that would step up to be interested in this funding.”

Potter co-authored a 2016 report that found more than 90 school districts and charter school networks across the country already put measures in place to integrate students by family income, which she thinks indicates there are dozens of districts that would be interested in a grant program like the one in the Strength in Diversity Act.

Orfield, of UCLA, also believes many districts would be interested, especially in suburbs that have seen an increase in students of color and families living in poverty. Cities with few white students could also use the money to ensure that black and Latino students attend school together more often.

“That’s the theory of change of the bill, that there are a lot of places that would like to do something, but they need this incentive to push it to the forefront,” said Philip Tegeler, who heads the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, a civil rights organization that has advocated for the legislation.

Though the program would mean funding integration efforts in just a few dozen places, advocates say the bill could create important test cases and amass more evidence about the impact of integrated schools. They say the bill also signals that it’s possible for school districts to address racial segregation using tactics like redrawing attendance boundary zones, instead of blaming underlying housing patterns.

And because relatively little funding is directed toward school desegregation right now — the federal magnet school program spent just $105 million last year — even a modest boost would represent a significant new investment.

To win an implementation grant, a school district would have to show evidence of strong family and community support for the method of integration it’s proposing. Potter says this could prompt more schools to have the difficult conversations like the ones that happened during the high-profile merger of two schools in Chicago — one with more affluent and white students, the other with more black students from low-income families — or in New York City, where two districts recently overhauled their admissions policies to admit a more diverse group of students to sought-after middle schools.

But advocates agree the bill is just a first step, not a comprehensive plan to address school segregation, and that changes to housing and transportation policy will also be necessary to truly make a dent.

“I do think it’s a momentum-generator, but I’d be the first to say it’d be great to have even more invested,” King said. “This bill alone isn’t enough to tackle the scope of the problem.”