ESSA and Diversity: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

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Jenna Tomasello, Policy Associate

This post is part four in our Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) blog series. 

When President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last December, it was viewed as a substantial victory in education policy. My colleagues have pointed out that ESSA encourages multiple types of assessments, promotes competency-based learning, and strengthens dual enrollment, just to name a few exciting provisions. I’m particularly curious about ESSA’s support for our country’s growing diversity. In what ways does ESSA, the reauthorization of a 1965 civil rights law, promote (or fall short in promoting) school diversity in pursuit of educational equity?

Two Steps Forward

Two sections of ESSA regarding charter schools and magnet schools help to answer this question. Section 4301 expands federal support for high-quality charter schools by authorizing more than $1.1 billion in competitive grants by 2020. The law grants priority to applicants that “plan to operate or manage high-quality charter schools with racially and socioeconomically diverse student bodies.” Section 4401 reauthorizes the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) and increases funding for magnet schools. The new law calls for replicating magnet school programs that demonstrate “success in increasing student academic achievement and reducing isolation of minority groups” and “increase racial integration by taking into account socioeconomic diversity.” ESSA will authorize over $4.1 million in competitive grants for MSAP by 2020.

These provisions are also exciting. Not only does the bipartisan legislation promote high-quality choices for parents, but it does so by acknowledging the importance of racial and socioeconomic integration and diversity. Decades of research has found that school integration benefits all students academically, occupationally, and socially. But for decades, little emphasis has been placed on integrating schools. That seems to be changing.

Last month, the White House announced the $120 million Stronger Together initiative to promote socioeconomic diversity and school choice. The initiative makes competitive grants available to school districts or consortia of districts “interested in exploring ways to foster socioeconomic diversity.” Stronger Together, paired with ESSA’s charter and magnet school investments, encourages increasing the supply of diverse, high-quality schools available to all students.

In addition to federal policy, school districts and charter networks across the country are doing their part to promote racial and socioeconomic integration by considering socioeconomic factors in student assignment policies. A recent report by The Century Foundation found that 91 districts and charters use socioeconomic status as a factor to pursue integration, serving over four million students. Twenty years ago, only two districts did so. Of the 91 school districts and charter networks, 25 use magnet schools and 9 use charter schools to achieve their diversity goals.

The finding that more than twice the number of districts use magnets rather than charters to promote diversity and integration is interesting. Magnet schools have been around since the 1960s to promote voluntary, choice-based desegregation. In fact, the word ‘magnet’ comes from the idea that a school offering a special theme or curriculum could “attract” families to apply and leave their neighborhood school, thus creating a more racially integrated student body. Given their original purpose, the lasting commitment of magnet schools to increase diversity and integration is not surprising. Charter schools, on the other hand, didn’t appear until the 1990s and are also choice-based. Like magnets, charters have the ability to promote integration because they do not operate like a typical neighborhood school, but that was never really their purpose. While that could have been their intent, charters emerged purely as a school choice system, likely part of the reason why so few charters pursue integration and diversity goals today.

One Step Back?

Federal funding for charter schools has also increased dramatically since their inception, while magnet school funds have remained stagnant (see figure). This trend is also evident in ESSA, whereby three times the amount of funds ($1.1 billion v. $4.1 million) have been appropriated to charters than magnets over the next four years.

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Are differences in funding for charters and magnets a problem? Research has shown that charter schools are more racially and socioeconomically segregated than traditional public schools, particularly for black students. Moreover, while the charter school sector has rapidly expanded, research has suggested that charters do not, on average, perform better on student outcomes than regular public schools. Not only has there been less federal investment in magnets than charters, but research has suggested that federal magnet priorities have somewhat shifted away from integration goals in recent decades.

In terms of diversity, has ESSA taken one step forward and two steps back? The jury is still out. On the one hand, the language of ESSA promotes school diversity and integration. The law prioritizes racially and socioeconomically diverse charter schools and reauthorizes MSAP to increase racial and socioeconomic integration with magnet schools. Funding allocated for charters and magnets remains very unequal, but has increased for both choice-based options. If 91 school districts and charter networks currently pursue diversity goals, perhaps we will see more doing so with the help of federal initiatives like Stronger Together and ESSA moving forward. On the other hand, the history of charters and magnets paints a skeptical picture for the future. The charter sector has expanded greatly with little consideration for school diversity and integration. Federal funding for magnet schools has been basically static since the 1980s and integration goals have weakened. In effect, both of these trends have helped foster school re-segregation, not promote diversity.

In pursuit of advancing educational equity for all students under ESSA, acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King has recently called for supporting “innovative, voluntary locally-driven efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity in schools.” Will his call be answered? We’ll have to wait and see.

Jenna Tomasello is a Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.