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New Guidance for School Diversity Efforts

The benefits of racial integration have been demonstrated time and again. At the National Women’s Law Center, we believe that racial integration is not only essential for equality of opportunity and elimination of stereotypes on the basis of race, but that integration benefits women by undermining powerful gender stereotypes.

Unfortunately, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted last week, “Racial isolation remains far too common in America’s classrooms today and it is increasing. This denies our children the experiences they need to succeed in a global economy, where employers, coworkers, and customers will be increasingly diverse. It also breeds inequity, which is inconsistent with America’s core values.”

Which is why we were excited that on Friday, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education released joint guidance for how K-12 schools, colleges, and universities can voluntarily consider race to achieve diversity and avoid racial isolation. The guidance is meant to clarify three earlier Supreme Court decisions related to diversity in school (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger). The new guidance nullifies two earlier guidance letters from 2008 that incorrectly described those court decisions and discouraged school districts from making efforts to diversify their student populations.

At the K-12 level, the new guidance instructs schools how they may achieve two compelling state interests: promoting diversity and avoiding racial isolation. School districts can consider racial diversity in a generalized fashion, such as when making decisions about where to draw school boundaries. The guidance also allows schools to consider the race of individual students if it is narrowly tailored to the goal of avoiding racial isolation. Districts are still required to determine that using a race-neutral approach won’t work to achieve the same end.

The guidance provides a much needed roadmap for K-12 schools, colleges, and universities to implement voluntary integration programs, but schools can still go above and beyond the suggestions outlined in the letter. In our ever globalizing world, our futures are intimately linked to one another. Research shows that integrated schools benefit all kids by deepening critical thinking skills and preparing children for a wider variety of job positions. Integration is a critical step in breaking down harmful stereotypes and achieving equity for all students. The more school districts, colleges, and universities can do to diversify their student bodies and end racial isolation, the better.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.