When Austin school officials applied for a $1.5 million federal grant to embark on a school integration initiative, they were blunt.

The city and school district had a long history of intentionally segregating black and Latino families and students, they said, and recent attempts to desegregate schools had failed.

“With few exceptions, Austin ISD schools remain economically and racially isolated,” officials said in the application, submitted in early 2017. “This community has a compelling need to reverse the legacy of exclusion, and Austin will leverage this grant to attempt to change the historic trend.”

District officials said they’d create an integration plan for around two dozen schools in east and northeast Austin, where the student population is mostly Latino, black, and from low-income families, though white and more affluent families live there, too. The district promised to survey parents and residents, buy software to overhaul the enrollment process, craft a marketing campaign to promote diverse schools, and open a new office to oversee it all. The lessons learned, officials said, could then be applied across the district’s some 130 schools.

Jacob Reach, a top Austin schools official, got a call a few weeks later. The district submitted a strong application, an education department staffer told him, but the program was about to be canceled. No money was headed their way.

Austin was not alone. Nearly 30 school districts, charter operators, and individual schools from across the country applied for some of the $12 million in federal funds set aside at the tail end of the Obama administration. Seventeen were large or mid-size school districts, ranging from big cities like New York and Houston to smaller cities like Wichita, Kansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In lengthy applications, the contents of which are being made public for the first time by Chalkbeat, districts explained how they would make changes so their schools served a more representative mix of students from low-income families and wealthier ones. A few plans were bold, though many listed modest first steps, like hiring researchers or beginning public outreach. 

Read more about the applications here.

Minneapolis, for example, said it would study desegregation strategies used in other districts, hold a dozen community conversations, and come up with a plan to increase socioeconomic diversity in its low-performing schools. In Florida’s Polk County Public Schools, officials wanted to overhaul their student enrollment system and establish a “controlled choice” plan, with the goal of making schools more socioeconomically diverse.

Any attempts to shake up longstanding enrollment patterns can be politically fraught and face pushback from parents, who often argue that they moved to a neighborhood specifically so that their children could attend the schools there. So it was notable that many districts said they were interested in making these kinds of changes — and a demonstration of how powerful even small federal incentives can be.

But districts never got money to turn their plans into reality — a consequence of the incoming Trump administration’s differing priorities.

“The program was an unwise use of tax dollars, and the funds could be used more effectively for other purposes,” education department spokesperson Angela Morabito said earlier this month. Instead, the department gave the $12 million to states for other school improvement efforts.

Two and a half years later, many of the integration ideas districts put forth have gone nowhere. Without federal support, about half of the 17 large and mid-sized districts essentially abandoned their plans, while only a handful have made progress toward integrating their schools.

In some districts, the lack of action was the result of staff or school board turnover. In other cases, school integration fell by the wayside as district officials navigated other challenges, like budget crises or school closures. 

In Austin, the integration plan “was competing with so many other priorities that we were hearing, that we needed additional funding to help with that,” said Reach, who is now chief of staff to the superintendent. “Since that time, unfortunately, on the integration portion we have not done a lot of work.”

The program’s origins — and eventual demise

School desegregation wasn’t a priority for the education department for most of President Obama’s tenure. But by his final years in office, the resegregation of schools in places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Pinellas County, Florida, and the decades-long failure to integrate segregated school districts like New York, were grabbing the public’s attention. That, plus the large body of research that’s shown students benefit from attending integrated schools, finally spurred some action.

John King, who took over as education secretary in March 2016, had launched a $25 million program in New York to fund school integration efforts while serving as the state’s education commissioner, and he wanted to try something similar at the federal level.

John King and President Obama
John King speaks as President Obama looks on during a 2015 event to announce that King would become the education secretary.
PHOTO CREDIT: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

Notably, federal officials designed the program to address socioeconomic segregation, though they expected proposals would also address racial segregation because the two often go hand in hand. This set-up stemmed partly from a Supreme Court decision that largely prevents school districts from using student race to integrate schools. The Obama administration issued guidance back in 2011 to help schools navigate that terrain, but “it was a fine line we had to walk,” said Tanya Clay House, who led the creation of the grant program under King. 

Fearing the grant program could become a target under President Trump — whose administration would later rescind the guidance on using race to integrate K-12 schools — education department staffers rushed to announce the program a month before Obama left office. Districts sent in their applications just as Betsy DeVos was being confirmed as President Trump’s education secretary. 

About six weeks later, the program had officially been axed. Department officials carefully reviewed the program, Morabito said, but decided to end it. They reasoned that there had been “a low level of interest” and that the potential was limited since the grants would fund planning work and pilot programs. 

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to support this very hypothetical statement that the ending of this program prevented school districts from moving forward with their school integration plans,” Morabito said in a statement. 

King, though, says the program’s emphasis on planning was intentional, as it’s the kind of work districts struggle to fund, but can set them up for success. 

“This is exactly why we thought the grant program was important to do,” said King, who now heads The Education Trust, an education and civil rights advocacy group. “It’s because people do need resources to do thoughtful planning of school diversity efforts.”

Several districts continued their work on school integration without the federal incentive, though many did so in a scaled-back way with only modest results. 

Indianapolis, for example, wasn’t able to pay consultants or visit other school districts that are considered models in school integration, but the district did move forward with a new enrollment system for its magnet school programs, which now enroll more students from low-income families than in the past. But the district hasn’t completely leveled the playing field for its magnet lottery, and more options are still concentrated in whiter and more affluent parts of the city.

New York City was the rare district that advanced its integration work beyond what it proposed in the grant application. In 2017, under the former schools chancellor, the city laid out modest plans to research diversity initiatives, study the city’s diverse schools, and create student recruitment tools for schools. 

But with the help of some early pilot programs, student activism, and a supportive new schools chief, Richard Carranza, several efforts to rework school admissions in certain pockets of the city are now underway. In one Brooklyn district that changed its middle school enrollment rules this year — after a year-long planning process — most of the schools are showing signs of becoming more racially and socioeconomically integrated. 

“Despite the federal government’s attempt to slash funding to programs to increase integration in our schools, New York City prioritized this work for our students,” district spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon said. 

How Austin’s plans fell apart

In many cities, it would be nearly impossible to integrate schools without merging them with nearby suburban ones. But Austin has something many districts do not: “a diverse yet highly segregated” student body, as officials wrote in their grant application. 

About half of Austin’s students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in the fall of 2016, around the time that officials applied for this grant, and two-thirds of Austin students were Latino or black, while more than a quarter were white. But students of different racial and economic backgrounds rarely attended school together.

At that time, top district officials and school board members supported using school integration as a way to address inequities in schools. Spurred by demands from a Texas civil rights group, the district had recently taken stock of these inequities, which included higher graduation rates and better access to magnet schools for white students, and much higher discipline rates for black students.

Edmund T. Gordon, then a school board member, was a strong proponent for integrating schools in east and northeast Austin, the part of the district he represented. The area has gentrified in recent years and attracted many white and wealthy families who often don’t send their children to the local schools. Meanwhile, as housing costs rose, low-income black and Latino families have been pushed out. Improving the area’s schools, Gordon reasoned, could attract new students, boost the schools’ budgets, and make them less segregated.

But after the federal grant was canceled, the lack of money and a variety of other roadblocks meant Austin’s plans, like many other cities’, went nowhere.

A committee made up of district staff and community members continued to look at ways to integrate Austin schools. In the fall of 2017, that group recommended setting diversity targets and phasing them in over time. But neither the district nor the board moved forward with that idea.

Reach, the Austin schools official, says that’s partly because Gordon and other board members who championed integration left or were voted out of office. And around the same time, district officials directed their attention to closing budget gaps and addressing other inequities, such as providing more support to students with dyslexia. 

“If they’d gotten the money, maybe they would have been more serious about it,” said Gordon, who teaches African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “But as soon as they had to pay for it, and as soon as there are other priorities,” the commitment to integration faltered.

A different approach faces opposition

Now, Austin is embroiled in a heated debate over under-enrolled schools that have been targeted for closure — some of which are located in the same part of the city that officials once thought they could draw students to through integration.

When district officials said earlier this year that they planned to spread the closures out across the city in an attempt to invest in fewer schools with larger enrollments and new programs, some parents and community members thought it could be an opportunity to create more integrated schools.

While district officials didn’t expressly say that was a goal, parents certainly responded as if it was. In an online forum set up to solicit anonymous feedback, many said they opposed reassigning students, especially in whiter, wealthier parts of the city, and mixing students from higher-performing and lower-performing schools. 

“Rezoning poor kids to wealthier areas and wealthy kids to poor areas is not going to bring equity to Austin,” one commenter wrote. 

“I’m all for improving underperforming schools, but don’t try to fix them by moving kids from schools that perform well to those that do not,” wrote another.

So far, the district has mostly approved closures in one part of the city. Some observers say this calls to mind past attempts to desegregate that have since been abandoned. Among the closing schools were some that were once well-attended and integrated, but after the district stopped busing for desegregation in the late 1980s, they resegregated and eventually saw enrollment drop.

“If the district was bolder and braver they would make [integration] a priority,” said Roxanne Evans, who covered Austin’s desegregation efforts in the 1980s as a reporter and is now part of the East Austin Coalition for Quality Education. “Instead of learning from the lessons of the past, they’re repeating them.” 

The school closures have raised concerns from even the district’s chief equity officer, Stephanie Hawley, who has criticized the fact that they will disproportionately uproot low-income black and Latino students who live in East Austin. But she doesn’t see integration as the only strategy to fixing the district’s long-standing racial inequities, especially when it’s only done in a handful of schools. 

“Equity is about systemic, big changes,” she said. That includes training staff, overhauling curriculum so it’s more rigorous and culturally relevant, setting high goals for all students, and holding district leaders accountable. “It’s not doing really nice things for small groups of historically underserved groups.”

Some parents and community members have agreed with this sentiment. Vincent Tovar, an East Austin parent who advocates for schools there, says today’s school integration conversation is being led by people who don’t send their children to schools with mostly low-income students of color.

“The black and brown and low-income families at predominantly [low-income] schools… should be leading any decisions being made for their school communities,” he said. “I love my black and brown schools. We don’t need white people, we just need the resources and funding.” 

To be sure, officials also could have faced backlash if the district had moved forward with integrating schools through the federal grant program. But they would have had more money, time for planning, and the support of the federal government and several other school districts doing similar work across the country.

Whether there could be federal funding for school desegregation in the future likely depends on who wins the White House in 2020. School segregation has occupied a prominent place in the Democratic debates, and the three leading Democratic candidates have plans to address it. Several candidates also support legislation that would revive something similar to this now-defunct federal grant program.

For their part, officials in Austin — and several other districts Chalkbeat spoke with for this story — said they’d apply for school integration money if it were available.

As of now, a small portion of the district’s integration plan will likely come to fruition. Officials say they are just starting to develop a plan to use enrollment strategies to boost diversity in northeast Austin. But that won’t start for three years — and it centers around a single new middle school.