Stronger Together: Why our budget supports voluntary, community-led efforts to increase diversity

John King
4 min readFeb 9, 2016

When families and educators in New Orleans joined together to establish the Morris Jeff Community School, they had a clear vision for the kind of world they wanted to create for their children, starting in the preschool years.

They believed that all of their children could learn more if they went to school together. In their vision, children from families of limited means and those from more affluent families would attend school together, entirely by their own choice. The three pre-K classes were strong enough to attract families who could pay, who made up about a third of the program, but open to all — with enough interest to drive a waiting list, both fee-paying and not, and nearly equal proportions of African-American and white students, plus a small proportion of students who were Hispanic or of mixed race.

The result: not just diversity of wealth and race, but strong results for all. At the beginning of the year, only about a quarter of students were demonstrating age-appropriate skills in math, and only about 1 in 10 reached that level in language. By year’s end, about 80 percent had age-appropriate skills in both subjects.

Morris Jeff’s diversity benefited all of its students, offering students preparation for the real world they will inhabit as adults, and offering the kind of contact and connections that have been shown to boost empathy and reduce bias. And it can play a particularly important role in helping low-income students. For example, in Montgomery County, Maryland, children in public housing who attended the district’s most advantaged elementary schools performed better over time than those attending higher-poverty schools, despite additional per-student funding provided at higher-poverty schools.

These are among a number of promising examples demonstrating what research has shown: increasing diversity has the power to pay off for everyone. From corporate boards to the scientific world, there are increasing indications that diversity isn’t just a feel-good nicety — it’s a clear path to better outcomes in school and in life.

That’s why our administration is proposing Stronger Together — grants to support districts with strong voluntary, community-developed plans that increase socioeconomic diversity in their schools. No district would be required to participate, but it would increase the options available for interested communities and enhance the research base for effective strategies. Among the elements of the proposal are planning funds that support communities that wish to explore new possibilities for increasing diversity, looking carefully at the data and engaging the entire community in developing solutions. From there, implementation grants would help communities move forward with bringing their plans to fruition, including through robust family and community involvement.

In today’s economy, diversity isn’t some vague ideal. It’s a path to better outcomes for all of America’s children. And the proposal we are announcing today will help show us the most effective ways meet that goal.

The reasons to think carefully about new diversity strategies are powerful. As it stands today, high-income kids are more than six times as likely as lower-income students to graduate from college — which is not setting our nation up for success. And it’s hard to miss the fact that when the children of welders and bankers are confined to separate schools, access to opportunity is not equal. It’s no secret whose school ends up with the resources to succeed — from shiny new buildings with updated technology to AP courses that will set them up for success in college.

Moreover, we know that the ability to work with men and women from every background — rich or poor, black, white, or brown — will be a core competency for the jobs we want our kids to have some day.

We need all our children on a path to achievement. That’s why we need to do more to ensure families and communities can offer students opportunities to learn to work together in school as they will need to in their lives ahead.

I’ve seen the benefits of such voluntary opportunities up close–as a student, educator, and parent. While I was Commissioner of New York Schools, I used federal funds to launch an innovative pilot program to help struggling schools improve performance by boosting socioeconomic diversity. These grants aimed to help reduce class isolation in New York’s schools by giving districts support to pilot innovative programs designed to increase school diversity while improving student achievement.

It’s time that we offer strong, locally-designed, voluntary options that allow many more communities to accomplish what parents and educators did at the Morris Jeff Community School. Stronger Together will help.

This post has been translated into Spanish.

John King

Former Social Studies. Currently Secretary of Education.