The Strength in Diversity Act passed the House of Representatives on Sept 15th, 2020.  Coming out of The Committee on Education and Labor, chaired by Congressman Bobby Scott, the bill aims to assist localities that want to attempt voluntary desegregation plans, do that constitutionally.  Since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Parents Involved case from 2007, many districts have avoided desegregation plans for fear of running afoul of that ruling.  The Strength in Diversity Act provides grants to states to plan programs that can decrease segregation, while also remaining legal.  

We’re joined by Chairman Scott do discuss the bill, and why it took congress 30 years to address growing school segregation.

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The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.

This episode was produced, edited, and mixed by Andrew Lefkowits.

Music by Kevin Casey.

Let us know what you think of this episode, suggest future topics, or share your story with us – @integratedschls on twitter, IntegratedSchools on Facebook, or email us [email protected].

The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.

This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits.

Audio editing and mixing by Andrew Lefkowits.

Music by Kevin Casey.

 

Transcript

Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools podcast. I'm Andrew White dad from Denver, and this is Congressman Bobby Scott on Strength in Diversity

On September 15th, the House of Representatives passed the Strength in Diversity Act by a vote of 246 to 167. The next day they passed the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act, a pair of bills that address school segregation. 

Now, if you listened to our Milliken v Bradley episode with Michelle Adams, you may recall that the Supreme Court in Parents involved in Community Schools v Seattle School District 1, said that using race to assign kids to school, even if the goal was to achieve desegregation, was only allowed under very narrow conditions. 

This was a case where in Seattle, and Louisville, Kentucky, you had school districts who were voluntarily choosing to desegregate their schools. And White families sued, claiming that their rights to equal protection were being violated because they couldn't get into the school they wanted. Now that ruling stands and while it makes it difficult for districts and states to work on school desegregation, it's not impossible. It just requires some support. So the Strength in Diversity Act aims to provide that support. 

The bill came through the Committee on Education and Labor, which is chaired by Congressman Bobby Scott. Congressman Scott has the distinction of being the first African-American elected to Congress from the Commonwealth of Virginia, since reconstruction. And only the second African-American elected to Congress in Virginia's history. 

In 2016, along with representative John Conyers from Michigan, the congressmen asked the Government Accountability Office to look at school segregation. The GAO confirmed what civil rights activists have been arguing for years, that schools are now by many measures, as segregated as they were in the 1960s. 

That report led to the Strength in Diversity Act, which has now passed the house, and we’re going to talk about it. 

You know, at the end of the last episode with Angela Glover Blackwell, I remarked on how humbled I am by the willingness of people that I admire to come on the podcast and share. I can safely say when we started this podcast that I never thought I would be interviewing  a sitting congressperson, and yet, here we are.

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Andrew:  So it's my great honor to be joined today by a Congressman representing the Third District of Virginia, Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Mr. Bobby Scott. Congressman Scott, thank you so much for taking the time to join us.

Congressman Scott: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

Andrew: Before we jump into a conversation about the Strength in Diversity Act, I just wanted to pause for a moment to thank you personally. My former co-host, the founder of Integrated Schools, Courtney Mykytyn, was tragically killed at the end of last year. And you read a remembrance into the congressional record and I just wanted to say thank you for that. It was a deep honor for all of us in the Integrated Schools community. I know that it brought a great comfort to her family in a trying time, and really felt like a validation of the important work that she was engaged in. And that validation is really what has sort of inspired all of us at Integrated Schools to keep her vision alive and to push forward with this important work. So, on behalf of all of us, thank you for doing that.

Congressman Scott: Well, thank you. We e've been working on this issue and she's been one of our strongest supporters and, um, we appreciate her work.

Andrew: Yeah. So I want to talk about the Strength in Diversity Act. Before we get into details, you know, I was struck reading up on the bill. It came out of a committee hearing around the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board, which I guess is not particularly surprising, but that hearing which was in April of 2019, was the first hearing in Congress to address school integration in 30 years. 

And I guess maybe it shouldn't be surprising, given that we have this kind of national narrative that, you know, Brown v. Board solved school segregation or fixed racism in schools. But I'm wondering why you think it took this long for Congress to address school segregation and personally, what drew you to that cause? Why were you so instrumental in pushing Congress to address it among the, you know, many other issues that need our attention?

Congressman Scott: Well, I, I was surprised to hear that it was the first. Obviously the Committee on Education and Labor is a committee that Adam Clayton Powell chaired in the 1960s that produced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, Head Start, a lot of other very progressive legislation that really made opportunities available.

And so to find that school integration has not been dealt with in decades, really came as a surprise, particularly in light of the trend that we've been seeing. The GAO reflected the trend in its 2016 report. It showed that segregation in public schools was as bad as it had been in the 1960s and getting worse. And so obviously if you believe in the dictates of Brown v. Board of Education, you have to sound the alarm. You have to have, you have to do something.

Andrew: Yeah. I feel like there's this national amnesia. We don't like to talk about segregation anymore because we feel like it's a problem that was solved. And I think even back to, you know, your, your home state, Virginia, a story that when I learned about it I was shocked. When I tell people they still seem to have a hard time believing that, you know, Prince Edward County in 1959, rather than comply with a desegregation order, just shut down all of their schools for five years. Provided vouchers to White kids to go to private schools and left kids of color sort of on their own. And I, I worry that that kind of narrative that we've told, that Brown v. Board was the end of school segregation, you know, it glosses over a lot of the harm that was caused in the wake of Brown.

Congressman Scott: Well, when you read the language, the operative language in Brown, it says: “It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if denied an opportunity of an education, such an opportunity, where the state is undertaken to provide it, is a right, which has to be made available to all on equal terms.” 

And the only part of that the Commonwealth of Virginia read was “where the state has undertaken to provide it”.

Andrew: Right, alright, we're not going to undertake to provide it.

Congressman Scott: It's going to be equal. Nobody gets an education. And it wasn't just Prince Edward County. Norfolk was closed for a little while, Charlottesville and other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia were closed and the end of what they called Massive Resistance came at a very close vote.

Uh, and when I was in the House of Delegates in the State Senate, I actually served with people who had voted on Massive Resistance. Three that I remember. Two voted to open the schools and one actually voted to keep 'em closed and so it's, historically, it's not that far behind now.

I'm old enough to have gone to schools that were legally segregated elementary schools. I was in elementary school in 1954. My father was on the Newport News school board and looked to his left and looked to his right and knew that if the court ever ordered a integration, the vote would be four to one to just close the schools.

Andrew: Wow.

Congressman Scott: He jokes about the sub committee that was formed of the five members of Newport News school board to go to the state to discuss what should be done,  facing integration. They had a four member subcommittee of the five member school board. 

Andrew: Everybody but him . . .

Congressman Scott: Yeah, didn’t take you long to figure it out.

And so we eventually did not close the schools in Newport News, but I did go to elementary school in totally segregated schools.

Uh, but the fact that it's getting worse is the really disturbing factor and we know that, uh, the segregated schools, the political reality is they're not properly funded. To get schools, attended predominantly by students of color, up to the funding of schools attended primarily by White students. You'd need $23 billion to bring them up to the same funding level. 

And we know that the academic performance attracts the funding. And if you have less resources, less quality teachers, you don't have the same educational opportunities.

So, I mean, there are a lot of problems that still occur with segregated schools, that we know are solved when you integrate the schools. Students do better. Blacks students’ achievement gap is reduced and Black students do much better. White students don't do worse, and develop cultural education because they're able to attend schools with different people rather than go out in the world without the benefits of a diverse education.

Uh, so we know that things are better, but what we have tried to do, at least in the house, is provide localities the tools they need to try to deal with school segregation so they can improve the situation.

Andrew: Yeah. And so that's the mission of the Strength in Diversity Act, which, and I'm so grateful to you for leading the charge on this. I know Congresswoman Fudge was a cosponsor, and getting this bill passed through the house - the first time that the house has said anything about school segregation in 30 years, it's such a, an achievement.

What is the sort of top level aim of the Strength in Diversity Act?

Congressman Scott: It's, it's based on an Opening Doors, Opening Opportunities, grant program that the Obama administration had at the end of its administration, to provide technical assistance to localities that wanted to voluntarily integrate their schools.

This can be complicated after the Supreme court cases in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, where they had voluntary plans and the Supreme court came in and found that the voluntary school integration plans were unconstitutional.

Andrew: Right.

Congressman Scott: They, they clearly said, at least five justices said they could clearly have school integration plans, but they had to be, uh, the legal term is “narrowly tailored” to achieve that goal. So you can do it, but you have to do it right. 

So these little grant programs can give the technical assistance to show how you can have an effective plan that can withstand constitutional challenge.  The Strength in Diversity Act tracks the same idea-  a grant program to localities, so that they can have the technical assistance to voluntarily integrate their schools.

And if it passes the Senate and is signed by the president we will have the grant program, so those localities that want to voluntarily integrate the schools can have effective plans that can withstand constitutional challenge.

Andrew: Right. So it's not a silver bullet. It's not going to fix all of our education problems in the country, but it is an important step towards less segregation for districts who are interested. And because it was voluntary, I was glad to see that it was paired with the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act, which seems designed to give people the power to fight educational inequities through the legal system

Congressman Scott: Discrimination in education, if it is based on a pattern and practice,  you can't go to court on those cases since 2001 in what's called the Sandoval Case. The Supreme court ruled that title six does not allow what's called a private right of action.The local citizens can't complain about discrimination, unless they can prove that it was intentionally inflicted. 

Now, I don't know how you prove that unless the school board says, Oh, I got an idea how we can separate the Blacks from the Whites. They don't say that anymore. They just do it. And it has the effect of discriminating.

And in those cases where there is a pattern of practice, where there’s what’s called a disparate impact, on the policy, the Sandoval case said that the local groups cannot complain. That they have to wait for the department of education to bring the case. Now, this department this administration is not bringing those kinds of cases.

Andrew:  Right so so prior to 2001, prior to Sandoval, if, as a citizen, you felt the impact of school policies were resulting in discrimination, you could sue your local school district. And Sandoval said, actually, no, as a private citizen, you're your only recourse is to wait for the department of education to bring a case against your school district and at least with this administration they don't seem to have much intention of bringing those kinds of cases.

Congressman Scott: I mean, they're in the process of changing the concept of victim of discrimination from - When I was growing up, if you applied for a job and were denied because of your race or religion, you're the victim. If you go to a restaurant and you’re not served because of your race or religion, you were the victim. Now, if you are the employer and have strong religious views, if you cannot discriminate, you are the victim...I mean, we've been fighting this for, for a long time. So you can't count on this administration to bring the cases. 

So the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act, which passed the same week would give a private right of actions to those localities, if you can prove disparate impact, if you can prove the discrimination, you can have your day in court.

Andrew: Regardless of the intent of the school board or the administrators there, if the outcome is difference than you can, you can file a lawsuit.

Congressman Scott:  You can have your day in court. And so for those that want to do voluntarily, we're trying to help them. And for those that want to maintain policies known to be discriminatory, if the department of education won't act, then the localities - the local civil rights groups, the local parent groups can come in and have a day in court.

Andrew: Right. You're noted for being a deep believer in the constitution, the bill of rights,  obviously your policy knowledge goes very deep and I think throughout history of the country, we've seen places where policy has really pulled the country along, sometimes begrudgingly. I think about Brown V Board as, as really being in front of the culture and trying to pull the country along and we see examples of where that has worked. 

In this moment, I think we also really see the power of organizing, of grassroots work to really push the collective consciousness towards justice and maybe to push on our policy, to push on the levers of government to really make policy catch up to culture.

What do you think about the kind of role of activism? The role of grassroots action to really push policy to catch up to where culture is.

Congressman Scott: Well, the protests have been very helpful. They have to be nonviolent and some of the violence has distracted from the cause. Uh, I suspect that a lot of the violence in some of these protests are provoked by people who do not have the interest of the protest at heart. But, that's always been the case.

And so it's important that you maintain the peace, because it really broadens your, your coalition. Were able to get the, uh, George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.  passed the house with a very strong support, at least on the Democratic side. It was made possible because we had such a broad coalition established by the protests.

Andrew: One of the things that we focus on a lot at Integrated Schools is the kind of mobilizing White and/or privileged families to think differently about school integration, to really, you know, move towards desegregating our families. But then also trying to meaningfully integrate schools, so there's a change in the balance of power in schools that there's a change in the culture of the representativeness of the staff, restorative justice in school buildings that we are sort of part of that movement.

What do you think the role is for those of us who have unearned privilege in this society to  lean in towards grassroots organizing to push for more school integration.

Congressman Scott: Well, I've been very active in criminal justice, and I’ve frequently said said that, uh, criminal justice policy is, is easy, but you first have to make a choice: either you're going to reduce crime and save money. Or you're going to codify, simple minded slogans and soundbites to help you get elected. 

Now, once you have made the choice, the rest is easy. All of the evidence shows one strategy and all the slogans and soundbites show a totally different strategies.

And, and when it comes to school integration, just look at the evidence - what's best for education, what's best for society? And so I think we know what to do. The real question, then you go back to the protests, is are we channeling the protests into votes on election day?

Andrew: Right.

Congressman Scott: Uh, just complaining without an effect on elections is really not as effective. John Lewis always focused on voting. I mean, when he was beaten on the Edmund Pettus bridge, it was to promote the voting rights act. And then half his life of civil unrest was as an elected official. Because he knew that at one poin,t all the protesting only got you before the elected officials and they would make the decisions. If they are not pressured by potential votes, it's difficult to see things happening.

Andrew: Yeah.

Congressman Scott: As we protest, as we know what the right thing to do is, and there's some elected officials and some school boards are doing the right things and others are not, we have to reflect this on votes so that those who are doing the right thing, they're rewarded and those who are not doing the right thing...

Andrew: Find another job...

Congressman Scott: Can be replaced. Yeah.

Andrew: Yeah. Speaking of John Lewis, these times feel dark and trying. We've lost 200,000 Americans, plus, to COVID, we just lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we lost John Lewis, CT, Vivian, and others. We were seeing the visceral manifestation of hundreds of years of state sponsored violence against Black people.

We've got school buildings that are closed, you know, on the one hand to try to protect the most vulnerable. But also inevitably contributing to growing opportunity barriers , and disparate outcomes between kids, particularly for those who can least afford it. How you do think schools should be thinking about addressing these trying times?

Congressman Scott: The COVID-19 pandemic has put obviously a strain on things because, just like on healthcare, where they say those with underlying, pre-existing conditions do much more poorly. You have the same problem with education. Uh, those on the bottom end of the achievement gap are less likely to have a device or connectivity to be able to work with distance learning. They'll be more likely to need the in-person instruction to be able to achieve. I mean, there's so many things that people need at the bottom of the achievement gap that they're not getting, that we really need to open the schools. And that's why I've been pressing to open the schools, but it has to be done safely.

And, one of the things that CDC has identified as an essential element of safety is ventilation, because if you're in a closed room, somebody is infected, the more they breathe, the more viruses in the air, and everybody has a problem. If you have proper ventilation, you don't have as much as a problem. It's why you can eat outside in a restaurant, not inside. 

The GAO released a study just a few months ago that said that 40% of the school districts in this country need to repair or replace the HVAC systems, heating ventilation, air conditioning, in more than half their schools.

Andrew: Yep.

Congressman Scott: If they couldn't fix them before the pandemic, before all the budget cuts...

Andrew: Right,

Congressman Scott: came along and they certainly can't do it now. So we've been pushing to make sure that they have the money to fix the ventilation systems, as well as transportation. You can't have as many students on the bus. So it means more trips. That means more money,

Personal protective equipment, uh, sanitation. Um, I mean, there's so many things you need to have a safe reopening that frankly, isn't happening, that you are jeopardizing the education for those that desperately need to close the achievement gap.

I think one of the first things we're gonna have to consider is next summer, no summer. Um, the summer slide where low income students regress two months during the summer. Well they had a two or three month headstart on the summer slide this year, and they’re still sliding.

So if these students are losing several months to a year of education, which is probably where we're going to end up, that's gonna have a profound effect. And we need to be focused on fixing it, and school integration is one of the strategies that we can use.

Andrew: And that, yeah, all of that requires some serious financial commitment to our public schools, which have been so chronically underfunded to start with. And I guess maybe that's , the role for people that the system tends to listen to anyway, is to push on our elected officials  to agree to spend that money. To invest in education like it is a life and death issue, because it is.

Congressman Scott: Well, in the COVID relief bills, we've been delighted that we've been able to get money for education. Not all we wanted, but a significant amount of funding. And we're optimistic that we'll have another relief bill that will have a significant education. Because if you don't have a significant resources, you will not be able to open the school safely.

Andrew: Your career has been spent advocating for the most marginalized, whether they be financially disadvantaged in need of healthcare or minimum wage workers in need of a raise, LGBTQIA Americans need of workplace protections.

And, and through that work, you've affected so much positive change, and yet we find ourselves in this place that is, that, that is dark - that feels like many of the same issues that we've been trying to solve for, you know, I mean, in many ways, since the beginning of the country are still here facing us.

And I guess I'm wondering, for you internally, where do you find the strength, the hope, where do you draw inspiration, to keep at the fight, to keep going?

Congressman Scott: Well, you, you can't be at this job without a healthy sense of, maybe unhealthy sense of optimism. And so I, you know, I'm still optimistic that if you keep fighting, you'll make progress.

Andrew: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for taking the time. Thank you for all you do. Your career is so deeply inspiring to so many of us and, uh, yeah, just really, really grateful for your work and keep at it and keep that perhaps unhealthy sense of optimism.

Congressman Scott: Well, thank you, Andrew. And thank you organization for all the work that you do. You keep the issue forward and it makes a huge difference when we know we have that kind of support.

Andrew: Thank you so much.

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Andrew: Big thanks to Chairman Scott for coming on, and to his staff for helping facilitate the interview. I can't really believe that I got to interview him. That was very exciting. I’m really, grateful for his work on this and for being really at the forefront of pushing this issue in Congress who has ignored it for so long. 

I want to leave you today with a bit of the statement that chairman Scott had read into the congressional record in honor of my former co-host and Integrated Schools founder, Courtney. 

So we'll go out with that.  In the meantime, just a reminder to join our Patreon - patreon.com/integratedschools. We’d be grateful for your support and check us out on social media @integratedschoolsl. As always, send us an email -  [email protected]  And I'm grateful to be in this with you, as we try to know better and do better. 

On January 14th, 2020, Chairman Bobby Scott submitted the following statement into the congressional record. 

In 1954, the United States Supreme court unanimously struck down lawful school segregation. In the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka. In a unanimous decision, the court stated “where the state has undertaken to provide it, education is a right, which must be made available to all on equal terms.”  

Chief Justice Earl Warren went on to state that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate, but equal has no place.” 

Courtney Everts Mykytyn founded integrated schools in Los Angeles, California in 2015 to start a grassroots movement for school integration. As a champion for educational equity, Courtney recognized that school integration is one of the most powerful tools to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential. 

She understood that the work of integrating our schools can be uncomfortable and complicated, and worked to educate parents and build community coalitions. Unlike many school integration efforts that place the burden solely on families of color, Courtney's mission was also to challenge White families to integrate schools. 

Courtney was always intentional in her efforts as she boldly stated, “we are the ones who made it all fail. Really fixing it has to be on us.” Courtney educated white families about how true school integration requires both an understanding of systemic racism in America, and the careful work of relationship building, free from self-interested agendas and without employing a White saviorism mentality. 

Courtney understood the consequences of segregation for children in our democracy. She often spoke about how segregation undermines our core American ideals of fairness and equality, and worked tirelessly to help fulfill the promise of Brown. Courtney emphasized that integrating schools was not about sacrifice, but instead about a commitment to strengthening our democracy, and building a better society. 

I hope advocates and families continue her legacy and commitment of fighting for school integration. Further, I challenged this body to honor Courtney's legacy in the months and years to come by taking the necessary actions to support and advance school integration. 

Mr. Speaker, the sadness of the passing of Courtney Everts Mykytyn is offset by her transformative work on school integration. Her death is a great loss to the school integration movement and our country. She will be greatly missed.

I send my deepest sympathies to her loved ones, including her husband, Roman Mykytyn, and to her children, Stephan and Lulu, and the Integrated Schools community.

Mr. Chairman, the Integrated Schools community thanks you for that