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Small advances and swift retreat: Race-conscious educational policy in the Obama and Trump administrations




race-conscious law and policy, education politics, civil rights


The three terms comprising the Obama and Trump presidencies provide an opportunity to understand the evolution of race-conscious education policy in an increasingly multiracial, unequal, and divided society. Through document review and interviews with civil rights lawyers, government officials, congressional staffers, and intermediary organization personnel, we sought to understand how Obama officials envisioned and changed the role of the federal government in fostering K-12 race-conscious educational policies and what mechanisms they used to advance priorities. We also explored changes Trump administration officials made to federal civil rights policies and through which institutional means. Our findings reveal through-lines between past and present political agendas and the methods for enactment. Obama’s interagency efforts to reinvigorate civil rights oversight and enforcement in education harkened back to the mid-1960s era of bipartisan cooperation around school desegregation. Yet the decades-long legal and policy retrenchment against civil rights advances made in the 1960s constrained further progress. Trump’s administration advocated for the privatization of public education through increased choice and opposed race-consciousness in education law and policy. The reshaping of the federal judiciary under Trump presents challenges for race-consciousness in the law for years to come. Recognizing these consistent through-lines and constraints will be essential for advocates and policymakers going forward.


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Author Biographies

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Virginia Commonwealth University

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley is associate professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research examines the scope and dynamics of school segregation and resegregation in U.S. metropolitan areas, along with policies for promoting intentionally integrated schools and communities. 

Erica Frankenberg, Pennsylvania State University

Erica Frankenberg is professor of education and demography and Director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests focus on racial desegregation and inequality in PK-12 schools, and the connections between school segregation and other federal, state, and metropolitan policies.

Kathryn McDermott, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Kathryn A. McDermott is professor of education and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has published extensively on the politics of educational equity policies, including policies that specifically focus on diversity and racial equity.

Sarah McCollum, University of Georgia

Sarah R. McCollum is a doctoral student in the Education Administration and Policy Program at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include issues of educational equity in K-12 schools, with attention to how school communities challenge or uphold inequitable policies and practices. 

Elizabeth DeBray, University of Georgia

Elizabeth DeBray is a professor of educational administration and policy in the Mary Frances Early College of Education, University of Georgia.  Her major interests are the role of intermediary organizations and interest groups in education policy, federal education policy, and the use of research by policymakers. She is author of Politics, Ideology, and Education: Federal Policy during the Clinton and Bush Administrations (Teachers College Press, 2006) and co-editor (with E. Frankenberg) of Integrating Schools in a Changing Society (UNC Press, 2011).

Janelle Scott, University of California, Berkeley

Janelle Scott is a professor and the Robert C. and Mary Catherine Birgeneau Distinguished Chair in Educational Disparities at the University of California at Berkeley in the Berkeley School of Education, African American Studies Department, and Goldman School of Public Policy. She earned a Ph.D. in education policy from the University of California at Los Angeles’ Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and a B.A. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. Before earning her doctorate, she was a teacher in Oakland, California.


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How to Cite

Siegel-Hawley, G., Frankenberg, E., McDermott, K., McCollum, S., DeBray, E., & Scott, J. (2023). Small advances and swift retreat: Race-conscious educational policy in the Obama and Trump administrations. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 31.




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