Taking a New Course in Class
Income, rather than race, could be the new path to diversity
"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a controversial 5-4 decision from its just finished term that struck down the policies school districts in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle were using to create diversity in their classrooms. With approximately 1,000 school districts across the nation using race to some degree when considering where to place students, the ruling presents an immediate challenge to how they can maintain balance. One option many of these districts will consider is socioeconomic-based enrollment policies, which have shown some effectiveness in improving student achievement but are no guarantee of racial integration.
Schools will most likely consider using socioeconomic status plans for two reasons, according to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the progressive Century Foundation who has studied such policies: These plans tend to produce a fair amount of racial diversity and also tend to improve student achievement. "It was never that African-Americans do better in class sitting next to whites, it's that low-income students do better in middle-class schools," Kahlenberg says. "It's more of a class phenomenon than a race phenomenon." In fact, results of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress given to fourth graders revealed that low-income students who attended more-affluent schools scored 20 points higher than low-income students attending high-poverty schools, a difference equivalent to almost two years worth of education.
Forty districts educating 2.5 million students already use assignment programs based on family income, according to the Century Foundation report. Among them: Cambridge, Mass., La Crosse, Wis., and Wake County, N.C. Wake County uses a system of magnet schools in Raleigh to ensure that no school has more than 40 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches (a stand-in for poverty). In 2005, 63.8 percent of low-income students in Wake County passed the state's end of high school exams, while only 48.7 percent and 47.9 percent passed respectively in nearby Durham and Guilford counties, which don't have class-based policies.
One size fits all. But local demographics play a big role in making class-based integration work. Too many poor students will overwhelm the district's ability to distribute them effectively. And income and race don't always overlap in ways that would guarantee racial diversity. Wake County is one of only six counties in North Carolina that have a family poverty rate less than 10 percent, and the majority of its poor are nonwhite, according to the NAACP legal defense fund. Tom Hutton, senior staff attorney at the National School Boards Association, also notes that what worked in Wake County might not work elsewhere. "The practical reality is that local circumstances vary so widely that setting one-size-fits-all programs plays out in messy ways," he says. Still, enthusiasts and critics alike say integration programs are necessary even with laws such as No Child Left Behind working to level the playing field for all schools and close the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. "History suggests that separate schools for low- and middle-income students will never be equal," Kahlenberg says. "No one's figured out how to make high-poverty schools work on a systemwide basis."
The U.S. Department of Education has noted the successful examples of race-neutral assignment plans, but some civil rights activists question whether such policies address historical problems. "I'm in favor of economic status integration, but that is no substitute for racial integration even if there is an overlap," says Theodore Shaw, directorcounsel of the NAACP legal defense fund. "Limiting [the programs] to class conscious and race blind leaves no guarantee to address racial inequality in this country." Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says racial integration offers benefits beyond improving the achievement of individual students. "Integration is more than just academic," he says. "Schools are a place they can be exposed to each other and learn to live together in a democracy."
This story appears in the July 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.