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"Socioeconomic School Integration,"

by Richard D. Kahlenberg September/October 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

Today, most of the education reform world, liberal and conservative, accepts as a given that American children will attend schools that are largely segregated by class and race. There is a strong policy consensus that concentrations of poverty, whether in public housing or in public schools, reduce life chances, and an equally strong political consensus that we can’t do much of anything to alleviate those conditions. Those institutions that remain devoted to bringing about the important work of school integration – for example, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Harvard Civil Rights Project – define the issue primarily through the lens of race, and they are facing an increasingly frustrating uphill battle. Whereas a focus on segregation by race made eminent legal sense for years, as the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education sought to correct the gross injustice of racial apartheid, today courts use Brown to say that all classifications by race are inherently suspect, striking down even voluntary race-conscious efforts to promote integration.

For those of us who care about equal educational opportunity and integration, the times demand a new approach that goes beyond trying to make separate but equal work, on the one hand, or simply pursuing a failing legal race-based integration strategy, on the other. This new approach seeks to integrate students by economic status, such as eligibility for free or reduced price lunch. Because much of the nation’s concentration of poverty is the result of racial discrimination in housing, any plan to reduce economic isolation will produce, as a positive byproduct, a fair measure of racial integration. Moreover, the economic integration strategy helps create in all schools the single most powerful predictor of a good education: the presence of a core of middle-class families who will insist upon, and get, a quality school for their children. In order to be politically sustainable, this new strategy should avoid forced busing and instead ride the popular wave of greater school choice. While private school vouchers undercut equal opportunity, programs of public school choice, if properly implemented, can be a powerful vehicle for overcoming residential segregation by race and class.

Why Integration?
Why should we care about integration at all? A recent Public Agenda survey found that most parents, black and white, prioritize quality schools over integrated schools. Many blacks have come to see racial desegregation as essentially insulting. Why do black kids need to sit next to white kids to learn? As Clarence Thomas put it: “It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior.” Alternatively, under the new economic integration, what good does it do poor kids to sit next to rich kids?

The answer is that the separation of poor and middle-class children is the fountainhead of a host of related inequalities of educational opportunity. Specifically, here are ten reasons why socioeconomic integration matters:

  • Good schools require an adequate financial base (as measured against student needs) to provide small class size, modern equipment and the like. Low-income schools, on average, spend about half of what more affluent schools spend per pupil.
  • Good schools require that money is spent wisely, on the classroom rather than on bureaucracy. In low-income areas, pressure is intense to make education a jobs program, so bureaucracies are more likely to be bloated.
  • Good schools require an orderly environment. Low-income schools report disorder problems twice as often as middle-class schools.
  • Good schools have a stable student and teacher population. High-poverty schools see more than twice as much student mobility as low-poverty schools, and teacher mobility is four times as high.
  • Good schools have a solid principal and well-qualified teachers trained in the subject they are teaching. Teachers in high-poverty schools are more likely to be unlicensed, more likely to teach out of their field of expertise, more likely to have low teacher test scores, more likely to be inexperienced, and more likely to have less formal education. Even when paid comparable salaries, most teachers consider it a promotion to move from poor to middle-class schools, and the best teachers usually transfer out of low-income schools at the first opportunity.
  • Good schools have a meaty curriculum and high expectations. Curriculum in high- poverty schools is more watered down; and expectations are so low that the grade of A in a low- income school is often the same as a grade of C in middle-class schools, as measured by standardized tests results. In many low-income schools, AP classes and high-level math are not even offered.
  • Good schools have active parental involvement. In low-income schools, parents are four times less likely to be members of the PTA and much less likely to participate in fund-raising.
  • Good schools have motivated peers who value achievement and encourage it among classmates. Peers in low-income schools are less academically engaged, less likely to do homework, more likely to watch TV, more likely to cut class and less likely to graduate – all of which have been found to influence the behavior of classmates.
  • Good schools have high-achieving peers, whose knowledge is shared informally with classmates all day long. In low-income schools, peers come to schools with about half the vocabulary of middle-class children, so any given child is less likely to expand his or her vocabulary through informal interaction.
  • Good schools have well-connected classmates who will help provide access to jobs down the line. Children attending high-poverty schools are cut off from access to informal connections that serve middle-class children well in finding jobs after graduation.

It is true, of course, that high-poverty schools can work, given a particularly charismatic principal or an unusually devoted teaching staff. The Heritage Foundation recently published a report, No Excuses, which “found not one or two [but] twenty-one high poverty high performing schools.” The problem, of course, is that the Department of Education has identified some 7000 high poverty schools nationally that are low-performing.

The one type of successful school that Americans have been able to replicate time and time again are those in which a majority of the students are middle-class. Study after study has found that low-income students do better, and middle-class achievement does not suffer, in economically integrated majority middle-class schools. In a nation in which two-thirds of students are middle-class (not eligible for free or reduced price lunch), it is entirely plausible to set a goal of making all schools majority middle-class.

Race vs. Class
If integration matters, the new emphasis should be on socioeconomic status. Except where a district is rooting out the vestiges of discrimination – in which case the use of race is appropriate, even constitutionally required – leading with socioeconomic integration offers three advantages.

First, from a legal standpoint, Brown vs. Board of Education has largely run its course. The courts have made it clear that desegregation orders are meant to be temporary and with increasing frequency are releasing school districts from court supervision. Over the past 20 years, our schools have been slowly resegregating. Today, 70% of black students attend majority minority schools, up from 63% in 1980. Thirty years ago, it made sense to lead with race because Brown found that purposeful racial segregation is illegal but said nothing about segregation by socioeconomic status. Now, however, the legal posture has now changed 180 degrees. Conservative courts in Montgomery County, Maryland, Arlington, Virginia, and elsewhere have found, that, absent the lingering effects of past discrimination, efforts to promote school diversity by considering a student’s race may itself be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has not definitively ruled on this issue, but the election of George W. Bush certainly makes it more likely that a future Court majority will continue down the path of requiring race-neutrality except where race is used as a remedy to past discrimination. Indeed, in Wake County, North Carolina, an income integration plan was recently adopted based on the fear that the existing racial balance plan was probably unconstitutional. By contrast, even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have written that using economic status is perfectly legal.

Second, on the merits, the factors that drive the quality of a school have much more to do with class than with race. As Harvard University’s Gary Orfield noted in his 1996 book, Dismantling Desegregation, separate is inherently unequal, not because “something magic happens to minority students when they sit next to whites,” but because minority schools are so often “isolated high-poverty schools that almost always have low levels of academic competition, performance, and preparation for college or jobs.”

Numerous studies have confirmed the findings of the 1966 Coleman Report that the “beneficial effect of a student body with a high proportion of white students comes not from racial composition per se but from the better educational background and higher educational aspirations that are, on the average, found among whites.” This finding is confirmed by other studies that conclude that racial integration is much more likely to raise academic achievement of African American students when the plan involves more affluent suburban whites, as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, as opposed to poor and working-class whites, as in Boston, Massachusetts.

The data on the various factors that make for a difficult learning environment – peers who are disruptive, who cut class, watch excessive TV, and drop out of high school; parents who are inactive in the school – all track much more by class than by race. Even the widely touted issue of African American students running down academic excellence as “acting white” turns out to be more closely associated with economic class (poor whites also denigrate achievement, on average).

Third, there is also a political advantage to leading with economic rather than racial integration. In some communities, like La Crosse, Wisconsin, local leaders believed that economic integration would go over better with the public, in part because poor whites would also benefit, and in part because it would prevent opponents of integration from playing the “race card.” More broadly speaking, there is an argument that progressives have a particular political interest in leading with class, so that so-called “Reagan Democrats” would see a benefit to their children – and would seek an alliance with African Americans, rather than opposing them.

How to Get There
How should economic school integration be accomplished? Compulsory busing – which gives parents no say in their children’s school assignment – is a political nonstarter. A 1998 Public Agenda poll found that 76% of white parents, as well as a substantial minority (42%) of African American parents, were opposed to “busing children to achieve a better racial balance in the schools.” But we’ve learned a number of things since the racial desegregation era of the early 1970s about how to make integration more politically palatable.

The first lesson is to emphasize choice over coercion. Voucher proponents say it’s unfair to trap kids in bad schools – a stunning admission for conservatives who once defended the neighborhood school at all costs. Vouchers are wrongheaded for a number of reasons, and they divide Americans politically, but there is consistently more than 70% support for greater school choice within the public school system. Choice empowers families where busing (or automatic neighborhood assignment) leaves them impotent.

The second lesson is to emphasize that economic integration is primarily about making schools effective and raising academic achievement. Last year, Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina schools adopted a policy that no school is to have more than 40% of its students eligible for free or reduced price lunch (family income less than 185% of the poverty line) or have more than 25% of its students reading below grade level. The purpose of the Wake County program is not to rectify historic discrimination or to promote a utopian vision of an integrated society but to create quality schools and raise academic achievement. Says Wake County schools attorney Ann Majestic, it’s “educational engineering,” not social engineering.

The third lesson is to give educational incentives for middle-class families to buy in to integrated schools. It is important to offer middle-class families something in return, a reason to venture beyond local schools, whether that be smaller class size or an emphasis on the arts. We should capitalize on the common-sense notion that in education one size doesn’t fit all.

The most promising mechanism is a system of assignment known as “controlled choice,” used in Cambridge, Massachusetts and elsewhere. Automatic assignment based on what neighborhood people can afford to live in is abolished. Officials poll parents and find out what kinds of schools they’d like. Then they make every school within a given geographic region a magnet school, providing special signatures or themes (computers, arts) or special pedagogical approaches (e.g., Montessori, back to basics). Families rank preferences, and those choices are honored by school officials in a way that will also ensure that all schools are majority middle- class. Schools that are underchosen get extra help, just as a lagging professional football team gets a first-round draft pick. The same 1998 Public Agenda poll which found strong opposition to busing found substantial support for racial integration combined with choice. Asked whether they favored or opposed “letting parents choose their top three schools, while the district makes the final choice, with an eye to racial balance,” 61% of white parents favored the approach (35% disapproved), while 65% of black parents approved (34% opposed).

The era of court-ordered racial desegregation is coming to an end. But to give up on racial and economic integration altogether – pouring greater and greater resources into making separate but equal a little more equitable – is to concede almost all of the problem. Greater public school choice is in our future. The question is whether progressives can harness the choice movement to help overcome the massive inequalities inherent in a system that educates poor and middle-class children separately.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), and is Executive Director of The Century Foundation Task Force on the Common School, chaired by Lowell P. Weicker, Jr.


Richard D. Kahlenberg (, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), and is Executive Director of The Century Foundation Task Force on the Common School, chaired by Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. ( The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Task Force.


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