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"Socioeconomic School Integration - A Reply to the Responses,"

by Richard D. Kahlenberg November/December 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

The responses to my article, “Socioeconomic School Integration,” make a number of important points that are themselves deserving of a reply. I group my comments around six themes.

1. Using Race in K-12 School Integration vs. Higher Education Affirmative Action.
In the context of K-12 schooling, I argue for “leading” with socioeconomic integration because I think it is the central determinant of quality education. Having said that, I also believe, where it is legally permissible, that it is appropriate for school districts to consider race in student assignment. I think the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to strike down the use of race in student assignment in the very near future – except where race is used to remedy the vestiges of de jure segregation – but until it does, I believe school districts in judicial circuits that continue to allow the use of race should do so. In the context of K-12 education, when Gary Orfield
says class should be “a supplement to rather than a replacement for” race, I agree.

The K-12 situation can be distinguished from affirmative action at selective institutions of higher education (where I do think class should replace considerations of race), because attending a non-selective elementary or secondary school doesn’t raise issues of “merit” or “desert.” No student can be considered to have “earned” his or her way into a non-selective K-12 institution; they are democratic institutions open to all. (The flip side is that because no testing is involved in non-selective primary and secondary education, the “racial dividend” of economic integration – the degree to which economic integration produces racial integration -- will be greater in the K-12 context than the higher education context.)

2. Social vs. Academic Reasons for Integration.
Broadly speaking, there are two sets of reasons to favor integrated schools: academic (integration will raise student achievement) and societal (integration will make students better citizens and more tolerant individuals and make the country more unified). In my earlier article, I emphasized the first objective, raising academic achievement, which is mostly a matter of integrating by class. There is little reason to think blacks need to sit next to whites to learn, but there is ample reason to think low-income students of all races will benefit from a middle-class school environment. Take a few of the ten points I raised in my original article: Schools do better when parents serve as powerful advocates for improvements. Who is likely to be better at getting school needs met: an African American lawyer or a white waitress? Studies find
that resources flow not by race but by class. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Condition of Education 1998 in the 1993-94 school year, high income districts expended $7,027 per pupil, compared to $5,634 for low-income districts. But districts with high percentages of minority students actually spent somewhat more than districts with low percentages ($6,847 vs. $6,347). To take another example, highly motivated peers have a positive influence on any given child’s education. Conservatives make a big deal out of the finding that some low-income African Americans deride achievement as “acting white,” but according to Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig’ s national study, included in The Black-White Test Score Gap, acting white has more to do with class than race. Controlling for class, they found that blacks do not cut classes, miss school or complete fewer homework assignments than whites.

(Of course, minority students and parents are more likely to be low income – more likely to be waitresses than lawyers. Moreover, as john powell notes, “75% of those living in high poverty neighborhoods are minorities.” That’s precisely why economic integration will produce a fair amount of racial integration.)

john powell’s article is right to highlight the larger societal issue: that education is more than about test scores -- it’s about citizenship too. In my book All Together Now, I discuss the important benefits of both racial and economic integration in teaching students the meaning of democracy. This is all the more relevant after September 11th. Integration by race is essential if we want to teach tolerance; anyone who thinks white racism is a thing of the past is demented. I agree with Shaw that race continues to have meaning that "is distinct from, even if connected to, the significance of class" and with powell that “integration envisions the transformations of the mainstream.”

3. Segregation Between Schools vs. Segregation Within Schools.
Thomas Henderson notes the goals of integration may be defeated if integrated school buildings are re-segregated by classroom. Gary Orfield also raises the issue that “children are often placed in lower-track classes, based on racial assumptions by counselors and teachers.”

Likewise, Makani Themba points out that magnet schools can sometimes be segregated, so that certain students have “their own staircase, corridor and section in the cafeteria.” In All Together Now, I spend a fair amount of space addressing the complicated issue of ability grouping and tracking within integrated schools. I am strongly opposed to separate magnet programs within larger schools, and I believe tracking must be tempered by equity considerations. I’m also strongly supportive of using Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to ensure that ability grouping practices that have a disparate impact on minority students must be fully justified as educationally valid.

4. Politics vs. The Law.
I agree with the critique that says socioeconomic integration is politically difficult to accomplish, though I think it’s marginally less difficult than racial integration and that creative use of public school choice can overcome much of the opposition to forced “busing.” Gary Orfield cites the example of the failed effort to promote socioeconomic integration in Wausau, Wisconsin as evidence of the difficulty of achieving the goal. In fact, Wausau’s unsuccessful effort coupled integration by race and class; and its failure is contrasted to a contemporaneous success in nearby La Crosse Wisconsin, where a straight socioeconomic integration plan was
adopted and remains in place. Teachers proved crucial to the political success of that program and will be important allies in the political fight for economic school integration.

Having said that, it’s also important to look at the courts to promote integration. Orfield claims that socioeconomic integration “does not have any enforceable basis in law,” while Themba contends I would “withdraw the power of law from the efforts to address class.” In fact, I agree with S.M. Miller that we should seek new legal devices to promote integration. While there is no federal constitutional right to economically integrated schools, there is some intriguing state law that could be used to fashion an argument for socioeconomic integration on a state-by-state basis. In roughly half the states nationally, state supreme courts have found that state constitutions require either equal educational opportunity or an adequate education. This is an affirmative right that has been interpreted to require changes in school financing within states, across district lines. But if finances are but one of ten factors important to getting an equal education (as outlined in my prior piece), then state constitutions may be read to require that poverty concentrations be addressed. The Connecticut Supreme Court came close to saying that, and a similar suit is now pending in Rochester, New York. I also very much like Thomas Henderson’s suggestion that new efforts should be made to enforce Brown vs. Board of Education by pointing to documented harm that comes from segregation, now that courts no longer seem to believe those harms are “inherent.”

5. Choice vs. Coercion
I agree with Themba that choice in education by itself won’t produce integration, even though it theoretically frees us from school assignment that reflects housing segregation. School vouchers will make things worse. And even public school choice must be “controlled choice” – choice conditioned on the promotion of integration. Ideally, choice should take place across district
lines, as Thomas Henderson notes. Having said that, even integrating the suburbs would be important. While john powell is correct to say that in the past “blacks were excluded from choosing the 'burbs," today, 75% of African Americans in the Washington, D.C. area live in the suburbs. In Atlanta, the figure is 78%.

6. Housing Remedies vs. School Remedies
I also agree with powell and Henderson that in addition to school integration, we must address the larger issue of housing segregation. But we must also acknowledge that housing integration is marginally more difficult to accomplish. Philosophically, middle-class Americans appear
more willing to redistribute opportunity (education) than result (housing); and they may be more willing to send their children to integrated schools than to live next door to low-income families.


I will close where I began my first article, in observing that anyone who cares about integration at all – by race or class – is up against a powerful political consensus that what matters is quality, not integration. Discussions about the relative salience of race and class are important, but it is significant that all six of us agree that school integration – by race and class – will make our country and our people stronger. I happen to believe that for a variety of reasons, class is the central inequality; while my six colleagues argue that race is prior. Either way, the law can’t be ignored, which is why a number of progressive communities that have strongly supported racial integration – from San Francisco, to Charlotte, to Cambridge – are looking at the socioeconomic alternative. What we have been doing hasn’t taken us far enough; we have to explore new alternatives.

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 The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action (Basic Books, 1996).


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