Integrating Schools by Income, Not Race: Why Cities Are Embracing ‘an Idea Whose Time Has Come’

By Kevin Mahnken | October 10, 2018
Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

In the midst of politics and court battles, cities like Cambridge, Mass., are eyeing socioeconomic diversity as the future of school integration

Updated October 12

Sixty-four years after the landmark Brown v. Board decision, integration has regained its status as one of the most urgent objectives in education today. In the wake of a large-scale resegregation of public schools since the 1990s, a number of journalists, policy analysts, and policymakers are pushing to introduce greater diversity in public schools.

While the players differ with respect to means — the debate around whether school choice policies such as charters and vouchers mitigate or contribute to segregation burns hotter than ever — much of the reform movement is united in at least the stated aim of making schools more representative of the United States as a whole.

That goal is typically justified on academic grounds: Whether in kindergarten or college, students learn more when exposed to peers of varying backgrounds, integration advocates assert. But some also invoke the claims at the heart of the Brown-era integration debates, arguing that polarized school communities pose a threat to civil society.

“Particularly after 2016, it’s clear that our country is much more vulnerable to a demagogue who vilifies minorities when schools are racially segregated,” Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, told The 74. “When white students know few Mexican-American classmates or Muslim classmates, it’s much easier for someone to suggest that those groups are causing all your problems.”

This week, The 74 concludes its multi-part examination of San Antonio’s ambitious, class-based approach to integration. Spearheaded by Superintendent Pedro Martinez, the program identifies students using reams of family data — on income, parents’ educational attainment, homelessness, etc. — and directs them to a slate of new and coveted “schools of choice” designed to attract more affluent pupils from around the city. The experiment is playing out in the seventh-largest city in the United States, and it’s drawing attention from national education observers.

San Antonio’s policy is a big idea, but not an unprecedented one. Dozens of smaller school districts have been implementing socioeconomic integration plans for roughly two decades now. According to The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank that has loudly advocated for a class-focused approach to integration, districts and charter schools aiming for some form of heterogeneity by class now enroll nearly 4.5 million students.

 ‘An Elegant Legal Solution’

Kahlenberg is, quite likely, the nation’s most prominent expert on socioeconomic integration. He has written several books arguing that balkanized classrooms will produce a divided citizenry, and he energetically makes the same case in op-eds to The Washington Post and The Atlantic. Kahlenberg even consults with local officials in cities and school districts that are mulling the idea.

Like many active in the education sphere, he watched with dismay in 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled against districts in Seattle and Louisville that had violated the Constitution by relying explicitly on race to dictate school assignments. It was seen as a particularly damaging blow to integration efforts. Going forward, policy entrepreneurs began to think more seriously about non-racial indicators, such as family income, as a more legally insulated alternative.

Kahlenberg insists this solution offers more than just a cover for achieving racial integration through other means.

“It’s an elegant legal solution to the … roadblock Supreme Court case in front of districts that are seeking to integrate racially,” he told The 74. “But it’s not just a cute way of getting around the Supreme Court. Socioeconomic integration also has power as an education reform strategy in its own right.”

Kahlenberg says the evidence in favor of mixed-income schools dates back to the 1966 release of the landmark Coleman Report, a foundational work of social science that found that no single in-school factor exerted a greater influence on a student’s academic performance than the socioeconomic background of his classmates. In the decades since, scholars like Stanford’s Sean Reardon have documented the growing gaps in achievement between low-income students and their more advantaged peers — even as the disparity between white and minority students has slowly narrowed.

Individual case studies offer more evidence. In a 2010 study of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, RAND Institute policy researcher Heather Schwartz found that poor students who were randomly assigned to attend low-poverty elementary schools ended up drastically outperforming their peers who attended schools with higher rates of poverty. By the end of elementary school, low-income kids enrolled in the district’s more affluent schools significantly reduced their achievement gaps in math and reading compared with their non-poor classmates.

Kahlenberg said that the lesson of successful integration efforts like Montgomery County was “not that there was some benefit to being in a school that had students whose skin color was white. It’s that there are benefits to being in a middle-class as opposed to a high-poverty environment where your classmates expect to go on to college, where parents are in a position to be actively involved in school affairs, and where you tend to get the strongest, most experienced teachers.”

Even more than the pure academic effects, Kahlenberg says that the civic impact of truly diverse schools — in terms of race, class, ethnicity, and immigration and ability status — can’t be overstated. Given the fraught social atmosphere of the past decade, he says that it’s more important than ever to cultivate schools as meeting grounds for children of different backgrounds.

“I think it is an idea whose time has come, in part because we’ve had a wake-up call on the need for public schools to create good democratic citizens, and segregated schools undercut our desire to foster democratic values. … Integration underlines the message that we are all political equals. Segregation can tend to make privileged groups feels superior, which is deeply disruptive in a democracy.”

How It’s Done

One of America’s pioneering systems of socioeconomic integration is found in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Home to the marble halls of Harvard and MIT, and known to locals as the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” the progressive bastion faced a challenge in the 1970s: Voluntarily integrate its schools, or do so at the threat of state sanction.

The scarring battle over compulsory busing in Boston was kicked off by a 1974 order from a federal judge. Much larger and more segregated than neighboring Cambridge, the city exploded in protest against the mandate; riots and arrests were a regular feature on local news, and the episode crystallized a kind of national weariness with the civil rights struggle that had been waged since the 1950s. Cambridge was determined to avoid the same nightmare.

“Of course, the mantra was, ‘We’re not going to be another Boston,’” Michael Alves, then a desegregation specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Education, told The 74. “You’ve got to understand the trauma of Boston of being convicted in a federal court and everything that followed. Nobody wanted to end up like Boston, so that was a strong impetus to desegregate and voluntarily develop a plan that could be approved by the state.”

Alves helped Cambridge devise a dramatically different model that they dubbed “controlled choice.” Beginning in 1981, all 12 of the city’s K-8 schools were effectively converted to magnet schools. Parents ranked choices for where to enroll their kindergartners (existing elementary and middle school students were permitted to remain in the school where they were enrolled, though many opted to switch), and the district placed them with the aim of achieving a racial balance that resembled the city as a whole.

The system proved a success both in granting parental preference and in achieving racial balance. Roughly 90 percent of families received a school assignment from their top three options, and about 75 percent received their top choice. Meanwhile, within five years of the program’s inception, all but one of the district’s K-8 schools fell within 5 percent of Cambridge’s overall racial breakdown. School-level integration, it seemed, could be attained without attracting a hail of rocks.

But obstacles lay in store. By the 1990s, a flurry of lawsuits in state court alleged that various public school districts had employed illegal racial preferences. The city’s lawyers advised the school board that, to get on steadier legal ground, they should switch to another metric to guide school assignment. Class offered a natural proxy.

Beginning in the 2002-03 school year, the formerly race-based system of school choice was replaced with one hinging on free and reduced-price lunch status, a common barometer of poverty. Within three years, 10 of the city’s 12 K-8 schools were substantially integrated on class lines, falling within 15 percentage points of the district average for free lunch eligibility. And a remarkable portion of families, approaching 90 percent, were still receiving their top-choice school.

Alves says that racial integration is “a national imperative in this country,” and he feels that a truly diverse school will reflect the multifarious identities that students bring from home — whether class-related, ethnic, or otherwise. But he argues that a well-executed socioeconomic integration plan can effect substantial racial integration through non-racial means. And in a city like Cambridge, where the middle- and upper-class children of Ivy League professors are often black or Asian, he says that some accounting must be made for class differences within racial groups.

“Socioeconomics are not a substitute for race,” he conceded. “But you get inside of race, looking at the intra-racial socioeconomics. If you look at the socioeconomics of African Americans — certainly, [they are] still disproportionately poor, but they have a middle class and a black elite. When you can see that, that’s a major breakthrough, because … you can identify the children most at risk and the children least at risk, and both get access to high-quality schools.”

How to Identify Class?

Not everyone agrees with Alves. William Darity is a professor of economics, public policy, and African-American studies at Duke who has conducted research into integration programs. He believes that socioeconomic integration, while an improvement over a traditional neighborhood-based assignment regime, is nevertheless a regrettable step back from the openly race-based desegregation efforts of the 1960s and ’70s.

In an interview with The 74, Darity lamented the use of socioeconomic metrics as “a mechanism for avoiding having to use explicit race-based assignment.” He referred to America’s long, pre-Brown history of enrolling students according to the color of their skin, noting the irony of whites only complaining once race was used as a tool to bring children together rather than keep them apart. “People weren’t complaining about race-based assignment in schools in the 1920s,” he said.

With a team of researchers from Duke, Morgan State, and the University of North Carolina, Darity studied the socioeconomic integration program used in Wake County, North Carolina, which includes the state capital of Raleigh. Though much larger than Cambridge — during the period under consideration, Wake was one of the 10 fastest-growing counties in the country — the community’s story is similar to that of the People’s Republic: When its generally successful racial integration system faced legal troubles in the 1990s, district officials switched to class considerations. Going forward, they decreed, each school should aim to enroll no more than 40 percent students eligible for reduced-price lunch, and no more than 25 percent who read below grade level.

Some backlash followed, and the district’s fast-growing enrollment made drawing school boundaries a regular challenge. Overall, however, county schools became notably more socioeconomically diverse than the state average, and the plan won the enthusiastic support of the business community.

What’s more, the immediate impact on achievement was heartening. According to Darity’s study, racial gaps between white and minority students narrowed after the integration system was put into place, and test scores improved in comparison with those in other districts.

Still, Darity maintained that integration on class lines is “not a perfect substitute for race-based school assignment.” If race is barred as a factor in student assignment considerations, he says, the best alternative metric would be family wealth. While huge segments of the population, both white and non-white, are eligible for free lunch, the gap in average household wealth between white and black families is a far more precise measure of disadvantage, he says.

“If you were to use wealth instead of income, that would create a closer connection between race and socioeconomic status. But typically in these kinds of school assignment plans, nobody talks about wealth as opposed to income.”

In a dramatic turn, the county’s integration plan was curtailed in 2010, after a newly elected conservative school board opted to return to a neighborhood-based assignment system. Though the new board was itself swept out of office shortly thereafter, its replacements left in place many of its changes, and local data indicate a surge in the number of high-poverty schools in the years that followed.

Alves, who was consulted by the school board in 2011, says that local leadership is the sine qua non of building lasting equity.

“When you’re not under federal court order anymore, all these plans we’re talking about — socioeconomic or racial — have to be approved by some governing body: the mayor, the school board, whatever. And over time, other mayors come in, school board elections, new superintendents. So it’s always a challenge.”

Read other installments of this series, as well as other recent coverage of school segregation and district integration efforts, at The74Million.org/Integration.

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