Integrating Schools

Monday, July 23, 2007

BY AN ACCIDENT of timing, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling restricting the use of race in school integration efforts on the same day last month that the Democratic presidential candidates gathered at Howard University for a forum on issues of interest to minorities. Every candidate was quick to denounce the ruling, appropriately so, in our view. On his poverty tour last week, former North Carolina senator John Edwards moved the debate forward in a useful way, endorsing a plan to focus integration efforts on income rather than race -- in other words, to promote schools that are economically diverse.

This is not a new idea, but especially in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, it is a timely one. According to Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, whose work Mr. Edwards cites, about 40 U.S. school districts, with 2.5 million students, use socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment -- including the Wake County (Raleigh), N.C., school system, where Mr. Edwards's two oldest children were once enrolled. In 2000, the school board there voted to replace a race-based integration plan, which provided that schools in the district should have between 15 percent and 45 percent minority students, with one setting a goal of having no more than 40 percent of students in individual schools eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. The results have been promising, in terms of both maintaining racially integrated schools and improving the performance of disadvantaged students. According to Mr. Kahlenberg, "Wake County's low-income and minority students substantially outperform comparable low-income and minority students in large North Carolina districts that have greater concentrations of school poverty."

Promoting socioeconomic diversity in schools makes sense in its own right; it can be a backdoor way of achieving more racially integrated schools, which also is a plus. African American and other minority students are nearly three times as likely to be poor as white students. And the evidence is strong that low-income students thrive in higher-income schools -- in fact, after the socioeconomic status of a student's family, the biggest predictor of academic success is the socioeconomic level of the school. In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress given to fourth-graders in math, low-income students attending more affluent schools scored 20 points higher -- the equivalent of almost two years' learning -- than low-income students in high-poverty schools. Low-income students in middle-class schools did better than middle-class students in high-poverty schools.

Deciding on school assignment plans is a local issue, and an emotionally charged one at that. Mr. Edwards, though, would dangle various carrots to spur systems to consider economic integration. He proposes $100 million for school districts implementing economic integration programs, to pay for transportation and extra resources to schools that enroll low-income children. In addition, he says, he would double current federal funding for magnet schools, to $200 million a year, and dedicate the increase to schools that draw students from across district lines, attracting middle-class suburban students to schools in high-poverty urban neighborhoods. These are tiny numbers in the context of federal education funding; Title I funding, for low-income schools, is more than $13 billion. But Mr. Edwards's proposals move the debate forward in a useful and stimulating way.

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