Three years ago, when Paul Vance was superintendent of Montgomery County schools, he floated a novel educational idea--that economic integration is a better means than racial integration to give poor students a chance, and that the county should make efforts to integrate its schools based primarily on that factor. But the county's lawyers counseled that ignoring race in student assignments might draw a civil rights lawsuit alleging discrimination against minorities, he told me last year. So, for that and other reasons, he shelved the idea.

Since then, the tables have turned. Last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Montgomery County must drop its heavy reliance on race in its student transfer policy. In the case of Eisenberg v. Montgomery County Public Schools, the court held that the school system could not--solely on the basis of his race--deny a white first-grader, Jacob Eisenberg, a transfer from a school where 24 percent of the students were white to a magnet school that was 65 percent white. The Montgomery County Board of Education voted unanimously on Nov. 1 to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. Until a contrary ruling is handed down, the county may need an alternative way to promote integration.

It's about time.

For the past three years, I have been researching and promoting economic integration as the most promising alternative to race-based integration, and the best way to raise the academic performance of children from low-income families. In a number of rulings over the past three decades, the Supreme Court has made clear that where government decisions involving race will be struck down absent a compelling justification, the consideration of socioeconomic factors is perfectly legal. But when I began discussing socioeconomic integration with educators, the response was tepid. Most had thought of integration only as an issue of race, and poverty as a separate issue to be dealt with through higher spending. But now, as a result of the 4th Circuit's decision, Montgomery County has a rare opportunity to reconsider what is best for the students who need the most. It is an opportunity that should not be squandered.

Under socioeconomic plans, officials take steps to ensure that no school has a high concentration of poor children as measured by eligibility for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. There will be problems, of course--that's inevitable in a school system like Montgomery County's, with 185 schools, nearly 130,000 students and 6,200 teachers. Implementing an economic integration plan will require coming up with a precise definition of economic status and with creative ways to overcome residential separation by economic class. And a certain percentage of middle-class parents may well be reluctant to participate.

But with the Eisenberg case, Vance's idea has come off the shelf, and integration based on socioeconomic status rather than race is being widely discussed.

Reginald M. Felton, president of the Montgomery County School Board, told me last month that the board is looking into economic integration because with poverty "so prevalent among African Americans and Latinos, socioeconomic status is a way to provide racial integration legally." Moreover, such plans raise "a much bigger issue than how we can get around race," that is, how to provide a good education for poor children.

Michael L. Subin, chairman of the county council's education committee, last month told the Montgomery Gazette much the same thing: " . . . what we need to do is tinker with the policy so that economics becomes the factor, and not race."

Jerry D. Weast, the county's new school superintendent, made his educational philosophy clear in September. When it comes to school readiness, he said, "Poverty affects children. Forget race."

Montgomery County is not alone in wrestling with what to do about racial integration policies. In Arlington County, the 4th Circuit handed down a decision in late September striking down a policy of considering race in admissions to the Arlington Traditional School; the Arlington County School Board has appealed the decision.

Using socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment is an attractive alternative for a couple of reasons. Any system that does so is likely to increase its racial diversity. Perhaps just as importantly, because the courts have signaled approval of economic integration, school systems are reassured that such plans are viable.

But socioeconomic integration will do much more than indirectly promote racial integration. Studies show that giving poor kids access to middle-class schools can significantly raise their student achievement. For example, a 1986 U.S. Department of Education study found that, on average, poor children attending middle-class schools achieve at higher levels than middle-class children attending low-income schools.

Why does socioeconomic integration matter? There is evidence that schools where poor children predominate cannot be fixed simply by investing more money in them. Studies confirm what most parents know: that students, parents and teachers matter more to school quality than per capita expenditure. Classmates provide their peers with what has been called a "hidden curriculum." In low-income schools, peers have lower aspirations, cut classes twice as often and engage in misbehavior three times as often as students who aren't in low-income schools, according to reports from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1990s. Parents are four times less likely to be members of the PTA in low-income schools, according to an ETS study. A 1997 report of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future found that teachers at low-income schools were four times as likely to be teaching subjects outside their field of expertise and generally have lower expectations of students than teachers in middle-class schools. A 1997 study of the federal Title I program found that students receiving A's in low-income schools achieve at the same level as students receiving C's in middle-class schools.

By contrast, poor students given access to middle-class schools are exposed to peers and teachers with higher aspirations, and benefit from a critical mass of active parents. Because middle-class students would also suffer in low-income schools, the goal should be to make middle-class students the majority in all schools. In Montgomery County, where three-quarters of public school families are in that category, providing all students with access to middle-class schools should be eminently possible.

There are parents in Montgomery County who have been pushing for a version of this approach for some time. At two paired elementary schools near Silver Spring (Oak View and New Hampshire Estates) where more than three-quarters of the children are eligible for subsidized lunches, some parents have told me that an economic integration policy would make all the difference to their children. A county policy that funnels extra funds to the poorest schools has not done the trick: Of 118 elementary schools in the county, the reading and math scores of sixth-grade students at Oak View were dead last in 1997.

In 1998, parents from Oak View (now grades 3 through 5) and New Hampshire Estates (pre-kindergarten through grade 2), filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights alleging new district boundaries were further concentrating students by race. But one of the complainants, parent Greg Silsbee, says his primary concern has been concentrations of poverty: "It's not a racial issue, it's a class issue."

As American neighborhoods are becoming more and more economically stratified, advocates of economic integration are also jumping on the bandwagon of public school choice. Implementing the plans together would mean families living within a defined region would choose among specialty schools--each with a different theme--with choices honored by the school system in a way that ensures a strong middle-class presence in all schools. Over the past 20 years, Americans' support for public school choice has skyrocketed from 12 percent to 73 percent. A modest and indirect version of this is already being used in northeastern Montgomery County, where families choose among James Hubert Blake High School, with an arts focus; Springbrook High, with a technology and international baccalaureate program; and Paint Branch High, with a science and media theme. This year the first-choice placement rate was 97 percent.

Will middle-class parents in Montgomery County and elsewhere embrace economic integration policies? Polls indicate that most white, middle-class families are tolerant of, and many actively seek, some diversity by race and class, so long as middle-class students remain a majority in the school. Economic integration also answers an objection to racial integration among some minorities. In a place such as Montgomery County, which has a significant middle-class minority population, some ask: Why do we assume any school that is majority black is inherently inferior? In an interview last year, Vance told me that his support for economic rather than racial integration in the schools is partly because emphasizing race fed stereotypes that equate blacks with poverty, a notion "deeply embedded in the American psyche."

To be sure, the county faces an uphill battle. Congressional proposals for federal aid to education were rejected for 100 years before they were adopted. Like that effort, the fight for economic integration is worth waging.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is writing a book about economic school desegregation to be published next year.