There they go again

Liam Julian

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled against the Louisville and Seattle school districts, race-based student assignment policies are mostly illegal. Superintendents around the nation are now seeking other ways to maintain social diversity in their hallways and classrooms.

Today's faddish solution is some version of "assign them by income," based on the premise that district school-assignment policies can achieve a high degree of desirable integration by using socioeconomic status--not yet a proscribed category. The idea is being touted by school officials, journalists, policy wonks such as Richard Kahlenberg, and even a presidential candidate as diversity's best hope in the current jurisprudential climate.

As Reagan might say, there they go again, with yet another rendition of social engineering via public schooling.

To be sure, income integration doesn't collide with the same legal barriers as race-based policies. But it will founder for much the same reason that race-based policies failed. Integrating school systems, on whatever grounds, requires heavy-duty busing. Students are reassigned to schools based on demographics, not geography or preference. Kids and parents understandably balk, especially the middle-income ones (those who don't leave for private schools, that is).

They're right, too. Trying to manufacture school diversity--whether through race or income--is a well meaning but ultimately bad idea. Districts should focus on improving schools for all students and providing real school choice for all families, not on re-jiggering pupil assignment plans.

Diversity is no bad thing but in itself does little to further the real mission of schools, which is teaching all comers well. Many diversity defenders claim (some of them explicitly) that poor and minority students can learn only when they're sitting next to wealthier, white and Asian students--i.e., that academic achievement hinges on having a well-mixed classroom.

They cite various studies that claim to demonstrate this truth. Yet such a view is defeatist and, in some respects, racist, besides being disproved by dozens of high-performing, majority-minority schools. Such schools don't succeed because they're packed with middle-class or white kids but because their principals and teachers cultivate achievement-based outlooks and refuse to accept excuses (especially those based on race or income) from their pupils.

Some claim that integrating kids by income is the best way to close achievement gaps. But consider the experience of Wake County, North Carolina, which encompasses Raleigh, a booming city with a strong economy and growing population. Beginning in 2000, the district has integrated its schools socioeconomically: no school is supposed to have more than 40 percent low-income students.

Wake County has garnered much media attention and praise for this program because its test scores have risen. But compared to the rest of North Carolina, is Wake County doing a better job of educating kids? Not really. Between 2000-01 and 2005-06, the percentage of black eighth-graders across North Carolina who scored at grade level on state reading tests jumped by 9 points. In Wake County, the percentage increased by only 6 points.

Over the same period, the percentage of low-income North Carolina eighth-graders reading at grade level rose by 10 points, slightly more than in Wake County.

Breathless newspaper coverage notwithstanding, Wake County's educational progress does not knock the top off anything; it has roughly mirrored that of the state overall. Which doesn't justify the district's implementation of an intrusive, income-integration plan that was implemented in large part to increase test scores of low-income and minority students.

While test scores may not be soaring in Wake County, logistical problems are (here's one). Demographic shifts, for starters. The number of poor residents in the county is rising, which inevitably affects the district's school assignment plan. Thus, at the end of the 2005-06 school year, 31 of Wake's 116 elementary and middle schools were over the 40 percent low-income ceiling, and enrollments in 18 surpassed 50 percent low-income.

Such numbers indicate that Wake County is either unwilling or unable to stick to its income-integration goals. But bigger problems are arising from parents, many of whom--upset by lengthy bus rides across the sprawling county and by annual school reshufflings that will move 11,000 students this fall--are opposing the pupil-assignment scheme. Most recently, a group of middle-income parents won their legal battle against the district's plan to force some students into year-round schools. (Year-round schooling is probably a good idea, especially for poor kids, but that doesn't mean families embrace it.)

Other prosperous parents aren't bothering with the courts. They're simply pulling their kids out of the public system and enrolling them in private alternatives--exactly as some white (and middle-income black) families did in response to race-based busing.

Parents love having their kids transported to school, but their attitude changes sharply when bus rides last for hours due to social engineering. It makes little difference if students are bused to achieve racial or economic diversity--parents don't want their daughters and sons used this way. Polling in Wake County, for instance, shows greater support for neighborhood schools than for socioeconomic balance.

Even if income-based school assignments are constitutionally permissible, they suffer from the other logistical, political, and parental challenges faced by the race-based kind. Effective school-assignment policies do not offend vast numbers of their clients. Nor do they allow only wealthy parents to exercise educational choice, while the poor are stuck in public schools that they may not like and that may not be meeting their needs.

Forget elaborately gerrymandered districts and computerized pupil assignment schemes. School leaders ought to be offering parents a robust menu of high-quality educational options, such as magnet programs and charter schools, and improving neighborhood schools, too. That way, families can make the best education decisions for their children, choices unaffected by their income or lack thereof.

Schools need to return to the task at hand: educating all kids, regardless of what they look like or how much money their parents make.

"School Diversity Based on Income Segregates Some," by Jonathan D. Glater and Alan Finder, New York Times, July 15, 2007

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