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April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

The New Economic School Desegregation

As communities across the United States abandon racial desegregation efforts, educators are finding a more effective way to ensure equality of educational opportunities: socioeconomic integration.

Across the United States, court-ordered racial desegregation efforts are ending. From Boston, Massachusetts, to Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina—hot spots for busing in the 1970s—mandated racial desegregation is being dismantled. Even voluntary racial integration in Arlington, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland, is being struck down by the courts. As the United States grows more ethnically diverse, the traditional tools for promoting school integration are becoming less and less potent.
Fortunately, creative policymakers are exploring a new way to achieve racial integration—and more important, to create genuine equality of educational opportunity. If using race in student placement is legally problematic, why not promote integration through student economic status? Promoting economic integration is perfectly legal, and given the strong correlation between race and class in the United States, it will produce racial diversity. Moreover, economic integration promises to give all students access to schools that have a core of middle-class families—which educators know is the most reliable predictor of school quality.
In cities such as La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Manchester, Connecticut, educators are turning directly to economic status as a basis for integration. Restoring 19th century educator Horace Mann's idea of the common school—schools that educate students from all walks of life under one roof—represents the single best way to promote genuine equality of educational opportunity.

Racial Integration

Beginning with the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, the United States began a necessary effort to dismantle entrenched racial segregation in public schools. Although the fight over integration—and busing in particular—was often difficult, where desegregation did occur, black achievement rose substantially (while white scores did not decline). The best studies found that racial integration could cut the black-white test gap by as much as one-half (Mahard & Crain, 1983). Test scores tended to rise most when integration involved entire metropolitan areas and when racial integration produced socioeconomic integration.
But this effort was undercut by three sets of court decisions that dramatically curtailed the promise of Brown. First, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1974 decision Milliken v. Bradley held that under most circumstances, desegregation orders would be limited to existing school district boundaries, meaning that many suburban jurisdictions would effectively be exempt from racial integration. As a result, middle-class families could easily avoid desegregation by moving to the suburbs, and the chance that racial mixing would produce economic mixing declined as many busing plans ended up integrating poor urban blacks with poor urban whites.
Second, a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s made clear that racial desegregation was a temporary remedy for past discrimination rather than a long-term strategy to promote equal opportunity. Courts began to release school districts from desegregation remedies. Third, more recently, a number of federal district and appeals courts—in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia, for example—have struck down voluntary desegregation efforts.
In many cases, communities witnessing an end to racial integration policies may return to neighborhood schools that are segregated by race and class. Many frustrated people of color believe that integration is unnecessary or unattainable; it makes more sense to fix high-poverty schools than to transport kids between schools.
The problem is that high-poverty schools don't work well, even when they receive extra funding. According to a 1997 congressionally authorized study of the federal compensatory aid program, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the expenditure of extra funding, in the context of isolated poverty, yields few achievement gains (Puma, Karweit, Ricciuti, Thompson, & Vaden-Kiernan, 1997).

Socioeconomic Integration

A more promising educational strategy, better than forced racial busing or "separate but equal" schools, is socioeconomic integration. We know that middle-class schools work best. In a country that is predominantly middle class, why not try to give every U.S. child the right to attend a school where the majority of students come from middle-class backgrounds? Today, one-quarter of public schools have a majority of students poor enough to be eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FARMs), that is, their family's income is less than 185 percent of the poverty line (Anderson, 1993). We need to integrate these students with more privileged students in other schools so that all schools have a student population with a middle-class majority.
Socioeconomic integration serves two major goals. First, economic integration will promote racial diversity. Schools that are 90 to 100 percent African American and Latino are 14 times as likely to be majority poor as schools that are 90 percent or more white. Efforts to break up concentrations of poverty will involve large numbers of children of color (Orfield & Eaton, 1996).
Second, and more important, socio-economic integration gets at the core issue driving school quality. The studies linking racial integration with increased levels of black student achievement found that the benefits came not from black students sitting next to white students, but from poor students being exposed to the benefits of a predominantly middle-class school. Gary Orfield, a leading proponent of racial integration, long ago acknowledged that Educational research suggests that the basic damage inflicted by segregated education comes not from racial concentration but from the concentration of children from poor families. (1978, p. 69)
Educators know that a school's quality derives less from the per-pupil expenditure than from the people who make up the school community—the classmates, the parents, and the teachers. Classmates are constantly teaching one another study habits, vocabulary words, and appropriate levels of aspirations. Likewise, we know that for a variety of reasons, middle-class parents are more likely to volunteer in school and to make financial contributions—and that this active parental involvement is a key ingredient to effective schools (Chubb & Moe, 1990).
Finally, studies indicate that higher-quality teachers are attracted to schools with majority middle-class student bodies and that teachers have higher expectations for students in middle-class schools. One study found that students receiving As in high-poverty schools achieve on the same level as students receiving Cs in middle-class schools (Puma et al., 1997).

Controlled Choice

Socioeconomic integration can be implemented in different ways. Once a jurisdiction commits to making all schools majority non-FARM eligible, it can pursue socioeconomic integration by redrawing school boundaries, buildling new schools in particular locations, or approving only those transfers that promote economic integration. But given residential segregation by class and race, the best way to achieve integration is through a mechanism known as controlled public school choice. Used to better balance racial populations in such cities as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Montclair, New Jersey, controlled choice plans can easily be refigured to better balance economic populations.
Under controlled choice, families are not assigned to local schools but instead choose from a variety of public schools within a given geographic cluster. Parents are polled ahead of time to gauge what sort of specialty schools they most desire; then all the schools become magnets, with an emphasis on particular themes or pedagogies. Districts honor choice with an eye to promoting economic integration. Overchosen schools are franchised and underchosen schools are improved or closed.
Controlled choice is preferable to a system of magnet and general schools because it doesn't create two tiers of education, one clearly better than the other. Controlled choice is preferable to busing because it adds choice instead of taking choice away. It has educational merit independent of integration issues: Most educators now believe that no one type of school works best for every child. And controlled choice is better than uncontrolled choice because it avoids the so-called prisoners' dilemma, in which people make choices on the basis of how they think other people will act. A family might be reluctant to choose a particular school with an attractive pedagogy located in a poor neighborhood because they fear that other middle-class families will not make a similar choice. But if all schools are guaranteed to have a majority middle-class student body, parents are free to choose on the basis of pedagogy, theme, or location—and not to worry about how others choose.
In most cases, public school choice within district boundaries can create majority middle-class schools. In 86 percent of school districts, a majority of students are well-off enough not to be eligible for free and reduced-price meals (Anderson, 1993). In the other 14 percent of districts, interdistrict choice measures will be necessary.
Of course, new student assignment plans, particularly those that involve interdistrict transfers, are likely to raise political objections. The key point is that all the studies suggest that middle-class students will not decline academically in economically integrated schools as long as those schools remain majority middle class. Even the strongest critics of busing and racial desegregation concede that white achievement did not decline with integration, as long as schools remained majority white (Armor, 1995).
The primary political objection to socioeconomic integration is that communities value neighborhood schools. Schools form the nucleus of communities, some argue, and parents may be estranged from schools that are distant from their homes. Others argue that families who pay a premium for a house in a good school district have a right to send their child to that school.
But advocates of public school choice note that there are many benefits to the new model. Schools of choice can form new communities, determined not from residence and wealth but from shared commitment to particular interests (such as computers) or values (such as back-to-basics education). Public school choice allows parents who put a premium on sending their child to a nearby school to make such a choice, whereas other parents can choose a school with a particular pedagogical or thematic emphasis. Controlled studies of school choice find that the primary impediment to parental involvement is not geographical, but psychological, and that the act of choosing a school is associated with increased, not decreased, parental involvement (Schneider, Teske, Marschall, Mintrom, & Roch, 1997).
Finally, the notion that parents can "buy" a public school is antithetical to democratic theories of public education. A taxpayer's money supports all schools at varying levels, not just those within walking distance. And as a practical matter, there is no guarantee that living in a particular neighborhood means that children will attend a particular school; boundaries are constantly redrawn. In a culture that values freedom and choice, support for public school choice has increased from 12 percent 20 years ago to more than 70 percent today (Kolderie, 1990; Fliegel, 1993).
Of course, middle-class families will need incentives to participate in the new integration plan, particularly across district lines. Urban schools should take advantage of urban resources and form partnerships with sports teams, universities, museums, and theaters. And in many states, constitutional obligations to provide an equal or adequate education may be extended from the current understanding (access to equal financial resources across district lines) to equality in the nonfinancial resources that, in fact, matter even more: motivated peers, active parents, and qualified teachers with high expectations. A related argument prevailed in Connecticut (Sheff v. O'Neill, 1996), and lawsuits are now pending in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Rochester, New York, that argue for socioeconomic integration across district lines.
Many communities will not need a legal nudge. They will adopt socio-economic integration because it is the right thing to do. When La Crosse, Wisconsin, adopted a plan to redraw school boundaries to better balance the free-lunch student population in the early 1990s, school board member Roger LeGrand said that the effort was supported by a board that included progressives and conservatives, all of whom thought it appropriate to give "everybody from whatever background . . . the same shot." He commented, I always thought this whole thing was just about America . . . where the sun comes up in the morning, and kids, no matter where they are, all go to the same school.
Socioeconomic integration plans are being considered in a number of diverse communities, including San Francisco, California (where a court has ruled that the continued use of race in student assignment is impermissible); Cambridge, Massachusetts; Jefferson County (Louisville), Kentucky; Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; Maplewood, New Jersey; and Montgomery County, Maryland.
In many of these communities, teachers are leading the fight for socio-economic integration. Those on the front lines of education know the often insurmountable obstacles posed by schools with high-poverty concentrations and that making all schools majority middle class is good for students. The hope is that out of the ashes of this nation's truncated effort to promote racial integration will emerge an even more durable and far-reaching policy to let all U.S. children benefit from attending a solidly middle-class public school.

Anderson, J. (1993). The distribution of Chapter 1 services. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Armor, D. (1995). Forced justice: School desegregation and the law. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chubb, J., & Moe, T. (1990). Politics, markets, and American schools. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Fliegel, S. (1993). Miracle in East Harlem. New York: Times Books.

Kolderie, T. (1990). Beyond choice to new public schools. Washington, DC: Progressive Policy Institute.

Mahard R., & Crain, R. (1983). Research on minority achievement. In C. Rossell & W. Hawley (Eds.), The consequences of school desegregation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Orfield, G. (1978). Must we bus? Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Orfield G., & Eaton, S. (1996). Dismantling desegregation: The quiet reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.

Puma, M., Karweit, C., Ricciuti, A., Thompson, W., & Vaden-Kiernan, M. (1997). Prospects: Final report on student outcomes. Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates.

Schneider, M., Teske, P., Marschall, M., Mintrom, M., and Roch, C. (1997). Institutional arrangements and the creation of social capital: The effects of public school choice. American Political Science Review, 91, 82–93.

Richard D. Kahlenberg has contributed to educational leadership.

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