Magazine Feature

Class Assignment

Can socioeconomic diversity restore the promise of school integration?

The Wake County school board was alarmed by the unmistakable shift in judicial opinion. Until the 1990s, desegregation initiatives such as busing were able to muster enough support in the nation's courts to fend off political pressure from the public and their elected lawmakers. By 1999, however, it seemed the courts not only had cooled to these integration strategies, but were leading the charge to dismantle them.

District after district was declared "unitary" (sufficiently free of discrimination) and released from its court-supervised desegregation orders. The door also seemed to be closing on the voluntary use of race in determining school assignment as lawsuits brought by parents began to pile up inside courtrooms.

One of these lawsuits had dramatic implications for Wake County, the second-largest school district in North Carolina. Since the mid-1980s, the district had relied on voluntary busing of White students to desegregate enrollments at magnet schools. Officials were proud of the fact that their schools' integration levels and student test scores were both higher than the national average.

Casting a cloud over these accomplishments in 1999 was an imminent ruling in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes North Carolina. At issue was a policy in Montgomery County, Md., that used race as a factor in determining student transfers.

"We were really concerned about what the appeals court was going to do," recalls Ann Majestic, the attorney for the Wake County school system. "Years of solid academic achievement and a commitment to integration would be jeopardized if the court outlawed using race in student assignments."

In October 1999, the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Montgomery County policy was unconstitutional, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the following March. Wake County, however, had already settled on an alternative strategy that may define what integration looks like in the 21st century. In the fall of 2000, a bold new assignment plan went into effect that replaced racial identification with income level, a conversion district officials believe will uphold their commitment to diversity and academic achievement.

"Wake County has become a leader in socioeconomic integration," according to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in Washington, D.C. "Here was a community that responded swiftly to the new political and legal climate and formulated an initiative that may become a national model for other communities that share its values."


Integration Revisited

A 1999 report by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, entitled "Resegregation in American Schools," detailed the isolation of students of color in the public school system. Authors Gary Orfield and John T. Yun found that the South, after a respite in the 1980s, is resegregating at the fastest rate of any region; Latino students are the most isolated student population in the U.S.; and segregated non-White students are usually in schools with high concentrations of poverty. (Segregated White students, on the other hand, are almost always enrolled in middle-class schools.)

According to Orfield, the 1990s witnessed the "largest backward movement toward segregation for Blacks in any time since Brown v. Board of Education."

Blaming the courts and segregated housing patterns, however, glosses over the reality that integration for integration's sake was, in the eyes of the American public, no longer a national imperative. A recent survey by Public Agenda, for example, found that 80 percent of White and Black parents believed higher academic standards in school were more important than a racially diverse student body.

"Diversity and access are civil rights issues, but so is quality education," says Roy L. Brooks, professor of law at University of San Diego Law School. "If you look at the experiences of African American students in many integrated schools, they're not good. Not only are many of these kids not welcome in schools, their academic achievement has suffered. So not only has integration fallen short of expectations, it has sometimes even burned these children."

African American frustration, coupled with deep-seated White hostility, was an integral factor in some cities' decision to abandon controversial desegregation initiatives. In 1999, Boston ended its busing program after 25 years, rather than defend the practice in front of the court or the public. Many believe, however, that Boston's experience illustrates why the failure of many of these policies originates not with integration per se, but with how the programs were designed and executed.

Many desegregation orders operated on the premise that Black children will prosper by merely sitting in the same classroom as White children, regardless of the condition of the school -- a fallacy inadvertently enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974. In Milliken v. Bradley, the Court ruled that desegregation remedies generally must be limited to single districts, in effect exempting suburban neighborhoods from compulsory busing programs in urban areas. "White flight" to the suburbs accelerated, leaving behind a concentration of White and Black students from disadvantaged backgrounds to shoulder the burden of desegregation.

"Not many children succeed in low-income schools, even if they are sitting in a diverse classroom," says Richard Kahlenberg. "Integration framed strictly around race will not serve the interests of disadvantaged children."

Kahlenberg is concerned that too many districts, under scrutiny from courts and the public, are in retreat when they should be regrouping and focusing their energies toward developing integration policies that incorporate issues of class, fairness and choice.

"Every child should be able to attend a middle-class school. Socioeconomic integration is a much more realistic tool to improve the lives of kids and give them an equal shot. The resources and culture of achievement in these schools will benefit and enrich those students who come from low-income backgrounds, regardless of their race."

Kahlenberg, author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice, believes that the public school's promise as the "great equalizer," first championed by 19th-century educator Horace Mann, must be reenergized in the 21st century. Mann's vision of the public school as a place where children from diverse class backgrounds come together under one roof is especially resonant today as the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. widens. According to Kahlenberg, these "common schools" will create better educational opportunities for disadvantaged children and, because of the correlation between race and class, more racially and ethnically diverse classrooms.

"In districts where socioeconomic integration is taking hold," Kahlenberg says, "educators -- principals, teachers, people on the front lines who see day-to-day the effect segregated classrooms and poor schools have on student achievement -- have been vocal in their support. For them it's the only viable alternative."

Wake County and other diversity-conscious communities in California, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin have at least examined the potential of socioeconomic integration. Some have hesitated or even retreated, but others are forging ahead with ambitious but controversial proposals they are confident will succeed where past initiatives failed.


"If You're Poor, You're Out of It"

La Crosse, Wis., a small city of 50,000 nestled along the banks of the Mississippi River, became an unlikely pioneer in socioeconomic integration 20 years ago. In the early 1980s, La Crosse was virtually all White but very segregated by class, a polarization evident in its two high schools. The white-collar kids went to Central; the blue-collar kids across town attended Logan. As overcrowding at Central and the concentration of poverty at Logan (determined by the number of students eligible for the Free and Reduced-Price Meals, or farm, program) became more acute, the school board redrew the district's boundaries to transfer some of the more affluent students to Logan.

"There was no racial question to consider. We were a White community," says David Johnston, former assistant superintendent. "But we saw the damage economic isolation was inflicting on Logan. It doesn't matter what your race is -- if you're poor, you're out of it."

The new boundaries succeeded in balancing the student population who were farm-eligible in both high schools. The plan was not duplicated in the district's elementary schools until 1992. La Crosse by then had witnessed an influx of Hmong families into the community. Classroom overcrowding at Jefferson Elementary and Hamilton Elementary, where most of the Hmong children went to school, aggravated an already untenable learning environment created by the overwhelming poverty at both schools. (Ninety percent of Jefferson's students were receiving lunch subsidies.)

For teacher Betsy Stannard and her colleagues at Jefferson and Hamilton, the deteriorating situation at their schools was unacceptable. The last straw came when Stannard learned that she would be spending half her day teaching at another school.

"We were just fed up with what was going on," she recalls. "Here we were, trying to get by with limited resources and poor conditions, and then they're taking teachers out of the school! A group of us marched down to the superintendent's office and asked 'What on earth are you trying to do?' The board had to be made aware of what was going on in these poorer schools and look for ways to make education work for these kids."

The La Crosse school board responded to the concerns of teachers and principals by approving the construction of two new elementary schools and a redesign of the boundaries to create more economically diverse student populations. Although the district had a track record with the high school experiment years earlier, the new plan was bound to be controversial, especially since the immigrant population in La Crosse added a racial component to the equation.

"All was calm for a while," remembers David Johnston. "But everything looks fine in the abstract. As soon as the plans were put on paper, many families said, 'Wait a minute. Where is my child going to school?'"

Sure enough, many parents did not want their kids taken out of nearby schools and transferred somewhere else. Proponents of the plan concede now they were not quite prepared for the backlash that was to follow: Newly organized parents and civic groups led the charge against the board, calling for new elections.

After the dust settled, the redrawn boundaries stood. The district subsequently allowed parents to opt out of their children's assigned school, but not enough families exercised that option to dismantle the gains. Betsy Stannard, now in her 25th year of teaching, remains pleased at the racial and socioeconomic diversity in her classroom.

"We're still evolving, but most people in the community are committed to school integration and the promise of not having any children learning in isolation."

Unlike La Crosse, Wake County's socioeconomic initiative was a reaction to the opposition that desegregation remedies had been encountering in the courts. The district scrapped its race-based guidelines in favor of a new strategy to balance out the low-income and underperforming students in each of the county's 110 schools.

By redrawing boundaries and using income level to determine assignments to magnet schools, officials hope to limit the number of farm-eligible students and underperforming students to 40 percent and 25 percent, respectively, in each school. The plan is being phased in gradually, with more than 3,500 students transferred to new schools in the fall of 2000.

District officials insist, however, that they're not using class as a proxy for race. Although they welcome the multidimensional diversity that economic integration can create, the paramount objective is to improve academic performance. By 2003, Wake County hopes to have 95 percent of its 3rd and 8th graders pass year-end tests.

"Study after study shows that students in heavy concentrations of poverty do not learn as well as others," explains Ann Majestic. "Our plan has multiple benefits: academic performance, a successful educational system and racially diverse schools. This is not social engineering -- it's educational engineering."


Integrate With Equal Parts

As Wake County positions itself as a national model, doubts persist that these bold initiatives can succeed if suburban families perceive them as coercive. Richard Kahlenberg insists integration and choice, practically a mantra among parents today, can be reconciled by tapping into the natural appeal of magnet schools. Under a system called "controlled public school choice," a district would create new specialty schools based on the preferences of parents in the community.

"Choices are honored by lottery with an eye toward ensuring economic integration." Kahlenberg explains. "For example, a student from the suburbs may want to attend a magnet school in the city because that school has access to museums, the arts, or partnerships with institutes of higher learning."

Still, many doubt if these carrots can in reality lure children away from their neighborhoods. More significantly, critics express concern that socioeconomic integration may create as many problems as it intends to solve.

"When you integrate along income levels," says Roy Brooks of the University of San Diego, "you may create a double stigma in the classroom -- race and class." Brooks believes that unless school districts devise innovative strategies to help teachers address the "cultural mismatch" created by mixing students by race and class, African American children will continue to be ill-served by integration.

"It goes beyond curriculum," Brooks continues. "Many teachers can't begin to understand the challenges children from low-income neighborhoods face every day, including, for example, just what it takes to get to school in the morning. They think they do, but they don't."

Karin Chenoweth, a journalist and parent in Montgomery County, Md., sees the stigma of lower educational standards in the integrated school her two children attend.

"Too many of these disadvantaged students don't receive the same education. They're the 'slow' kids -- expectations are decidedly lower. So they're still segregated. On the other hand, if these children do demonstrably better [in a desegregated setting], then the social isolation may be worth it."

Chenoweth believes in integration, a commitment she inherited from her parents, who were active in the Civil Rights Movement. However, she concedes that the attraction of the neighborhood school is powerful for many parents.

"Any type of busing -- forced or voluntary -- can weaken the social networks that neighborhood schools help create. The nexus of personal and school relationships is missing when kids are bused 10, 20 miles away, particularly in urban areas. Public schools thrive on community and neighborhoods."

Reenergized neighborhood schools, Roy Brooks argues, are essential to address the needs of African American students who live in the low-income areas. Brooks contends that "voluntary" or "limited" separation in the early grades can benefit racial integration in the long run.

"Integration has to be built with equal parts," he explains. "That is, a racially diverse student body, each individual with similar academic preparation, learning together. For African American children, voluntary separation may be necessary for them to acquire the necessary skills to integrate more successfully with White kids in high school and, later, college. Issues of race and class can be negotiated more easily with these equal parts."

Richard Kahlenberg argues that any rendering of "separate but equal" in public schools will inevitably create greater inequality. Money and resources will stay where the political influence is greatest -- out in the suburbs, among the middle class. Critics also believe sanctioning segregation in any form will place society on a slippery slope toward deeper, institutionalized racial separation.

Many Americans don't view the debate over integration as a zero-sum game; their conviction that diverse schools are the best places for students to receive quality education and an exposure to different cultures remains strong. The challenge, then, is for educators and lawmakers to develop innovative, multidimensional policies to promote integration that can also maneuver around political and legal obstacles. Considering what may be at stake, says Karin Chenoweth, the lack of urgency in many communities is confounding.

"Who will have access to a good education? How are our resources distributed? Are we going to be able to forge an integrated community or will we retreat into ethnic enclaves? These issues, taken together, are the crux of where we're going as a country."

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