Schools now integrate by income
Cambridge, Mass., is the latest city trying to counter a rich-poor imbalance when assigning students to schools.
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"All that has a big impact on achievement in a school," says Mr. Kahlenberg.Skip to next paragraph
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The issue is also gaining increasing attention as more and more racial desegregation plans are being successfully challenged in court. Since 1991, three US Supreme Court decisions have released school districts from court-ordered desegregation measures, such as busing. And lower courts have ruled that districts cannot use racial quotas for admission to certain schools.
Such legal challenges "have pushed the country toward abandonment of a lot of [racial] desegregation efforts, even where local jurisdictions want to do them," says Gary Orfield, director of Harvard University's Project on School Desegregation. "So they're trying to figure out what to do."
The first community to try economic desegregation was La Crosse, Wis., in the late 1980s. The plan was initially controversial - several school board members were ousted over it - but over time, it has proved successful. Since then, a number of other districts, including Wake County, N.C, Montgomery County, Md., and Manchester, Conn., have launched similar efforts.
The Cambridge plan, which will be phased in gradually, will ultimately ensure that each school's percentage of low-income students (defined as those who qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch) roughly equals the percentage in the district overall.
Currently, that's far from the case. Although the district is very diverse racially, the percentage of low-income students ranges from 20 percent to 80 percent in individual schools. The district average is just under 50 percent.
Although most parents in this famously liberal community (many of whom are faculty members at Harvard or MIT) say they prize diversity in the schools, some admit the new plan is providing a difficult test of principles.
"Cambridge tries very hard to have as much equity ... as possible, and I think most individuals here, including myself, view that as a good thing," says Steve Atlas, a Cambridge doctor whose daughter starts kindergarten next year. "The question is how much I'm willing to experiment with my daughter's education."
In general, experts say schools have a bigger impact on low-income children than on middle-class kids, for whom family is a stronger educational influence. So putting poor students into a largely middle-class school usually benefits them without hurting the rest.
But "if you sprinkle a few middle-class kids in schools where there are overwhelming concentrations of poverty, they're not going to change the culture of the school, and they're likely to do worse," admits Mr. Kahlenberg. "Most studies seem to find a negative effect [in schools with] above 50 percent low-income."
The Cambridge school committee is trying to reassure parents by requiring that schools improve their instruction as well as their equality. If such safeguards don't work, the risk is that well-off parents may flee the system.