Schools grapple with how to integrate
After the Supreme Court's ruling against race-based policy Thursday, support grows for integrating schools on the basis of factors such as income level.
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In Louisville, Ky., one of the districts whose race-based plan was struck down last week, school board member Steve Imhoff says public support is broad for finding legal ways to pursue integration. "We can still use race as one of several factors, just not the sole factor, so this is the time to put [socioeconomic classifications] into the mix," says Mr. Imhoff.Skip to next paragraph
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It's not clear yet how widespread that determination is throughout the US.
"The biggest question is ... how much integration are communities going to be able to get done and at what cost?" says Neil Siegel, a law professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. [Editor's note: The original version put Duke in the wrong city.]
Not only do school districts with voluntary integration programs have to determine how to move forward, but court-ordered desegregation plans, many of them in the South, will probably face a flurry of legal challenges, he says.
Debates over busing versus neighborhood schools are also expected to continue. "We have to get away from trying to be social engineers – we're in the business of educating kids," says Lindsey Tippins, chairman of the Cobb County, Ga., School Board.
Indeed, some see the court's decision as an opportunity to bring more focus to closing achievement gaps by improving schools right where students live.
A shift to socioeconomic integration would be "just another way for school districts to attempt to gloss over the real [need for] quality neighborhood schools," says Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative group in Washington.
Districts considering how to pursue the goal of integrated schools "need to be thoughtful about how they will take advantage of the opportunities created by that diversity, and not just assume that having students of different economic backgrounds ensures better educational opportunity for everyone," says Ross Wiener, vice president for program and policy at the Education Trust, a group in Washington focused on closing achievement gaps.
A former civil rights attorney at the US Justice Department, he says he's seen how students of color, even in integrated schools, are often tracked into less-demanding courses. Because there are so many schools where the majority of students are minorities and low-income, he says, they need to be infused with better curriculum, resources, and teaching. About 14 percent of US school districts have a majority of students in all schools that are from low-income families, Kahlenberg reports.
Yet it would be a great loss, others say, if the court's move strikes fear into educators and silences important conversations about race, equity, and education.
The socioeconomic approach to equity in schools "is a useful tool in a toolkit, but it shouldn't be a substitute for talking about how to achieve racially and ethnically diverse schools as well," says Mica Pollock, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. If school districts stop pursuing that diversity, "they're going to be losing a great opportunity for students ... to encounter as great a range of human experience as possible in the classroom."