The new educational divide

This fall, American children have returned to schools that are increasingly segregated by economic status. That central reality – that poor children and middle-class children increasingly attend separate schools – is at the heart of America's education problem. Poverty concentrations have a way of defeating even the best education programs. Neither political party, however, has a strong plan of action to address this educational disaster.

Conservatives, energized by the Supreme Court decision permitting vouchers for private religious schools, are pursuing a strategy that will further divide American children by race, class, and religion at a time when the unifying power of public schools is more important than ever. Liberals are pushing well- intentioned efforts to increase spending on low-income schools (to reduce class size, hire better teachers, and the like), which will help on the margins, but run into the stubborn reality that separate schools for rich and poor, even when well funded, are inherently unequal.

The compromise position, embodied in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, couples more spending with "accountability," and lays out some laudable goals for raising student achievement and closing the gap between low-income and middle-class children. But the act does little to address the fountainhead of inequality: the assignment of students to schools based on economically segregated neighborhoods. New provisions in the law to allow a small number of children to transfer from failing schools have proven inadequate.

Why does economic school segregation matter? Studies find that a child growing up in a poor family has reduced life chances, but attending a school with large numbers of low-income classmates poses a second, independent strike against him or her. All students – middle class and poor – perform worse in high-poverty schools. According to Department of Education statistics, low-income children attending middle-class schools perform better, on average, than middle-class children attending high-poverty schools. Schools with a strong core of middle-class families are marked by higher expectations, better teachers, more motivated students, more financial resources, and greater parental involvement. In short, virtually all of the essential features that educators identify as markers of good schools are much more likely to be found in middle-class than in high-poverty schools.

The 19th-century educator Horace Mann understood this. He envisioned public schools as "the great equalizer," but in order to perform that function, he said, they had to be "common schools," schools which educate rich and poor under a single roof. Today, in a nation where two-thirds of students are middle class (not eligible for subsidized school lunches) every child, in theory, could have the chance to attend a solidly middle-class school.

Last year, The Century Foundation assembled a 25-member task force made up of public officials, teachers, civil rights advocates, business people, union leaders, and scholars to devise ways to reinvent the "common school" in the 21st century. The group's report, "Divided We Fail," outlines a detailed plan for bringing together students of different backgrounds, centering on two principles.

First, efforts to promote integration should focus at least as much on socioeconomic status as race. Racial integration is an important goal in and of itself, but the courts have ruled that the efforts to rectify past segregation have run their course, and some courts are forbidding even the voluntary use of race in student assignment. Moreover, the social- science research suggests the reason majority-minority schools often fail is not the concentrations of students of color per se, but the concentrations of low-income students. Concentrated poverty is closely connected to race – indeed racial discrimination in housing explains in large measure why poor blacks are much more likely to attend schools with concentrated poverty than poor whites. But emphasizing economic integration focuses directly on academic achievement over "social engineering," and using income as a measure is perfectly legal.

Second, efforts must build on the trend toward public school choice rather than relying on "forced busing" that leaves parents feeling impotent. Public school choice avoids the politically unacceptable option of compulsory busing on the one hand and the socially unconscionable alternative of school segregation on the other. Every public school should become a magnet school, offering a racially and economically diverse environment, with a special kind of education that will be attractive to particular parents and students.

These new approaches – economic school integration, and public school choice – are being successfully employed in Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Wisconsin, California, and elsewhere. They must be replicated if we are to avoid an educational catastrophe. Economic segregation is likely to increase by 2025 in all but six states.

We are becoming two Americas: one rich, one poor – and we will pay a steep price if nothing is done to address this crisis. The political obstacles are formidable, but the stakes are too high not to take action in the best interests of our children.

• Lowell P. Weicker Jr., former governor and US senator from Connecticut, is chairman of The Century Foundation task force on the common school. Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is executive director of the task force.

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