At the crossroads of education and civil rights, a new signpost has been planted by the US Supreme Court, leaving school districts that have been striving for integration wondering which way to proceed.
Last week's ruling struck down two districts' voluntary desegregation plans because they relied too heavily on students' race in school assignments. A separate opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy left room for some consideration of racial demographics, but a number of observers believe it would be more practical for districts to shift toward balancing school populations on the basis of factors such as income level.
Such plans are already in place in about 40 school districts and appear to be on solid legal footing. But whatever strategy districts try, they could still face opposition from those who say the time has come to stop "social engineering" and to strengthen neighborhood schools.
"The socioeconomic approach offers two advantages," says Richard Kahlenberg, author of a new report detailing such plans and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive policy group in Washington. First, districts that have done it most successfully give families a choice of magnet schools with special programs, "so there are incentives for middle-class people to buy into socioeconomic integration," says Mr. Kahlenberg. Second, "as a legal matter, it's clearly fine to use income to distinguish people."
Such balance creates a more equitable environment that promotes higher achievement, he and others say. One study found that schools with less than 50 percent low-income students were 22 times more likely to be high-performing than schools with a majority of low-income students.
It's not a panacea for closing achievement gaps, Kahlenberg notes, "but in places like Wake County, N.C., which has the income-based integration plan, low-income and minority students are doing better than [their counterparts] in other big North Carolina districts that have concentrated poverty."
The school board of the 113,000-student district, which includes Raleigh, voted in 2000 to replace the race-based aspects of its magnet-school plan with income and achievement factors. The goal was for all schools to have no more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (a proxy for poverty), and no more than 25 percent of children scoring below grade level.
As the county has grown, it hasn't completely fulfilled its goals. In 2005-06, 31 of 116 elementary and middle schools were more than 40 percent low-income.
But other large North Carolina districts tend to have many more schools with low-income populations that range from 70 to 90 percent, Kahlenberg reports. Racial integration in the county has waned in certain schools, but has been mostly maintained.
About 60 percent of low-income students in Wake County passed end-of-course exams, compared with 43 to 53 percent in other large counties in the state, and the district's overall graduation rate has been one of the nation's highest. Many newcomers cite the schools' excellence as a key factor in moving there.
Walter Sherlin, a retired associate superintendent of Wake County, says a shift from race to class could give districts a way to ensure a semblance of racial diversity. "I hope that districts that have been committed for a long time to trying to keep schools from being separate and unequal again will not just throw in the towel and say, 'There's nothing we can do.' " he says.
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.
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."