District Proposes Assigning Pupils Based on Income

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School officials in La Crosse, Wis., have proposed what is believed to be the first student-assignment plan to place students explicitly for the sake of achieving socioeconomic balance within schools.

Under the proposal, unveiled this month by Superintendent Richard Swantz, about 23 percent of the district's 3,500 elementary students would be assigned to new schools in an effort to bring students from different income groups into closer contact.

By doing so, Mr. Swantz said, the district can prevent some schools from having disproportionately high enrollments of low- income students while improving the educational experience for children from poor families.

"I don't know if we are breaking new ground or not," Mr. Swantz said last week, "and I don't care if we are or not."

The assignment plan, the superintendent said, was developed to help give less affluent "kids a chance to know there is another life out there, there are people who are making it."

The plan will necessitate some additional student busing, district officials say. Currently, slightly more than 1,300 elementary students are bused, most because they live more than two miles from school. The new plan, which takes into account the opening of two new elementary schools, would mean 800 more students would be bused, said Gary R. Olsen, the district's assistant business manager.

Although Mr. Swantz's overwhelmingly white and Asian district is an unlikely site for a busing controversy, it nonetheless appeared to have found one last week as parents began to organize against the plan.

Petitions against the plan were being circulated, and an opposition group called "For Kids Sake" placed advertisements in the local newspaper calling on parents to join its ranks.

"We definitely are not against socioeconomic balancing," said Darlene Isaacson, the mother of a 4th grader. "But we don't want it at the risk of breaking up our neighborhood schools."

Lunch Guidelines Used

The public schools in La Crosse, a city of nearly 50,000 perched on the Mississippi River in western Wisconsin, enroll about 7,700 students, 84 percent of whom are white.

About 12 percent of its students are Asian, almost all of whom are in the area as a result of the large influx of Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia during the past decade. Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans each account for between 1 percent and 2 percent.

Although the school district has not come under heavy criticism for the racial or ethnic distribution of its students, the 29 percent of elementary students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under the federal school-lunch program are disproportionately enrolled in certain schools.

At State Road Elementary, for example, 4 percent of the students have family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.

At Hamilton and Jefferson elementaries, by contrast, 68 percent of students qualify for subsidies.

As school administrators set out last spring to draw new school boundaries to accommodate the addition of two elementary schools to the nine already in existence, the district board gave them a list of guidelines that called for all elementary schools to better reflect the district's overall socioeconomic profile.

The guidelines also called for the new assignment plan to keep families together, address special-education needs, and minimize transportation costs, among other objectives.

The resulting plan, which Mr. Swantz brought to the board this month, calls for no fewer than 15 percent and no more than 45 percent of the students at any one elementary school to be of an income background that would qualify them for a free or reduced-price lunch.

Of about 3,500 students enrolled in elementary schools as of January 1991, about 1,600 would go to different schools, half to help fill the two new schools and half to help achieve socioeconomic balance.

An Unspoken Motive

Several experts on desegregation and school-equity issues interviewed last week described the La Crosse proposal as unique in explicitly seeking to assign students for socioeconomic balance.

They noted, however, that the socioeconomic distribution of students often is an unspoken motive for the drawing of school boundaries.

"I think lots of people think about these issues when they are drawing boundaries, but they don't speak about them publicly," said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University.

"People in the United States," Mr. Orfield said, "are very uncomfortable about talking about class and thinking about increasing contacts across class lines as a public-policy objective."

When school officials do consider the socioeconomic status of students in drawing school boundaries, Mr. Orfield and several other experts alleged, they usually do so to further separate, rather than to integrate, wealthy and poor students.

'Perceptions of what constitutes a neighborhood tend to be related to socioeconomic status," said Christopher S. Jencks, a sociology professor at Northwestern University who has reviewed research on socioeconomic factors and schools. "those up on the hill have one neighborhood, and those on the other side of the tracks have another neighborhood."

Mr. Jencks said that the school-of-choice plan adopted several years ago by the New York City public schools appeared designed, in part, to replace socioeconomic stratification with academic stratification in schools, and that other magnet-school programs have had a similar effect.

But virtually all such programs, the experts said, have been implemented for the stated purpose of racial or ethnic integration.

Mr. Orfield noted that the socioeconomic segregation of students "is an important issue in many areas that don't even have racial differences," and that the learning conditions of classrooms are "very substantially" affected by the economic backgrounds of their students.

David S. Tatel, a partner at Hogan & Hartson, a Washington D.c.-based law firm, and a former director of the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights, said the La Crosse plan "sounds intriguing to me because it is a way of accomplishing racial and ethnic integration without using race and ethnicity as a factor."

Most of the research on efforts to racially integrate schools have shown that many educational benefits are gained from the fact that lower-income black students are brought into contact with higher-income whites, several experts said last week.

Hmong Children Affected

Joan M. Nee, the mother of a 4th grader who attends State Road Elementary, last week doubted that the educational benefits of her district's proposed student-assignment plan would offset the fact that her sen will see his walk to school increase from about half a mile to almost two miles.

Ms. Nee also complained that the district, in using eligibility for the federal lunch program as the criterion for determining socioeconomic status, failed to make necessary distinctions between middle- and upper-class students and left some middle-class areas unfairly burdened with large numbers of transfers.

But Thai Vue, who provides assistance to refugees as associate director of the nonprofit La Crosse Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, predicted that the district's plan would greatly benefit the 80 percent or more of Hmong children classified as eligible for lunch subsidies.

Noting that the Hmong children tend to speak only their native language with each other, Mr. Vue said: "The objective is trying to mainstream these children, and, to do that, you have to put your children with the majority group. If you have all your children clustered in one school, it will not achieve that."

The La Crosse school board is scheduled to hold public hearings on the plan this month and next, and is expected to make its decision on the plan in December.

Vol. 11, Issue 09, Pages 1, 13

Published in Print: October 30, 1991, as District Proposes Assigning Pupils Based on Income
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