District Debates Using Income in Assigning Pupils

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The Cambridge, Mass., school district is considering introducing socioeconomic factors into its complex, nationally renowned student-assignment plan for elementary schools.

The Boston suburb's "controlled choice" desegregation plan has been widely hailed for achieving racial balance in the 8,200-student district. Under the plan, parents apply for their choice of schools, then administrators try to meet those requests while maintaining racial balance among the district's 15 elementary schools.

As part of long-range planning for the controlled-choice program, district officials recently have gingerly raised the idea of adding such factors as parents' income and education levels to the mix.

"I think it's worth taking a look at," Superintendent Mary Lou McGrath said in an interview last week.

Ms. McGrath, who has spent her career in Cambridge and has been the superintendent since 1988, said she and other administrators have questioned why achievement at some schools has lagged despite the choice plan's success. "I have always had this gnawing question about why some schools' achievement isn't up," she said.

A Dangerous Path?

School officials realized there are stark differences in family-income levels among the school populations in Cambridge. The district is home to an upper-middle-class academic community from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as blue-collar neighborhoods surrounding industrial warehouses.

Ms. McGrath acknowledged that tinkering with the program would be contentious, noting that some people have expressed anxiety about an attempt at "social engineering."

"Lots of people have gotten nervous," she said. "Other people have said to me, 'Mary Lou, you are raising exactly the right question."'

But some observers say the district would be straying down a dangerous path toward attempting to solve every social ill through student assignments.

"Only in Cambridge," said Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank based in New York City, and a member of the Massachusetts board of education.

"What's next? Are we going to allocate real estate on the basis of socioeconomic factors?" said Ms. Thernstrom, who has studied school choice in Massachusetts.

The Cambridge proposal is "intrusive, it's misguided, and it's also silly," she said. "By the time you get to 4th grade, it doesn't really matter who you are sitting next to in school" as much as other family factors that can affect educational achievement.

Wisconsin Pioneers

Cambridge would not be the first school district to include socioeconomic factors in student assignments. The La Crosse, Wis., district made headlines in 1991 when it proposed an income-based assignment plan intended primarily to disperse the city's population of poor Hmong students. (See Education Week, Oct. 30, 1991, and Aug. 5, 1992.)

Voters in a recall election ousted four La Crosse school board members who supported the plan, but parents later rallied around it and inclusion of socioeconomic factors remains a part of the district's busing plan.

"To me, the plan is working well," said Neil Duresky, the president of the La Crosse school board, who was not a board member when the plan was introduced.

He said the board may re-evaluate the plan this spring as part of a larger study of the district's shifting student population. Under the plan, administrators try to ensure that no more than 45 percent nor fewer than 15 percent of students in any of the district's elementary schools qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Unfinished Work

Those working on the Cambridge plan emphasize that the idea of using socioeconomic factors is but one small part of a larger re-evaluation of school facilities in the city and of the controlled-choice plan.

The district has hired an architect and has sought advice from two desegregation experts on potential changes to the plan.

Michael Alves, an education planner who has worked with the Cambridge district for the New England Desegregation Assistance Center at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said the goal of introducing socioeconomic factors would be to improve education for all students.

"The outcome we are trying to achieve is to have all children achieving academically and socially," he added. "We don't want to have schools that are ghettoized, even though they aren't racially identifiable."

The district would not, nor could it, require parents to submit income data as part of the student-assignment plan. Rather, the district would likely use information about students in the federal school-lunch program or about families receiving welfare.

The district might also survey parents on a voluntary basis about income, education level, or their children's preschool attendance, officials said.

The consultants plan to issue a report this spring. If the Cambridge board agrees with the recommendations, socioeconomic factors could be introduced as soon as the 1997-98 school year.

Ms. McGrath said those factors would probably be introduced only on a pilot basis, perhaps with incoming classes of students.

Balancing students by socioeconomic background has always been a goal at the back of her mind, she said.

"I taught at a [Cambridge] school with upper-middle-class and blue-collar students," she said of her years as a 2nd-grade teacher. "It was a real mix. At the end of year, some kids talked about going to Paris, while others planned to spend the summer on the playground. That constant mix enriched kids' lives."

Vol. 15, Issue 18

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