Equity & Diversity

Cambridge Becomes Latest District To Integrate by Income

By Alan Richard — January 09, 2002 3 min read
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The Cambridge, Mass., school system has joined a small but growing number of districts seeking to integrate schools on the basis of income rather than race— helping to expand what some experts see as a coming trend in American education.

The school committee in the 7,300-student district that is home to Harvard University approved the plan on a 6-0 vote Dec. 18. The new student-assignment policy will begin next fall with about 500 kindergartners and transfer students, and will expand by one grade each year through elementary school.

Eventually, school enrollments in the district will be expected to deviate by no more than 5 percentage points from the district’s overall percentage of K-8 students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, which currently is 40 percent.

Supporters of the shift hope to erase existing family-income disparities between schools’ student enrollments, which range from about 21 percent to 72 percent of students qualifying for the subsidized meals.

“This is what most integration will look like in the 21st century,” predicted Richard D. Kahlenberg, a school law expert who recently published a book on wealth-based school integration. He is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation that advised Cambridge on its plan.

Research shows that family income is a better predictor of school success than race, proponents of integration by income note, while recent court decisions have ruled against the use of race as the primary factor in assigning students to schools.

Given the direction the courts have taken, Mr. Kahlenberg said, many other districts may have to follow the example of Cambridge, which was worried that its own policy of using racial balance as a factor in assigning students could be challenged in court.

Cambridge is the latest district to factor income into student assignments. The 100,000-student Wake County, N.C., school district, which includes Raleigh, decided about 18 months ago to use family income when assigning students, starting with this school year. (“N.C. District to Integrate by Income,” April 26, 2000.)

The LaCrosse, Wis., schools have perhaps the nation’s most established policy of economic integration. The 8,000-student district adopted its plan in 1993 to handle an influx of Southeast Asian students.

Cambridge Mayor Anthony Galluccio, who doubles as the city’s school committee chairman, said that advice from experts at Harvard and from Mr. Kahlenberg convinced committee members that they should give the plan a try, since federal courts have curtailed the use of race in student assignments.

Making It Work

“This was a no-brainer,” said Mr. Galluccio, who was a 6th grader in Cambridge when the earlier desegregation plan began.

Unlike the Raleigh-area schools that are attempting to blend mostly white and African-American populations to make sure most of the district’s schools are serving the middle class, the Massachusetts city just across the Charles River from Boston has a highly diverse enrollment. No ethnic group represents a true majority, and Cambridge’s lone high school has students with origins in 47 different countries, said Superintendent Bobbie D’Alessandro.

“Cambridge has always had a commitment to diversity. I think this will be a model other cities could use,” said Ms. D’Alessandro, who is in her fifth year as the superintendent.

School leaders met with parents over the past 18 months to discuss the plan. Opposition centered on whether parents would get their top choices of schools.

Cambridge parents already follow a “controlled choice” plan that lets them list their top three school choices. Until now, however, student assignments focused first on racial balance in schools.

But in a city with enclaves of working-class whites and upper-class African-Americans, the lack of diversity in some schools had little to do with skin color or national origin. Instead, students from wealthier families tended to attend the same schools, and needier children were clumped together in other schools that tended to struggle academically, the superintendent said.

Ms. D’Alessandro said she hopes the plan will provide a more equitable education for her students.

“In my career, this was the most important recommendation I’ve taken forward,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Cambridge Becomes Latest District To Integrate by Income

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