North Carolina’s second-largest school system has embarked on a bold effort to integrate its schools through a plan that looks not at race, but at poverty.
The Wake County district, which includes Raleigh, will limit the percentage of needy and low-performing students in each of its 110 schools through a controversial student-assignment plan that will be phased in beginning next fall.
Under the plan, the district will try to keep the percentage of students who are eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program to 40 percent of a school’s enrollment. In addition, no more than 25 percent of a school’s students should be performing below grade level academically. Some 3,500 students will be affected in the fall, district officials say, meaning they will be bused to new schools or schools outside their neighborhoods.
Coming at a time when courts are telling diversity-conscious school systems not to use race in making student assignments, Wake County’s plan to mix students by economic background—a rare, though not unprecedented move—is eliciting praise and interest from some observers. But others say the best policy is allowing children to attend schools close to their homes.
Meanwhile, school leaders in the growing district of 95,000 students say they just want to promote success for all their students. And though the plan replaces one that had used race to assign students, district officials say they are not using economic status simply as a proxy for race.
“I’m not surprised by the attention we’re getting. It’s a good strategy,” said school board member Bill Fletcher. “We believe it will be effective educationally.”
Some local residents disagree. “The bottom line is that they are trying to accomplish racial balance,” said Debra Carlton, a Wake County parent who has organized other parents to fight for neighborhood schools. “It’s not about reaching racial equity, but diversity that looks good on paper.”
Nationwide, socioeconomic background is often used to make school funding decisions, but it rarely is a formal part of how districts determine where students will attend school.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public-policy research organization in New York City, said that while researching a book on desegregation two years ago, the only example he found of such a districtwide policy was in LaCrosse, Wis. That may be changing, he argues.
“I think it is going to become more and more common as the courts clamp down on the use of race in student assignments,” Mr. Kahlenberg said of economic-based assignment plans. “I’m getting calls about this all the time.”
But as with race-based student-assignment plans, any such attempts are likely to meet with opposition.
A group of Jefferson County, Ky., teachers, for example, failed two years ago to persuade the school board there to consider integrating schools based on students’ socioeconomic background and “at risk” status rather than race. (“Teachers Propose Integrating Schools by Socioeconomic Status,” Dec. 2, 1998.)
And while LaCrosse’s student-assignment plan remains in place today, several board members were recalled as a result of that district’s policy, adopted in 1992-93. The plan was aimed at breaking up high concentrations of poor Southeast-Asian students in certain areas of the 7,500-student district.
Woody Widenhoeft, the associate superintendent for business services in LaCrosse, said last week that the program has survived because the district let parents opt out of their children’s assigned schools. Relatively few parents made that choice, he said, but it provided a vital safety valve for dissenters.
“Our original goal was to allow teachers to better help children on test scores and the other things that you don’t test for,” Mr. Widenhoeft said. “We thought children could learn from each other if taught together.”
Mr. Widenhoeft said he was unaware of any long-term studies on the academic benefits of the LaCrosse plan, which the school board plans to re-evaluate next fall.
Local Opponents Mobilize
Wake County acted after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which includes North Carolina, ruled twice last year that districts can’t use racial preferences to determine school assignments.
The school board initially had planned to take more time studying the issue.
But adopted its plan late last month in order to have the policy in place as assignments were made for four new elementary schools and one middle school that are scheduled to open in the fall.
Faced with a backlash by parents, the board scaled back the initial proposal, which would have affected 6,000 students in the coming school year.
“A child needs the full support that you get from a community,” said Ms. Carlton, who has compiled a mailing list of 30 families who oppose the plan. “You don’t get that by putting your child on the bus for an hour.”
But Mr. Fletcher, who is the chairman of the school board’s facilities committee, said that crowding had made the neighborhood-only schools impossible.
Besides, he added, low-income students will do better in schools with a majority of middle- and upper-income students, and that will help the district meet its goal of having 95 percent of the children performing at grade level by 2003. “Our goal is to have all schools under those [student-assignment] numbers,” he said.
It is not yet clear how the move will play out in the court of public opinion. In a local poll released last week, 45 percent of 640 county residents surveyed gave the district an overall grade of B, while 35 percent gave it a C. Thirty-five percent favored limiting the number of low-achieving students in schools, while only 25 percent backed the goal of limiting the number of poor students.
Those opinions could change if the policy proves to be good for low-income students. But there is little agreement among education experts about whether needy students will do better in school simply because they are sitting with better-off classmates.
“There is no education theory that has been demonstrated that would suggest that because a low-income kid is sitting next to a minority kid or high-income kid, that it’s going to improve the low-income kid’s achievement,” said David J. Armor, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the author of a book on school desegregation cases.
Mr. Kahlenberg, who supports the idea of using economic status to integrate schools, believes students will benefit. “Some people can cite contrary studies,” he said, “but common sense tells you that the reason people move to get kids to middle-class schools is that middle-class schools work better.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as N.C. District To Integrate By Income