Equity & Diversity

Report Relates Better Schools And Diversity

By Linda Jacobson — September 18, 2002 5 min read
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Every policy decision about education—whether it’s financing multibillion-dollar federal programs or simply drawing school boundaries—should be judged on whether it helps integrate students of different social and economic backgrounds, a report set for release this week declares.

“We believe that school integration is imperative to promote equal educational opportunity and to forge social cohesion,” says the Century Foundation report, “Divided We Fail: Coming Together Through Public School Choice.”

In it, a panel convened by the foundation advocates policies that first seek to integrate students of different socioeconomic levels, while using race as a factor only if economic criteria don’t work.

“Divided We Fail: Coming Together Through Public School Choice” is available from the Century Foundation for $14.95 by calling (800) 552-5450.

Expanding public school choice, increasing school funding for poor children, and using cross-district integration are strategies that can bring children of different classes and races together to create better schools, the report says.

Lowell P. Weicker, a former U.S. senator and Connecticut governor, chaired the foundation’s 26- member Task Force on the Common School, which included researchers, educators, policymakers, and legal experts.

Even middle-class students perform poorly in high-poverty schools, the task force members say, while all students— regardless of their family backgrounds—achieve at higher levels when they attend integrated, middle-class schools.

“Middle-class schools work, and that success has been replicated thousands of times over,” the report says.

The Century Foundation, a Washington and New York City-based group that underwrites research on domestic-policy issues and foreign affairs, was scheduled to release the 57-page report Sept. 18 in Washington.

‘Two Americas’

Recent studies show that American schools are once again becoming racially more segregated, especially in the South. A 1999 study by the Civil Rights Project, a Harvard University initiative, found that the percentage of African-American students attending majority-white public schools in the South fell from its high point of 43.5 percent in 1988 to 34.7 percent in 1996. (“Researchers: School Segregation Rising in South,” Sept. 11, 2002.)

Furthermore, the Century Foundation report offers new evidence that schools are becoming more segregated economically as well.

In a background paper accompanying the report, David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., and a member of the task force, writes that economic school segregation increased during the 1990s, and that it will continue to rise in all but six states by 2025.

“We are becoming two Americas—one rich, one poor—and we will pay a steep price if we do nothing to address this crisis,” the report says, echoing Mr. Rusk’s findings.

The report rejects the argument of many tuition-voucher advocates that using tax money to send poor children to private schools will “liberate blacks along the lines of the Brown ruling,” referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that struck down laws establishing school segregation.

“Most voucher schemes today make no conscious efforts to promote integration, and experience from other countries suggests vouchers will lead to more stratification by class and race, not less,” Richard C. Leone, the president of the Century Foundation, writes in a foreword to the report.

He adds that “large-scale solutions to American education issues—if they are to come at all—will come within the framework of the public school systems.”

Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, applauded the report, calling integrating schools by students’ socioeconomic backgrounds “an idea that deserves being tried.”

Middle-class parents, she said, want their children to attend integrated schools.

“What they’re worried about is whether their children are getting the best education,” she said.

But Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, argued that the foundation’s recommendations would amount to putting “Band-Aids” on public schools.

"[The report] doesn’t address the depth of the problem,” said Ms. Allen, whose Washington-based organization supports vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of school choice. The best hope for low-income and minority families, she said, is “school freedom and parent freedom.”

A Role for Choice

Within existing geographic areas, the Century Foundation report recommends, parents could be given a choice of schools, which might offer a different theme or teaching approach. School officials would then try to honor those choices as long as the schools achieved integration.

Such programs of public school choice are currently being used in Montclair, N.J., and Cambridge, Mass., the report says.

For 20 years, Cambridge, a diverse city of 100,000 residents and one of four districts profiled in the report, has allowed students to apply to any of its 15 K-8 schools—a plan that has led to racially diverse schools, while still letting most students attend one of their parents’ first three choices of schools.

Then last year, the 7,100-student district adopted a plan to balance the schools by socioeconomic status. This school year, the goal is for each school to be within 15 percentage points of the district’s average for free- and reduced-price-lunch eligibility, which is 48 percent.

“We’re trying to build on the successes that a lot of local communities have had—not propose something that is radically different,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, the executive director of the Century Foundation.

Another district highlighted in the report is the 100,000-student Wake County, N.C., system, which includes the city of Raleigh as well as its surrounding suburbs and rural areas. In 2000, the district instituted a plan that seeks to balance school enrollment by socioeconomic status and student achievement by stipulating that no more than 40 percent of the students in a school should be eligible for subsidized lunches and that no more than 25 percent of the students in a school should be performing below grade level. (“Broad Effort to Mix Students by Wealth Under Fire in N.C.,” May 22, 2002.)

While the new plan has not eliminated achievement gaps, the report says, the Wake County district’s schools are considered far more successful than those in the nearby Durham public school system, a city district.

The authors argue that policies to promote integration cannot be successful without increased spending on such initiatives as reducing class size, improving teacher training, and renovating school buildings. Forcing integration without spending money to improve schools is “likely to lead to middle-class flight,” the report says.

Accountability systems, the authors say, can also be effective means for integrating schools.

The federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001’s provision allowing children to transfer out of failing public schools “may prove a boon for integration if properly implemented because it divorces residence and school assignment,” according to the report.

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