School & District Management

Socioeconomics Replacing Race in School Assignments

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 07, 2010 8 min read
Elizabeth Caucutt and her brother Drayton run home after a day at school.

A growing number of school districts are trying to break up concentrations of poverty on their campuses by taking students’ family income into consideration in school assignments.

Some of the districts replaced race with socioeconomic status as a determining indicator after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that using race as the primary factor in assigning students to schools violates the Constitution. Other districts that take family income into account never included race as a factor.

Meanwhile, at least two districts—North Carolina’s Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg—whose race-based diversity policies have been scrutinized by federal courts and which have used socioeconomic status as a consideration in student assignments, have backed away from the practice.

Many experts believe the composition of a school’s student body affects achievement. If black and Hispanic students, who are more likely to be poor, go to the same schools as their better-off white peers, the thinking goes, they’ll all do better and aspire to higher education. But since the Supreme Court essentially blocked a race-conscious path to racial diversity, some integration advocates are looking to socioeconomic status to reach the same goal.

Elizabeth Caucutt, (on bus steps) and her brother Drayton, 5 (just off bus) attend State Road Elementary School in La Crosse, Wis. Students there are assigned to schools based on family income.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington-based research and public-policy organization, is a champion of socioeconomic integration of schools. He argues that educating students of different social and economic levels in the same classrooms is a powerful tool for increasing achievement.

“In most cases, low-income students in school districts with socioeconomic programs are doing better than low-income students in segregated school districts,” he said in an interview.

Socioeconomic integration is a better approach, Mr. Kahlenberg argues, than two of the four turnaround strategies—replacing principals and staff members and moving to charter school governance—that the U.S. Department of Education requires districts that receive federal economic-stimulus funds to choose from for low-performing schools.

Mr. Kahlenberg draws on news reports and other sources to keep a running list of districts with socioeconomic-integration policies. In 2007, his list had about 40 school systems. Today, it has about 70.

Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president of national programs and policies for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says socioeconomic integration should be part of the mix of strategies to turn around schools. “The theory is if you have a school with a solid middle-class constituency, those parents are going to bring some resources of their own and clout to get the school district to do its best,” he said.

However, the policy isn’t feasible everywhere, such as in low-income neighborhoods far from middle-class ones, added Mr. Petrilli, who served in the Education Department during President George W. Bush’s administration.

‘Variety of Experiences’

Roger Clegg, the president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a think tank in Falls Church, Va., that focuses on issues of race and ethnicity, says that assigning students to schools according to family income is better than doing so based on race. But he prefers a more flexible policy.

“My inclination would be to assign children based on what school they live closest to,” Mr. Clegg said, “but also to allow children to go to whatever school they want to, regardless not only of their race but regardless of how much money their parents make.”

Third grader Elizabeth Caucutt works on a writing exercise at State Road Elementary School in La Crosse, Wis.

Research shows a correlation between schools with socioeconomic integration and the academic performance of their students.

In 2005, Russell Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleague Gregory J. Palardy found that a school’s socioeconomic status had as much to do with the achievement outcomes of high school students in core subjects, such as reading, mathematics, and science, as did individual students’ socioeconomic status.

And back in 1966, the so-called Coleman Report, written by sociologist James S. Coleman, found that the most important predictor of academic achievement was a child’s socioeconomic status; the second most was the socioeconomic status of the student enrollment in the school he or she attended.

Districts in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Champaign, Ill., have recently adopted student-assignment policies that take students’ socioeconomic status into consideration. All three once used race.

Until this school year, the 26,100-student Pittsburgh district filled half the spaces in each of its magnet schools and programs with African-American students. But in April 2009, the school board voted to do away with race as an element and approved a plan that makes the socioeconomic status of students one of five to seven different “weights” in enrollment for those schools and programs, depending on the grade level. Another weight is proximity to the school. The policy was used this school year in the lottery for next fall’s enrollment.

Cate Reed, who oversees magnet schools and programs for Pittsburgh, said the school system switched from race to socioeconomic status because of the Supreme Court ruling three years ago in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, which bars the use of race as the primary consideration when making school assignments.

“We want our magnet schools to reflect students of different racial, economic, and geographic backgrounds,” said Ms. Reed. “It gives them a variety of experiences in their life.”

This view is from the bluffs overlooking La Crosse, Wis., a pioneer in socioeconomic integration of schools.

Recently, Chicago used race as a component of student assignment to its magnet and selective-enrollment schools as part of a long-standing federal desegregation consent decree. But in September, when the district was released from the consent decree, district officials decided to switch to socioeconomic status as a factor.

“We could have had no consideration. We felt that would be a bad idea,” said Katie Ellis, a project manager for the 418,000-student district. “We wanted to find an alternative system that would still support diversity,” she said.

Similarly, Illinois’ Champaign Community Unit School District #4, which has 9,400 students, switched from race to socioeconomic status after a federal consent decree ended last June.

Beth Shepperd, the assistant superintendent for human resources and community relations, said the district could have returned to a system of enrolling students only in neighborhood schools. But she said parents wanted schools to reflect the diversity of the community. “They don’t want schools to reflect only housing patterns,” she said.

Ms. Shepperd explained that the policy gives weight to students who live in close proximity to a school, and most of them get a chance to go there. But with several of the most popular schools, some students who live nearby are turned away because the new policy also takes into account whether children come from low-income families, as determined by multiple factors, including eligibility for free and reduced-price school lunches. The district provides busing for students who aren’t close to that favored school but choose to go there and are selected, in part, because of their socioeconomic status.

In contrast, North Carolina’s two largest school districts have dropped or will drop socioeconomic factors.

In the 140,000-student Wake County system, which includes Raleigh, the school board voted 5-4 in March to stop busing students for diversity purposes, which had become controversial in the community. (“N.C. District Moves Away From Promoting Diversity,” April 7, 2010.) The student-assignment plan, which began taking socioeconomic status into consideration starting in 2000, will stay in effect until 2012. The board has said it will craft a new plan based on redrawn attendance zones.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, which has 135,000 students, quietly stopped factoring in socioeconomic status, which never played a big role in student assignments, as part of its priorities for magnet programs in the 2006-07 school year.

“We don’t have any race or income controls,” said Scott McCully, the executive director of planning and student placement for the district. It now uses various marketing strategies to attract a diverse group of students to its magnet programs, he added.

Dispersing the Poor

Not every school district moved to socioeconomic status after first having student-assignment policies that looked at race.

In fact, the district believed to have the oldest policy with the goal of socioeconomic integration, La Crosse, Wis., never looked at race as a factor in student assignment.

In the early 1980s, La Crosse redrew boundaries so that the district’s two high schools, one with students primarily from working-class families and another with students primarily from well-educated middle-class or affluent families, integrated.

Then in 1992, the district implemented busing to break up concentrations of poverty in its elementary schools.

But in this district of 7,000 students, which is now 79 percent white, nearly 12 percent Hmong, 6 percent African-American, and the rest American Indian or Hispanic, the diversity aims have not been about ethnicity or race, said Superintendent Jerry Kembler. “We didn’t want children to sit in a classroom where everyone was on free and reduced-price lunch,” he said.

Enough parents opposed busing that the school board that had voted it in was recalled by the following school year. The new board allowed parents to opt out of busing. Eventually, many parents took that option, choosing to send their children to neighborhood schools.

“Parents did support some kind of socioeconomic balance in the schools, but the tricky part is they don’t like busing to accomplish that,” Mr. Kembler said.

Now, the district strives to maintain diversity through the strategic location of district-run charter schools and magnet programs. And one low-income neighborhood has chosen to keep busing for diversity purposes. Parents there believe it is best for their children to be transported away from the neighborhood to a school offering better opportunities. About 40 students are bused to State Road Elementary School.

The neighborhood itself has a pre-K-2 “early-learning center” run by the district. A charter school shares a building with the early-learning center, and middle-class students are bused to that school.

“Even though all the plan didn’t remain intact,” Mr. Kembler said, “it started a conversation in our community to talk about how to bring socioeconomic balance [to the schools].”

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as More Districts Factoring Poverty Into Student-Assignment Plans

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