Law & Courts

Income-Based Diversity Plans Highlighted

By Andrew Trotter — July 02, 2007 3 min read
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Now that school districts face new restrictions on using race in assigning students to schools, can they achieve some of the benefits of demographic diversity by considering family income?

That question has been getting a fresh look this week, as policymakers and members of the news media chew on the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 28 decision striking down race-based assignment plans in the Jefferson County, Ky., and Seattle school districts.

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Coinciding with the court decision, a new report by the Century Foundation, a center-left think tank in Washington, surveys the use of students’ socioeconomic status in pursuit of diverse and high-achieving school populations in a dozen school districts.

The prime example cited in the report, released June 28, is North Carolina’s Wake County school district, which includes the city of Raleigh. The 128,000-student district specifies that no school may enroll more than 40 percent of its students from families with incomes low enough to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch programs, explained Walter Sherlin, a former associate superintendent of the Wake County district who was a chief architect of the socioeconomic-integration plan.

Mr. Sherwin, who retired from the school district in 2003, was the guest at a July 2 telephone conference with reporters hosted by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of the report, “Rescuing Brown v. Board of Education: Profiles of Twelve School Districts Pursuing Socioeconomic School Integration.”

The Wake County plan, which has been in place since 2000, also specifies that no school should have more than 20 percent of its students who perform below grade level. But that has not been an issue in the district, Mr. Sherlin said, because 75 percent or more of the students at each school perform at or better than grade level.

Choice a Factor

To help achieve student economic diversity, which in Wake County results in greater racial diversity, all of the schools in Raleigh, the district’s urban core, are magnet schools. The magnet schools offer special programs that aim to attract students from outer, wealthier areas, which have a greater proportion of white students.

Students are not identified and judged as eligible or ineligible for transfers individually, Mr. Sherlin said. Rather, the school district, which is growing rapidly, is subdivided into units that are analyzed as to their level of poverty using the school lunch data. Decisions on school boundaries and the siting of new schools are made that information in mind, he said.

The student population in Wake County is expanding by roughly 8,000 students annually, growth that requires continual redrawing of school boundary lines. Enrollment is expected to total 136,000 students in the 2007-08 school year.

The report notes that the ceiling of 40 percent of low-income enrollment at each school has not always been maintained, and that the Wake County school board has sometimes bowed to parents’ demands and drawn school boundaries in ways that result in the cap being exceeded.

Nonetheless, according to the report, low-income and minority students in Wake County have achieved better academic results than those in North Carolina districts that have failed to break up concentrations of poverty.

Mr. Kahlenberg, a proponent of mixing low-income students with those from the middle class to improve overall student achievement, said that not all socioeconomic assignment plans are successful, notably if they do not include student choice.

He cited the example of a Florida district that reassigned students from schools in affluent communities that got A’s under the state’s school accountability system to F schools in less-well-off areas. The result was a “big political backlash,” he said.

Mr. Kahlenberg said that he has identified a total of about 40 school districts with socioeconomic-integration plans. Based on the case studies discussed in the report, he said, school districts are better off having a systemwide goal for economic integration rather than a plan that works piecemeal.

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