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Socioeconomic Integration: It’s Legal, and It Makes Sense

By Angela Ciolfi & James E. Ryan — June 15, 2008 4 min read
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What if all the poor kids in a large school district went to the same school? Could the school board do anything about it? One might think the answer is obviously yes, but not everyone agrees. Eleven parents in Fairfax County, Va., recently filed a lawsuit claiming, among other things, that the school board exceeded its authority by taking socioeconomic factors into account when redrawing attendance zones. The issue is a significant one, with implications for school districts across the country that either already consider student demographics when drawing attendance zones or plan to do so in the future.

Redrawing attendance zones is an unavoidably messy, inherently political, and inevitably emotional exercise, and we express no opinion on the overall merits of the Fairfax County plan or the various complaints made against it. But the claim that school boards cannot consider student poverty when drawing attendance zones is simply wrong and must be rejected.

To begin with, considering socioeconomic status when assigning students to school definitely does not violate the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision last June, limited the extent to which race may be considered in school assignments, but it did not and has not limited the ability of school boards to take socioeconomic status into account. Indeed, if anything, the court’s decision limiting the use of race encourages school boards to consider other factors, such as socioeconomic status, as a means of creating a diverse student body.

Considering socioeconomic status does not violate state law either. In Virginia, as in other states, school boards have broad legal authority to redraw school boundaries. Under Virginia law, for example, school boards can redraw attendance zones whenever doing so “will contribute to the efficiency of the school division.” This is a fairly open-ended grant of discretion, which, at the very least, must allow boards to draw attendance boundaries in a way that promises to increase academic performance in a cost-effective manner. Delivering more for less, after all, is the epitome of efficiency.

That is exactly what socioeconomic integration promises: more academic benefit for less money than under alternative policies. More than 40 years of social science research shows that the socioeconomic composition of a child’s school has an effect on academic performance over and above that of the socioeconomic status of the child’s family. Here in Virginia, a 2003 report commissioned by the legislature found that the greatest predictor of achievement on the state Standards of Learning tests was the level of student poverty in the school district. It’s not hard to understand why. High-poverty schools have to address not only the unmet physical, social, and emotional needs of their individual students, but also the cumulative effects of concentrated poverty in a single school.

Socioeconomic integration can help disadvantaged students without harming their middle-income peers.

Meeting the additional needs of poor students and overcoming the effects of poverty are not impossible tasks, but they can be extraordinarily expensive ones. Many programs, such as reducing class sizes or paying good teachers more to teach in high-poverty schools, can help, but they cost real money. Virginia, unfortunately, provides relatively little additional funding to address the challenges of educating students in schools of concentrated poverty, letting this burden fall largely on local governments.

A less expensive alternative, and one that can be just as effective, is to integrate schools by socioeconomic status. Time and again, studies have shown that creating predominantly middle-income schools can have a positive effect on the test scores of students at the bottom, without negatively affecting the scores of students at the top. That’s right: Socioeconomic integration can help disadvantaged students without harming their middle-income peers. That seems too good to be true, and middle-income parents have a hard time believing it, which probably explains the lawsuit in Fairfax County. But that is indeed what the research suggests.

Socioeconomic integration is not a silver bullet, and there is no guarantee that it will work every time for every student. But the evidence strongly indicates that breaking up schools of concentrated poverty is a cost-effective strategy to increase academic achievement, which is always important but especially so in this era of the No Child Left Behind Act. Socioeconomic integration is also a way to create more-diverse schools and to recapture the notion, central to the very origins of public education, that public schools should serve rich and poor equally and together.

The Fairfax County school board surely acted within its discretion in trying to avoid schools of concentrated poverty, and its decision should be upheld, not second-guessed, by the courts. Indeed, we should be applauding school boards that are trying to improve schools while saving the taxpayers some money—not taking them to court.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Socioeconomic Integration: It’s Legal, and It Makes Sense

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