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Addressing School Segregation All Year Round

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For those of us who care about economically and racially integrated schooling, the month of May tends to be our quickly passing moment in the sun. May 17 is the anniversary of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring separate schools for black and white students inherently unequal, so it tends to be the one time of year that the press pays attention to the growing segregation, by race and class, of American public schools.

This year, like others, May saw a flurry of discussion in the media and among researchers and civil rights activists. On May 17 Georgetown Law School hosted a terrific national conference, sponsored by the National Coalition on School Diversity, on the 58th anniversary of Brown. On May 20 The New York Times devoted its lead Sunday Review piece to Berkeley professor David L. Kirp's superb article "Making Schools Work: Why have we rejected integration, the tool that profoundly changed lives?" The following day, the Times published the online discussion "Is Segregation Back in Public Schools?" which featured a variety of commentators, including Michelle Rhee, Pedro Noguera, and me. Cognizant of this fleeting focus on integration, the Century Foundation, where I work, chose May to release a new report I coauthored with my colleague Halley Potter, entitled "Diverse Charter Schools: Can Racial and Socioeconomic Integration Promote Better Outcomes for Students?"

But after May the issue of school integration tends to fade away. When politicians of either party invoke Brown, they tend to do so in a vague, metaphorical way to reference the achievement gap, rather than to confront the growing body of evidence that concentrating low-income students in schools separately from middle-class students is educationally damaging.

All of this is why, here in the month of June, I defiantly assert that the issue of school segregation is of pressing concern all year long.

As Kirp notes, the research demonstrating the impact of school desegregation is very strong. Black students who spent five years in desegregated schools went on to earn 25-percent more than those who did not, and their children performed better in school than children whose parents attended segregated schools. Kirp's article ended on a pessimistic note, however:

In theory it's possible to achieve a fair amount of integration by crossing city and suburban boundaries or opening magnet schools attractive to both minority and white students. But the hostile majority on the Supreme Court and the absence of a vocal pro-integration constituency make integration's revival a near impossibility.

Here Kirp ignores a growing movement toward socioeconomic integration that has received both judicial and popular support. Although the U.S. Supreme Court did curtail the ability of school districts to use race in student assignment, it is perfectly legal to employ socioeconomic status. Today, some 80 school districts, educating 4 million students, are using a student's economic status as a factor in student assignment. These strategies, which tend to rely on incentives, such as attractive magnet school offerings, to create integrated school settings, also avoid the political problems associated with compulsory busing.

Given the close correlation between race and class in the United States, socioeconomic integration is also a powerful driver of racial integration. As is true of racial integration, research suggests that the economic mix in a school is particularly important to student outcomes. High-poverty schools are 22 times less likely to be high-performing than middle-class schools, and low-income students given a chance to attend more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools on the fourth-grade National Assessment for Educational Progress in Mathematics.

Likewise, according to researcher David Rusk, more than 400 cities and counties, with 35 million residents, have implemented inclusionary zoning ordinances that require developers to set aside a portion of new housing units for low-income families. A 2010 Century Foundation study of the inclusionary zoning policy of of Montgomery County, Md., found that low-income elementary students randomly assigned to live in low-poverty neighborhoods and attend low-poverty schools far outperformed low-income students randomly assigned to higher-poverty neighborhoods and schools. This finding held even though students in higher-poverty neighborhoods received more per-pupil school spending.

All these findings further support the need for a Broader Bolder Approach to Education, one that acknowledges and addresses the impacts of poverty, especially concentrated poverty, on student achievement. Given the powerful results associated with socioeconomic integration of schools and housing, aren't these the types of policies we should be talking about all year round?