More than 60 years after the groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education, America’s school systems are still charged as being separate and unequal. Teachers, administrators, and policymakers are all grappling with the chilling statistics on racial achievement gaps, and asking the same question: How do we fix this?
For decades, the generally prescribed solution to racial inequality at the primary education level has been the implementation of racial integration policies. Studies indicate, however, that by most standards, U.S. public schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1970s. Significantly more than 30% of the nation’s black and Latino population attend schools that are 90% non-white. To the same point, more than 30% of white students attend schools that are 90% or more white.
A new report from The Century Foundation, entitled “A New Wave of School Integration,” found the best strategies to reduce institutional segregation and close achievement gaps not only incorporate consideration of race, but also socioeconomics.
“When you have economically mixed schools, they tend to see better results for students across the board,” said Halley Potter, one of the co-authors of the report. “Those schools are more likely to attract strong teachers and have a strong school culture and an environment where students are coming in ready to learn.”
The report, which looks at the 91 districts and charter schools across the country that used socioeconomic factors in student enrollment procedures, found increased racial segregation correlated to the rise in stratification by social class.
Paul Jargowsky, a Century Foundation fellow who writes about racial and socioeconomic inequality, said the income achievement gap is now twice the size of the racial achievement gap, adding that there is a link between income inequality and educational outcomes.
“What’s happening is that some in the black community in the middle class and higher have been improving their achievement over time. But the group that’s left behind in inner city neighborhoods, for instance, have been doing worse. There are overlapping spheres here,” said Jargowsky.
Potter also affirms that this widening socioeconomic gap can have an adverse effect on students’ educational outcomes.
“The Coleman Report found that the single biggest predictor of achievement in a school that was a school-based factor was the socioeconomic composition of the student body,” said Potter. “If you take a low-income student and give that student a chance to attend an economically diverse school instead of a high poverty school, the academic achievement is much higher for a student in an economically mixed school. That has been shown to be true and more effective than even additional resources.”
While many issues have been raised with the Coleman Report itself, this particular finding still holds true. Still, questions remain around how to achieve socioeconomic diversity in American schools. Considering American neighborhoods have become increasingly stratified along both racial and economic lines, schools seeking diversity must first figure out how to address neighborhood segregation.
Judy Weigand, superintendent of Champaign Unit 4 School District (CUSD), one of the districts highlighted in the report as successfully implementing socioeconomic integration policies, said neighborhood demographics were definitely a factor in CUSD’s strategies. In terms of getting people to leave their neighborhoods, she said that administrators “have to make it attractive, and make it worth it.”
CUSD had long used racial integration policies, but in the ‘90s, following complaints by African-American families in the district that transportation costs were posing an unfair burden, officials decided to incorporate socioeconomic integration policies into the enrollment procedures.
“In the past, if 30% of the district was African-American, we would say let’s have 30% of our school be African-American, plus or minus 15%,” said Wiegand. “Now, we look at our overall socioeconomic status. I believe it’s around 55% low-socioeconomic status. So we are going to set that target around 50% plus or minus 15%. People register for schools and we factor in the percentage of low-income students so that one school does not have a high socioeconomic status as compared with another school.”
CUSD received a $5 million federal banking grant two years ago and was able to target three of its elementary schools in the north side of its community, which is predominantly African-American and low-income. “With the federal magnet funds, we were able to target that racial isolation. We basically rebuilt the whole school,” said Weigand.
CUSD, in an effort to attract higher-income white families, incorporated socioeconomic integration strategies that could offer benefits for enrollment. For one school, CUSD partnered with the University of Illinois to develop a STEM curriculum. For another, it developed a fine arts program. For the third, a primary years program was implemented in an effort to start an International Baccalaureate curriculum.
“These are the kinds of things that families will value, and it has been very helpful in encouraging families to choose schools that aren’t in their neighborhoods,” said Weigand.
Potter agreed the key to successful socioeconomic integration is targeting neighborhoods. By creating a curriculum that offers affluent families something different and valuable they can’t get at their current neighborhood schools, those families are more compelled to enroll.
The report highlighted ways the other 90 districts were able to integrate more effectively. These included: altering attendance zone boundaries; implementing district-wide choice policies; and favoring diversity in magnet school admissions, charter school admissions, and transfer policies. The best approach, it found, is employing a district-wide choice policy.
“The best approach to integration within a district is a control-choice model, or a district-wide diversity choice plan that moves away from neighborhood attendance boundaries for schools, and instead makes all schools in the district magnet schools, making district-wide enrollment possible for all schools,” Potter said.
In this case, families rank their top selections of different schools and that ranking runs through an algorithm. This process makes sure each school has diversity that’s reflective of the district.
“Its successful for a couple of reasons: You are thinking about the whole district, so you are planning on integration across schools. And, it’s based on choice, and you are giving families options in different areas,” said Potter.
Nate Bowling, the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, agreed that the idea of expanding school districts and placing magnet and specialty programs is one way to achieve more equity across racial and socioeconomic lines.
Bowling referenced Lincoln High School, where he teaches, which is has a nearly 50% African-American and Latino population and in which more than three-fourths of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, an indicator for poverty. In Washington, thanks to district consolidation, Lincoln’s funding is on par with the funding of schools with more affluent populations.
"Because we're part of a more affluent district, we're actually funded better than we would be otherwise," he "It worked."
Of course, implementing such a policy comes with some challenges. The biggest one, according to Potter, is navigating the politics: it can be difficult getting leaders and politicians to rally around integration policies. As Bowling said, white, affluent families need to be given "some sort of incentive" to voluntarily desegregate.
Wiegand said that the key to overcoming this challenge is getting the support of the neighborhood. “I would say that it is important for a community to have many voices stating that diversity is important. So when I look at a community, like Louisville, and I look at their success with integration and choice, it’s not just the school superintendent stating it,” she said. “It’s the mayor, the head of the economic council, it’s other leaders in that community saying we need to do a better job with integrating our schools.”
Bowling, however, contends integration isn’t as easy as Wiegand and Potter represent it. He has repeatedly argued segregation in schools is intentional and that the “view from suburbia is sweet.”
Bowling agrees neighborhoods’ economic and racial delineations factor into school segregation. To Bowling, the issue with many policy discussions is people have a tendency to "teach an intentional problem like it's an accident of history and not like they're intentional policies." What ends up happening, he said, is policymakers as well as citizens can vindicate themselves of persistent discrimination, pointing instead to issues of personal choice.
"The existence of suburbia is based around people not wanting to live around people of color,” he said. “Whenever you see a school district line, it's because someone decided they didn't want their children to go to school with children from the other side of the line,” he said.
Jargowsky, agreed the crux of school segregation lies within neighborhood trends and white flight.
“What we need to recognize is that we shouldn’t be asking schools to solves the problems of the neighborhoods. The segregation and concentration of the poverty in neighborhoods —
that’s the fundamental problem. And then schools that are based on attendance zones are laid on top of that grid and end up looking very segregated themselves,” he said.
But Bowling said he is not optimistic these policies or attitudes will readily change any time soon.
"I think the situation we have is the situation we're going to be stuck with — housing inequality and school inequality — for the near future," Bowling said.
Jargowsky says that the best way to address the attitude surrounding segregation is to emphasize the importance of diversity for an individual’s overall achievement.
“Knowing how important it is to prepare our children to live in a global society is critical,” he said. “It’s important for our students to be around others, different races and ethnicities, even on an economic levels. That’s what our world is. Being in your own bubble is a disservice.”