Mixing It Up

WASHINGTON. D.C. - For the past eight years or so, I have done my best to advocate for the socioeconomic integration of schools. I can't say I've had great success.

During my time at the Piton Foundation, I took two delegations of Denver school board members, central administrators, principals and community advocates to Raleigh, N.C., to experience first-hand the wonders of the Wake County Public School System's integration program.

Despite the enthusiasm generated by these trips, we never succeeded in getting Denver Public Schools to make voluntary socioeconomic integration a priority for the district. Successive superintendents viewed the idea as a political third-rail.

Then, earlier this year, voters in Raleigh elected a new conservative majority to the school board, and the new board's first move was to dismantle the integration program, which was doomed because it increasingly relied on busing the children of affluent parents long distances. Not to be cynical, but programs that try to force wealthy people to do things they don't like always end up getting killed.

So I began to think that in this day and age, with the U.S. Supreme Court barring all race-based integration programs and the shining star of income-based integration relegated to the ash heap, mixing incomes in schools was dead as a strategy for improving public education.

But now I am feeling more optimistic. I spent the day Monday attending the first meeting of The Century Foundation's Consortium on Socioeconomic School Integration. Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the foundation and the nation's leading expert on socioeconomic integration, convened the gathering.

It was a great day and an impressive group. I attended with the understanding that the gathering was off the record, meaning I can't quote anyone or say exactly who was there. But I can say this: 35 school districts showed up, representing states from coast to coast and in the heartland. Other attendees included researchers from Stanford University, Harvard University and Duke University.

Districts represented by either school board members, superintendents or senior administrators included some as large as about 200,000 students and as small as around 600. Urban, suburban, and rural districts had a place at the table.

And all of these districts are facing similar challenges. They are becoming increasingly diverse, racially and socio-economically. The number of children in poverty is increasing, across the board. And, in the post-busing era, all are seeking strategies to make sure all kids receive an equitable education.

What better way to promote equity than to do everything possible to make sure kids do not attend schools segregated by socioeconomic status? All 35 districts in attendance are struggling to figure out how to promote socioeconomic integration in a challenging political climate.

I found the commonalities fascinating. Districts of all sizes want to promote integration without being coercive. One popular strategy in almost all districts is creating dual-immersion language schools, which attract affluent parents and also have a natural population of immigrant kids, many of whom are low income.

Listening to district representatives, it also became clear that many suburban districts in particular are grappling with rapidly rising poverty rates. Socioeconomic integration is not some high-minded concept for these districts but rather a survival strategy.

Each district had five minutes to describe itself and its current situation. Afterwards, Kahlenberg boiled what we heard down to nine succinct points. They are worth producing here, in brief:
  1. Positive incentives must be provided to middle class and white parents to integrate. Examples: dual-language magnet schools. A "liberal" ideology alone won't work.
  2. Solicit feedback from the community regarding what choices (of school models) to provide.
  3. Leverage community assets by partnering with private community institutions, such as hospitals.
  4. If we are to sell this convincingly, the primary argument must be about student achievement, even though we may hold other social goals for integration as well.
  5. Language matters. Example: "transportation" vs. "busing."
  6. Simplicity is an important value in designing socioeconomic integration plans.
  7. Keep in mind the connection between schooling and housing. There may be possible partnerships with authorities in the housing sphere regarding integration goals.
  8. Magnet schools themselves can create new problems: jealousy among teachers pertaining to resources. What are the solutions to these problems? Controlled choice is one possible solution, which strives to make all schools in a district attractive so there is no division between magnets and non-magnets.
  9. Think about integration within school buildings. It's not enough to integrate schools if the classrooms within these schools are segregated.
Did I hear some things that didn't thrill me? Sure. There was a bit too much reflexive skepticism, bordering on hostility, about charter schools. Too many people, for my taste, also had a knee-jerk reaction against using standardized tests to measure student achievement. But there were more reasonable voices in the room as well.

The Century Foundation is seeking foundation funding to sustain the consortium and make it a powerful advocacy voice for a proven strategy to which many politicians are indifferent. I hope Kahlenberg and his team succeed in making this group a force in school reform for many years to come.