Can Separate Be Equal?

For generations, those seeking to break the cycle of poverty have divided into two camps: integrationists, who believe that separate schools and neighborhoods for rich and poor perpetuate poverty, and community organizers, who want to "fix" inner-city communities and schools rather than move people around. Generally speaking, integrationists have had stronger social-science research on their side, while community organizers have claimed to be more politically realistic.

During the Democratic presidential primary campaign, candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards neatly embodied the two approaches. Edwards proposed expanding housing vouchers to allow low-income families to move to better neighborhoods while Obama called for increasing funding for the Community Development Block Grant program. In the education arena, Edwards proposed giving middle-class suburban public schools a financial incentive to recruit low-income urban students trapped in failing schools. By contrast, Obama supported creating 20 versions of the Harlem Children's Zone, which provides pre-K, parenting classes, and extra social services to low-income, inner-city residents. Edwards called for doubling funding of magnet schools, which have the purpose of integrating students from different backgrounds, while Obama called for doubling funding of charter schools, which are agnostic about integration, and some research suggests may actually increase both racial and economic segregation.

Democrats were clearly correct to pick the more politically adept (and romantically monogamous) candidate, but does Obama have the better poverty-fighting approach? Or can economic integration of schools and neighborhoods become a politically palatable supplement to Obama's innovative but limited community-revitalization agenda?

Any effort to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty begins with education. Four decades of research has found that the single best thing one can do for a low-income student is give her a chance to attend a middle-class school. The landmark 1966 Coleman Report found that the most important predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomic status of the family a child comes from, and the second most important predictor is the socioeconomic makeup of the school she attends. A low-income student given the chance to attend a middle-class school is likely to be surrounded by peers who are academically engaged and less likely to act out; a set of parents who volunteer in the classroom and know how to hold school officials accountable; and high-quality teachers who have high expectations.

That more advantaged school environment translates into dramatically different achievement levels. On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) given to fourth-graders in math, for example, low-income students attending more affluent schools scored almost two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools. Indeed, low-income students given a chance to attend more affluent schools performed more than half a year better, on average, than middle-income students who attend high-poverty schools. This matters because performance in early grades tends to predict performance in later grades, and high school performance predicts the level of educational attainment, which in turn predicts adult earnings.

Today, more than 60 school districts are explicitly seeking to reduce concentrations of school poverty. For example, in Wake County, North Carolina, which includes the city of Raleigh and surrounding suburbs, the district adopted a goal in 2000 that no school should have more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The results are quite impressive, with Wake County's low-income, minority, and middle-class students generally outperforming peers in other large North Carolina districts.

Districts like Wake County are emphasizing integration by economic status as opposed to race because doing so avoids the constitutional problems associated with racial integration plans and is also consistent with the social-science research that has long found that black students don't do better sitting next to white students; rather low-income students of all races do better in a middle-class school environment.

But make no mistake: In the United States, it is black and Latino students who overwhelmingly attend high-poverty schools. Almost two-thirds of black and Hispanic public school students attend schools in which more than 50 percent of students are eligible for subsidized meals, compared with just one in five white students. One reason low-income whites tend to outperform low-income African Americans and Latinos is that they are attending schools with more middle-class classmates.

Similarly, well-designed efforts to deconcentrate neighborhood poverty have had broad success. As a remedy to housing discrimination under the 1976 Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program, almost 25,000 African Americans in public housing in the Chicago metropolitan area were given a chance to live in mostly white, affluent suburbs. Because the program was oversubscribed, researchers could compare families who moved to the suburbs with those who wished to move to the suburbs but were instead assigned to housing in the city. Scholars at Northwestern University found that children of suburban movers were four times more likely to finish high school and twice as likely to attend college as city movers. A more recent experiment aimed at replicating Gautreaux, the federal Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, found few benefits, but it was a poor test of poverty-deconcentration strategies, as students in the treatment group attended schools with a mean subsidized lunch population of 67.5 percent, compared to 73.9 percent in the control group. This looked more like moving to mediocrity than opportunity.

While well-run socioeconomic school integration and housing-mobility programs like Gautreaux have been highly successful, most efforts to improve high-poverty neighborhoods and schools have proved disappointing over the years. Billions have been invested in Community Development Corporations (CDCs), but as researcher David Rusk notes, even the nation's best CDCs "are losing the war against poverty." Likewise, numerous evaluations of the federal Title I program for high-poverty schools have consistently found that the many billions of dollars expended have failed to produce significant academic gains.

In recent years, however, some observers have claimed to have figured out how to make "separate but equal" work. Indeed, the existence of highly successful high-poverty schools such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) chain of charter schools and the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) package of pre-K programs, social services, and charter schools suggest to some that segregation is just an "excuse" for failure. Because most charter schools are non-unionized, some draw the profoundly conservative lesson that teachers' unions, not segregation, are the primary impediment to equal opportunity.

The success of these programs has had an important influence on key figures in the Obama administration. But on closer examination, the high-poverty school success stories are very difficult to replicate on a national scale because the parents, students, and teachers in KIPP and HCZ schools are not representative of those typically found in high-poverty public schools.

KIPP educates a subset of students fortunate enough to have striving parents who take the initiative to apply to a KIPP school and sign a contract to read to their children at night. Moreover, one study found that among those who begin KIPP, an extraordinary 60 percent leave, many because they find the program too rigorous. Nor are the teachers typical of those attracted to regular high-poverty public schools. The dedication of KIPP teachers -- who work from 7:15 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. and then go home to plan for the next day as they take phone calls to help students with homework -- is legendary but may not translate into an effective model for 3 million teachers nationally.

To its credit, the Harlem Children's Zone set out to educate an entire 97-block region of Harlem -- not just the most motivated subset -- but to date, its charter schools have reached only 1,300 students, whose parents must apply for a lottery to participate. Like KIPP, HCZ's positive results come not from the entire cohort of students but rather from the subset who survive a longer school day and school year. In the case of HCZ's middle school, more than a third of students left between sixth and eighth grade, and unlike at public schools, no new students entered.

Even high-poverty schools that beat the odds have trouble breaking the cycle of poverty because students at such schools are still cut off from valuable social networks that ease employment opportunities. U.C. Berkeley researcher Claude Fischer and colleagues found that even after controlling for individual ability and family home environment, attending a middle-class school reduced the chances of adult poverty by more than two-thirds.

If there is a broad social-science consensus that economic segregation impedes equality of opportunity, there is also a durable -- if outdated -- political consensus that housing mobility and school integration programs are politically toxic. For the Obama administration, the political calculations about school integration may be particularly sensitive. Put crudely, does America's first black president want to be seen as supporting "busing"? The concern is understandable but outdated, for three reasons.

First, most school districts today integrate students through voluntary programs that rely heavily on incentives rather than compulsory busing. Thirty years ago, districts shipped kids across town and parents had no say in the matter, a practice that fueled white flight. Today, however, most districts seeking integration rely primarily on systems of magnet schools and public-school choice. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, all schools have been designated magnet schools, each with something distinct to offer. Parents rank their preferences among schools, and the district honors choices in a way to ensure that all schools are within plus or minus 10 percentage points of the system's average eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch. The most sophisticated plans poll parents ahead of time, asking them what sort of themes or pedagogical approaches would attract them to attend a school further away.

Second, the "neighborhood school" does not have the same resonance it did three decades ago. Although Americans are divided on private-school vouchers, they overwhelmingly support giving greater choice and options to students within the public school system. The number of families choosing a non-neighborhood public school increased by 45 percent between 1993 and 2007.

Third, a growing number of Americans now recognize that diversity is a good thing for all students. The research has long found that integration is not a zero-sum game: Low-income students can benefit from economically integrated schools, and middle-class achievement doesn't decline so long as a strong core of middle-class children is present. Moreover, many families now believe that racial, ethnic, and income diversity enriches the classroom, noting that students can't learn how to live in a multicultural society in a segregated white school.

The number of districts using socioeconomic status in student assignment has increased dramatically over the last decade, and notably, the list includes districts from "red" states and "blue" states, from Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina to Omaha, Nebraska; from San Francisco, California, to McKinney, Texas. While conventional wisdom declares school integration a thing of the past, more than 3.2 million students live in school districts with some form of socioeconomic integration plan in place.

Taken together, the emphasis on school integration -- through voluntary incentives rather than compulsion, with an emphasis on economic status rather than race -- dovetails nicely with Barack Obama's winning vision of "One America." Obama's centrist education agenda to date -- charter schools, performance pay for teachers, and accountability -- has its place, but simply supplementing what was essentially the Bush administration's platform with more money is not bold enough for the challenges we face. If the Obama administration wants to make real inroads on breaking the cycle of poverty, it needs to do better than Plessy v. Ferguson.

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