Struggling to improve schools that have large populations of poor and minority students and under legal pressure to avoid racial busing, a small but growing group of school districts are integrating schools by income.
More than 60 school systems now use socioeconomic status as a factor in school assignments, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, which studies income inequality. Students in Champaign, Ill.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Louisville have returned this year to income-based assignments.
Supporters of economic diversity policies hold up the school system in Wake County, N.C., as a national example, but voters who came out for a recent school board election turned against it.
Wake County bused students for decades based on race but switched in 2000 to considering income, one of the first in the nation to do so.
Studies show low-income students do better in middle-class schools, Kahlenberg says. He says that’s borne out in Wake County, where both poor and middle-class students have mostly outperformed their peers in other urban North Carolina districts–though scores have slipped lately.
He hopes Wake County will find a middle ground, perhaps like Cambridge, Mass., whose diversity plan offers a greater degree of choice for parents.
Assignment schemes in other communities vary. Champaign assigns children to elementary schools using individual factors such as parents’ incomes and education levels, Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd says.
Prodded by a 2007 Supreme Court decision that limited how districts could use race, Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools moved to assignments that consider a neighborhood’s economic status, minority population and adult education levels, says Sheldon Berman, its superintendent.