The New Look of School Integration

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial-integration plans in Jefferson County (Louisville), Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, last June, some feared the decisions spelled the end of America's commitment to Brown v. Board of Education. But last Wednesday the Jefferson County school board unanimously voted to adopt a new plan that emphasizes integration by socioeconomic status, which is more legally viable and educationally sound than integration based on race alone. The revised plan, which considers parental education and income levels in addition to race, may very well represent the future of school integration in the United States.

Louisville's schools, like most throughout the South, were de jure segregated by race prior to Brown. Local officials resisted the Brown decision for years, but in 1975 the district was subject to a federal court order to desegregate. Under the plan, students were bused to ensure that all schools were between 15 percent and 50 percent black.

Because Jefferson County schools encompass the city and surrounding suburbs, the system did not experience the dramatic white flight that plagued many cities after the implementation of desegregation plans. After a quarter-century, a judge declared the Jefferson County schools "unitary," meaning they were fully desegregated and no longer required court supervision. Local officials believed integration was working well for students, however, and in 2001 voted to voluntarily keep the basic 15 percent to 50 percent African American guidelines in place. (At the time, the district's student population was 34 percent black and 66 percent non-black.) Integration was pursued by considering race as a factor in drawing school boundaries, in magnet school admissions, and in the honoring of transfer requests.

But a white mother who could not get her child into the school she wanted on account of race sued. She received a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in late June 2007. In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court struck down Louisville's plan as a violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Roberts famously declared, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." The swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, was supportive of the goal of racial integration but particularly concerned about how the plan categorized individual children solely by race. Kennedy said race should only be used as a "last resort" and that in this case, "the schools could have achieved their stated ends through different means."

The truth was that the race-only plan was not only legally vulnerable; it had some drawbacks from an educational standpoint as well. While the plan did a nice job of integrating students by race, which is very important for promoting tolerant citizens in a pluralistic democracy, it was completely blind to the issue of economic status, which is the central driver of school quality and academic achievement.

Local school officials had long realized the earlier plan had flaws. Case in point was Jefferson County's Roosevelt-Perry Elementary School. The school was integrated by race, but 99 percent of its students were low-income. It struggled academically. Indeed, four decades of research has found that in promoting academic achievement, having an economic mix is far more important than having a racial mix. Blacks don't do better academically when they sit next to whites, but low-income students of all races perform at higher levels when they're given access to a middle-class environment -- one in which they are more likely to find peers who are academically engaged and less disruptive; parents who volunteer in the classroom, are PTA members, and hold school officials accountable; and teachers who are highly qualified and have high expectations. As UCLA's Gary Orfield, a strong proponent of racial integration, has written: "Educational research suggests that the basic damage inflicted by segregated education comes not from racial concentration but the concentration of children from poor families."

Back in 1993, Jefferson County superintendent Stephen Daeschner tried to address the issue of poverty concentrations. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Daeschner said the uneven distribution of poor children "bothers me more than anything. … That question is as powerful as the [racial] integration one in my mind." At the time, while all the county's schools were racially balanced, they ranged wildly in the proportion of students eligible for free and reduced priced meals -- from 9 percent to 99 percent. Daeschner wondered, why didn't the district try to integrate by socioeconomic status as well as race? The principal at Roosevelt-Perry Elementary, J. Back, told the Courier Journal that Daeschner's support for economic integration made him feel "like leaping from his chair and cheering."

Teachers also understood the importance of avoiding poverty concentrations. A 1998 poll of Louisville teachers found that in promoting academic achievement, they were more concerned about income integration than racial integration. District officials knew the significance as well. An April 2002 analysis by the Jefferson County school district found that low-income students in middle-class schools performed better than low-income students in high-poverty schools.

In the fall of 2002, however, when school board member Stephen P. Imhoff tried to get the seven-member school board to consider economic school integration, he recalls, "only one other board member was willing to talk about it." Daeschner no longer supported the idea. The real estate community raised objections, and the "so-called liberal Courier-Journal" editorialized against it. No one wanted to rock the boat, Imhoff says.

In an ironic twist, it took a conservative U.S. Supreme Court striking down the naked use of race to move the Jefferson County school board to adopt a plan that included socioeconomic status. The Court, says Imhoff, "helped us do what we should have done all along." At the board meeting last week, Imhoff said the decision to include economic status in student assignment was consistent with the vision of Horace Mann, the founding father of American public education, who said schools should be open "to rich and poor alike."

Under the new program, the school district is divided into six clusters, each of which was drawn to be racially and economically diverse. Families will choose schools within the cluster and their choices will be honored so long as there is room and the placement furthers the diversity requirements. To be diverse, each school is required to have between 15 percent and 50 percent of students from elementary school enrollment areas that are designated as "Geographic Area A" -- those where the majority of students reside in census blocks that are below the district's average median household income, below the district average educational attainment, and above the district average for public school minority students. (Currently, 48 percent of the district's 98,000 students are from minority groups.) All students in a geographic area are designated by their neighborhood demographics, regardless of their individual race or economic status.

All other areas -- poor white areas, middle-class minority areas, and middle-class white areas -- are designated as "Geographic Area B." Counting poor white areas as "Area B" could present a problem for economic integration -- a school could satisfy the A and B balance by bringing together poor blacks and poor whites -- but Imhoff says that in practice, the area boundaries are usually drawn to avoid this problem. For example, even though the Roosevelt-Perry area has many low-income whites, Imhoff says, it is above the district average for minorities so all the students (low-income white and black) are designated as Area A and their numbers will be capped at 50 percent in any school.

The white Louisville lawyer who brought the original suit, Teddy Gordon, has said the new plan is "challengeable." But this time, Jefferson County has a much better chance of prevailing in the courts. This go-around race is not the only factor being considered, and by basing decisions on the geographic area in which a student resides rather than on an individual student's skin color, the swing vote, Justice Kennedy, may be satisfied.

Of course, Jefferson County would be on even safer legal ground if it avoided the use of race altogether. Some counties have done just that. Wake County, North Carolina, which includes Raleigh and the surrounding suburbs, has a policy that no school should have more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, or more than 25 percent reading below grade level. By avoiding concentrations of poverty, low-income and minority students in Wake County outperform similar students in other large North Carolina counties. And the schools are almost as racially integrated under the economic plan as they had been under a previous race-based integration scheme.

Jefferson County officials have long said, however, that using economic status alone will not produce sufficient racial diversity. Jefferson County has larger numbers of poor whites, so an education level and income plan alone would, in some instances, have resulted only in integrating poor whites with wealthy whites. That would have had a positive effect on academic achievement but forfeited the democracy and tolerance-building benefits of racial integration.

Jefferson County appears to be part of a growing national trend. Today at least 45 school districts are pursuing plans that emphasize socioeconomic status, sometimes in combination with race, sometimes by itself. Just since the Supreme Court's decision last year, a number of communities -- including Des Moines, Iowa; Burlington, Vermont; Beaumont, Texas; Lafayette, Louisiana, and Napa Valley Unified School District in California -- have announced plans to use economic status as a factor in student integration.

These communities, like Jefferson County, are not giving up on the goal of integration. To their enduring credit, they are tackling one of the greatest sources of inequality in American schools -- the separation of poor and middle-class kids. It would have been easy for Jefferson County officials to throw up their hands and revert to economically and racially segregated neighborhood schools, joining the vast majority of districts in the uphill battle to make "separate but equal" work in practice. Instead, with their emphasis on socioeconomic integration, these school districts are seeking to reinvent Brown for the 21st century.

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