I look at that question and, more generally, economic integration of schools as a reform strategy in this week’s School of Thought column at TIME.com:
School integration has vexed policymakers for more than a half-century. The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that schools can’t keep kids out based on race, but in 2007 it ruled that schools can’t bring kids together based on race either. After the court struck down two race-based integration schemes in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., attention turned to diversifying schools via students’ household-income levels. Economic integration, a concept first floated by early public-school crusaders like Horace Mann, is a compelling idea with intuitive appeal: reduce the preponderance of high-poverty schools by spreading poor students around. The idea jumped back into the spotlight this month when the Century Foundation released a new study touting the benefits of economically integrated schools. The glaring problem from a policy perspective, however, is that low-income families tend to live in the same neighborhoods, and dramatically changing housing patterns — or school-zoning boundaries — is impractical as a large-scale reform measure.
Update: Economic integration go-to guy Rick Kahlenberg, who has done a lot of important work on this issue, responds. He makes several points that when unpacked ultimately bear out the frustrating conundrum here. Economic integration is a good idea, it’s just impractical as a large-scale remedy.
On the logistical challenges Rick argues that poor parents will put up with long car or bus rides for better schools. Perhaps, and where possible they should be accommodated, but the uptake in places with open-enrollment is less than you’d assume. But, regardless, they shouldn’t have to — they should have good schools where they live! Rick also argues that the Education Sector study I cited in the piece has been roundly criticized for its assumptions. Actually, it’s been roundly criticized by Rick. The assumptions that the author, Erin Dillon, made were tested (for instance, she doubled the assumed driving time for parents and found that it didn’t appreciably change the availability of seats). The issue is that there is not a lot of space near where there are a lot of poor kids and as you move them further and further the number of other students who could then also use those seats increases, too. We have a shortage of good schools in too many places not merely a moving people around problem.
On the politics, Rick again cites the 80 school districts that are doing this, at least to some extent. Great! That only leaves 13,000 to go! More could, sure, but not at scale, especially considering how boundaries are drawn in the first place. By way of example, I can think of a county near Washington that is among the very most liberal/progressive counties in the entire country. There are three non-choice high schools there. One is quite diverse, the other two not very much. It’s a very small and dense county, so they could easily change that distribution without geographic constraints by simply redrawing the school boundary lines. Don’t hold your breath. Oh, and by the way, housing prices in that county track the high schools.
He also chastises me for promoting charters as a better solution. But I don’t.* It’s apples to oranges. I do, however, think they are a more feasible solution. It’s ironic, though, that Rick continues to marginalize charter schools while citing the power of something that much less than even one percent of school districts are doing. Charters, for all their challenges, are way ahead of that curve already.
So what should we be doing on socioeconomic integration? I think more incentives and more creative ones – for instance giving school districts additional funding when they take a certain number of low-income students from elsewhere — make a lot of sense. A “Race to the Top” style competition here would be a good idea to encourage districts and states to change policies. And I’m all for housing policies that encourage economic diversity. We should also use open-enrollment policies that allow students to move when space is available, as some states do. But there are no easy answers here and we shouldn’t try to just wish the obstacles away, they’re real.