Does Income-Based School Integration Work?
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.
America has spent decades trying different strategies to bring low-income students to good schools. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the limitations of those approaches and double-down on the most promising efforts to bring good schools to students who need them — now.