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Integrating Schools Fairly

It's disheartening to learn that public schools nationwide are more segregated today than they were in 1970, despite efforts to integrate them ("School Districts Fight Segregation on Their Own," The New York Times, Jun. 26).  The challenge is how to promote integration fairly.

Forced busing and other coercive measures have not worked.  Magnet schools have been slightly more successful because they allow parents to choose. But dissatisfied with the overall results, 100 school districts and charter school networks in 32 states have taken steps to assign students by taking socioeconomic status into account.

It's too soon to tell if the latter will be more effective on a large scale. The usual evidence cited in its defense is Wake County, N.C.  In 2000, the Wake County School Board voted to implement a plan to assure that no school in the district would have more than 25 percent of its students performing below grade level.  Low-income and minority students in Wake County have achieved better academic results than those in other North Carolina districts that have failed to break up pockets of poverty. 

But as much as I support integration, I wonder if socioeconomic factors will work as intended.  There are certain unique features in Wake County.  The school district is countywide, making it relatively easy to combine students from the city and the suburbs.  Wake County also has a three-decade history of busing, so that parents are accustomed to long rides to school.  Finally, the local economy is relatively prosperous.

Research has shown that schools must be at least 50 percent middle class in order to produce expected benefits.  That's known as the tipping point because educational quality begins to decline when a school becomes more than half low-income.

More to the point, I believe that most parents will withdraw their children from schools they believe do not meet their needs and interests. I don't think it's fair to label them as racists if they act in putting their own kin first.  That's why I remain skeptical about scioeconomic integration.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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