Critics may try to demagogue the new socioeconomic-integration proposal as a return of “forced busing,” but the administration seems to be banking on the idea that new programs—which emphasize choice over compulsion and socioeconomic status over race—may have more political viability today than forced busing for racial desegregation did in the 1970s. Two new papers published by The Century Foundation should give the administration reason for confidence.
First, as my colleagues Halley Potter, Kimberly Quick, and Elizabeth Davies note in “A New Wave of School Integration,” while old efforts to integrate explicitly by race have fallen out of favor, the number of school districts that take socioeconomic status into account as a factor in school assignment has doubled since 2007. Today 91 school districts and charter-school chains explicitly consider socioeconomic status of students (usually eligibility for subsidized lunches) in school-assignment plans. These districts educate 4 million students, or roughly 8 percent of students nationally. By contrast, in 1996, when I started researching socioeconomic integration for The Century Foundation, only two programs existed, educating about 30,000 students.
Socioeconomic-integration programs often have the effect of producing racial integration, which is a critical educational goal. But they offer a number of advantages over older race-based programs. The first is constitutional. While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial-integration plans in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle in 2007 for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, using socioeconomic indicators as a basis for integration is perfectly legal.
There are also political advantages to programs that lift up economically disadvantaged students of all races—low-income black and Latino students, but also working-class white students, whose families often feel left out of race-specific remedies to educational inequality. Louisville’s old race-based program, for example, resulted in one elementary school that was half black and half white, but virtually all the students were poor, and the school struggled academically. Socioeconomic-integration plans are the types of programs that could align the interests of working-class whites and blacks as they fight for the opportunity to attend good, middle-class schools.
And, as a second Century Foundation report by Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo of Columbia’s Teachers College notes, many integration programs today rely on voluntary choice, not compulsory busing. In the Hartford, Connecticut, region, for example, more than 40 inter-district magnet schools have been created to serve 16,000 students through choice. No one is forced to go to a school they don’t wish to attend.