In 1992, La Crosse, Wisconsin, became the first school district in the nation to put into effect an explicitly socioeconomic-based school-integration plan at the elementary-school level. One of Coleman’s Ph.D. students, Stephen Plank, studied the program and reported that while students initially grouped themselves by socioeconomic status, over time, children of different economic backgrounds mixed. Subsequent research showed that La Crosse saw achievement gains following adoption of the socioeconomic-integration program. Still, by 1996, three decades after Coleman’s report was published, just two school districts—La Crosse and McKinney, a district in Texas—integrated schools by socioeconomic status. The two districts educated just 30,000 students.
Over time, however, racial desegregation efforts began to wane as the Supreme Court instructed lower courts to wind down judicial supervision of school districts. For example, in the 1990s, Charlotte, which had been a great desegregation success story, ended its busing program and allowed the schools to re-segregate by race and class. Outcomes for African American students fell.
Over time, the courts grew increasingly hostile to racially explicit integration programs. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court, struck down voluntary racial integration in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle. Seattle abandoned its integration plan, but Louisville chose to reinvent its program with an emphasis on parental income and education, consistent with Coleman’s original findings. In an ironic legal twist, the fact that Courts declined to recognize socioeconomic status as a “suspect class” like race in the 1970s now meant that rich people could not bring “reverse discrimination” suits to claim that they were being unfairly treated by plans that promote socioeconomic integration. Louisville’s program, which also considers the racial makeup of neighborhoods, is legally viable and has strong public support.
Today, the number of school districts and charters pursuing socioeconomic integration has grown from two 20 years ago to 91, according to a Century Foundation study. These districts educate 4 million students. Charlotte, for example, which led the nation in racial desegregation, then abandoned it, saw its school board vote in 2016 to take steps to integrate the schools by socioeconomic status. (I am helping the district with its plan.)
Many of the districts pursuing socioeconomic integration are seeing impressive results. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, a socioeconomic-integration program was adopted in 2001 and by 2014, 86 percent of low-income students graduated, compared to 65 percent of low-income students in Boston, whose schools are not socioeconomically integrated. Coleman would not have been surprised by the 21-point differential. “Particular individuals who might never consider dropping out if they were in a different high school might decide to drop out if they attended a school where many boys and girls did so,” the Coleman Report explained. Moreover, socioeconomic integration often leads to racial integration, which has powerful benefits, such as reducing bigotry and forging social cohesion.