Socioeocnomic Diversity Increasing in Schools, Study Finds

While American public schools are more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s, and economic segregation in schools has risen dramatically over the past two decades, a growing number of school districts and charter school networks are taking steps to promote diversity and integration by considering socioeconomic factors in student assignment policies, a study by the Century Foundation finds.

The report, A New Wave of School Integration: Districts and Charters Pursuing Socioeconomic Diversity (28 pages, HTML or PDF), identified eighty-three districts and eight charter schools in thirty-two states that consider socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment — up from two districts in 1996. The study found that integration strategies included redrawing attendance zone boundaries (thirty-eight districts) and taking socioeconomic status into consideration in magnet school admissions (twenty-five), transfer policies (seventeen), district-wide choice policies (sixteen), or charter school admission lottery processes (ten), and/or a combination of those factors. In all but ten of the ninety-one districts and charter schools studied, no single racial or ethnic group made up 70 percent or more of the student body, and all but seventeen of the districts and charters had rates of free or reduced lunch eligibility that were less than 70 percent.

According to the report, school segregation, by many measures, is worse today than it was in the 1970s, despite research showing that students in integrated schools not only have higher test scores and college enrollment rates but are more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods and hold jobs in integrated workplaces later in life. While focused on socioeconomic integration, the study notes that many of the districts and charter networks have integration goals that include both racial and socioeconomic factors. The authors argue that efforts to address racial and socioeconomic segregation using income as a targeting metric also have the advantage of avoiding recent legal challenges to race-based approaches.

At the same time, the report warns against a "one-size-fits-all" model, emphasizing that the approaches schools take to foster integration — and their results — can vary according to "the strength of the program design, the rigor of socioeconomic measurements, and the preexisting demographics of the district." Moreover, "advocates and practitioners should be careful to shape the definition of 'success' into one that encourages true equity, rather than one that simply accepts a single step of progress as the completion of a goal."