A leg up for low-income parents: Public school choice and desegregation

Travis Pillow

In their quest for desegregation, a growing number of school systems are embracing a new approach. They expand public school choice, but use weighted admissions systems that prioritize students based on their family incomes, rather than race.

Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation explains in the Washington Post.

Research finds that the academic benefits of integration derive not from the pigment of classmates but from being in a middle-class school environment, where peers expect to go on to college, parents are able to be actively involved in school affairs and strong teachers are more often found. Nationwide, low-income fourth-grade students in middle-class schools are as much as two years ahead of low-income fourth-graders in high-poverty schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math.

Framing integration primarily in terms of socioeconomic status also has political advantages. One major lesson of the 2016 campaign has been the recognition that working-class whites feel abandoned by conventional political figures, which makes them open to demagogic appeals from the authoritarian right. Socioeconomic integration benefits Hillary Clinton’s African American and Latino voters but also Donald Trump’s white working-class constituencies. Researchers are in broad agreement that providing children with an economically and racially integrated school environment promotes social mobility in our economy and social cohesion in our democracy.

WNYC recently took a look at how giving low-income students extra weight in choice lotteries might improve the racial balance of schools in Manhattan.

In order to smooth out the discrepancies so that each school looks more like the district as a whole, which is what controlled choice aims to achieve, 28 percent of the district’s students would have to switch schools.

But the city can’t use race in admissions, following a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court Ruling. So the Community Education Council for District 1 has proposed using socioeconomic status as a proxy instead.

Under the proposal, parents would rank schools they wanted their children to attend, but the city would also consider whether the students qualified for free or reduced priced lunch when assigning incoming kindergarten students to different schools.

As a high-profile desegregation battle rekindles in Pinellas County, and public-school open enrollment starts to roll out statewide, perhaps it’s worth asking the question: What if public schools (including charters) gave low-income students a leg up in choice admissions? It might expand equal opportunity and improve racial integration at the same time.

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