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Schools now integrate by income

Cambridge, Mass., is the latest city trying to counter a rich-poor imbalance when assigning students to schools.

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Nearly 50 years after the US Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional, a new legal and cultural climate is now causing many school districts to shift their focus to a different kind of segregation problem: that which separates wealthy students from poor ones.

This week, Cambridge, Mass., joined a small but growing number of cities, from San Francisco to Charlotte, N.C., that have decided to make income, rather than race, the primary factor in deciding which students go to which schools.

The shift is in part the result of a series of recent court decisions that have struck down some racial integration efforts as unfair to nonminority students or putting too great a burden on school systems. For many districts, income-based school placement represents a legal path toward racial diversity, since income and race are correlated.

But it also reflects a growing awareness that income, even more than race, is a strong predictor of academic achievement. Notably, students in schools with high concentrations of poverty are much less likely to succeed.

"Two factors are combining to really promote this as part of an important trend," says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and author of a book on economic desegregation. "Quite frankly, a number of communities are trying to find a legal way to maintain racial diversity as a byproduct. But there are also a lot of very sound educational reasons to want to do this on its own."

Still, the plan is controversial. Many middle-class parents here worry their children might suffer academically if forced to attend a school that has traditionally had a high percentage of low-income students - and a low rate of academic achievement.

Under the new system, Cambridge will continue to let parents list schools they would like their child to attend. But the percentage forced into schools they did not select, now about 8 percent, is sure to rise.

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