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Schools grapple with how to integrate

After the Supreme Court's ruling against race-based policy Thursday, support grows for integrating schools on the basis of factors such as income level.

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At the crossroads of education and civil rights, a new signpost has been planted by the US Supreme Court, leaving school districts that have been striving for integration wondering which way to proceed.

Last week's ruling struck down two districts' voluntary desegregation plans because they relied too heavily on students' race in school assignments. A separate opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy left room for some consideration of racial demographics, but a number of observers believe it would be more practical for districts to shift toward balancing school populations on the basis of factors such as income level.

Such plans are already in place in about 40 school districts and appear to be on solid legal footing. But whatever strategy districts try, they could still face opposition from those who say the time has come to stop "social engineering" and to strengthen neighborhood schools.

"The socioeconomic approach offers two advantages," says Richard Kahlenberg, author of a new report detailing such plans and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive policy group in Washington. First, districts that have done it most successfully give families a choice of magnet schools with special programs, "so there are incentives for middle-class people to buy into socioeconomic integration," says Mr. Kahlenberg. Second, "as a legal matter, it's clearly fine to use income to distinguish people."

Such balance creates a more equitable environment that promotes higher achievement, he and others say. One study found that schools with less than 50 percent low-income students were 22 times more likely to be high-performing than schools with a majority of low-income students.

It's not a panacea for closing achievement gaps, Kahlenberg notes, "but in places like Wake County, N.C., which has the income-based integration plan, low-income and minority students are doing better than [their counterparts] in other big North Carolina districts that have concentrated poverty."

The school board of the 113,000-student district, which includes Raleigh, voted in 2000 to replace the race-based aspects of its magnet-school plan with income and achievement factors. The goal was for all schools to have no more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (a proxy for poverty), and no more than 25 percent of children scoring below grade level.

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