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July 24, 2008

Can School Integration Work in the Cities?

Richard Kahlenberg

Emily Bazelon's terrific New York Times Magazine article on the benefits of economically and racially integrated schools in Jefferson County (Louisville), Kentucky and Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, has led some liberal bloggers to bemoan the fact that this type of policy "won't work" in urban areas.  Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly argues "there is no plausible way to reduce concentrated poverty in our biggest school districts" while Matthew Yglesias at The Atlantic says "an extremely large proportion of poor and minority students live in places where you couldn't possibly make this work."

In fact, however, the picture is hardly so grim.  A couple of facts:

* Nearly two thirds of poor kids live outside of urban areas in the United States, so even if economic integration plans could do nothing for big cities, the reform would hardly be marginal; it would help millions of students.

* Urban school district lines are not divinely inspired.  They are created by states.  Indeed, Raleigh used to have its own school district until it merged with the surrounding suburbs to become part of a unified Wake County system.  Since the 1930s, consolidation has been the rule, as the number of American school districts declined from 130,000 to 14,000 today.  And even where school district lines are hard to change, boundaries are not impermeable.  An estimated 500,000 students cross school district lines every day to go to school in another district.  That's more than ten times the number that use publicly funded private school vouchers. 

* One of the longest standing and most successful urban-suburban transfer programs is in St. Louis, where over the years fully a quarter of the student population has had access to good suburban public schools.  As Amy Stuart Wells and Jennifer Holme point out in a forthcoming Century Foundation book (summarized here) students in this program perform at higher levels and are much more likely to graduate and go on to college.  For more details about the St. Louis program, see William Freivogel's report here.

* Two-way transfer programs can also be highly successful.  Hartford, Connecticut's urban-suburban public school choice program prides itself on allowing children to move in both directions.  Not only do urban students have a chance to attend high quality suburban schools, there are long waiting lists for white middle class kids to attend urban magnet schools, such Hartford Montessori school.

Imaginative leaders don't accept the idea that urban students should be forever shut off from their more affluent suburban peers.  Senator John Edwards, for example, has proposed doubling federal magnet school funding to attract middle class students into city schools and providing a financial incentive for high performing suburban schools to accept urban low income student transfers.

No one should minimize the obstacles to achieving fully integrated schools, but particularly from our liberal friends, we could use a little more "yes, we can."


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Richard, do you have school age children? If so do they attend - diverse - public schools? Hope there's not an Obama-esque Chicago Lab school 'convenient' thing going on.

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