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January 26, 2011

State of the Union 2011: Education

Richard Kahlenberg

The President’s State of the Union address last night represented a missed opportunity in the education sphere.  As I noted in a "Room for Debate" column in the New York Times. the president was right to outline two key challenges – making our nation more competitive in a cost-effective manner – but then he failed to mention one of the most powerful weapons available in our arsenal.

American schools do a particularly bad job of educating low-income students, in part because we allow higher rates of child poverty than our competitors, and in part because our schools are more socioeconomically segregated.  In about 80 school districts, steps have been taken to give low-income students a chance to attend mixed income schools, a program that works and is also far cheaper than efforts to “fix” high poverty schools with extra money.  In the Times, I noted:

In 2010 Century Foundation study found that students in families randomly assigned to public housing in low-poverty neighborhoods and who attended low-poverty schools significantly outperformed their low-income peers assigned to higher poverty schools, even though the latter spent far more per pupil for things like reduced class size and extended learning time.  Likewise, a recent Center for American Progress study found that Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina schools, which are socioeconomically integrated, get more bang for the buck than districts like nearby Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which has resegregated in recent years.

Unfortunately, the president didn’t highlight the power of socioeconomic integration and instead chose to single out a Denver middle and high school, Bruce Randolph, whose students beat the odds despite the fact that the school has a very high concentration of poverty.

The school appears to have done wonderful things for the 73 mostly low-income students who graduated in 2010, but the habit of citing exceptionally successful high poverty schools can inadvertently send the message that economic segregation doesn’t matter.  We should, of course, learn what we can from Bruce Randolph, but the president should also acknowledge that high poverty schools are 22 times less likely to be high performing than middle-class schools and normally do not provide as positive a learning environment for children as economically mixed schools.  (Randolph, although singled out by the president of the United States, ranks 66 of about 150 Denver schools and remains on a “watch” list.)  

The 80 school districts that are trying to give more children a chance to attend middle-class schools face political pressure and could use federal support.  In Wake County, for example, tea party enthusiasts have taken over the school board and are trying to dismantle the successful socioeconomic integration program.  The sad tale was featured recently on the front page of the Washington Post and was skewered on the Colbert Report.  To his credit, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in with a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in support of diverse schools.

But socioeconomically integrated schools need far more federal support.  The Race to the Top fund has given financial incentives (and political cover) to states to adopt a variety of controversial proposals, such as adopting common standards, raising limits on charter schools, and promoting merit pay for teachers.  Socioeconomic diversity should also be prized and rewarded.

The Congress took a small symbolic step last night by integrating the seating of Democrats and Republicans.  In tight fiscal times, when every education dollar must count, the administration could and should be doing much more to encourage and invest in the socioeconomic integration of our schools.



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