A weekend interview with Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation
To deal with crowding, the Pasco County School Board is redrawing attendance zones for middle and high schools in the eastern part of the county. One of the upshots of the proposed new boundaries is an increase in the amount of low-income students in Dade City schools -- particularly Pasco Middle School, which will near Title I status -- and a corresponding decrease in the socioeconomic diversity of students in the Wesley Chapel schools. We turned to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan but liberal leaning Century Foundation, who's one of the nation's leading proponents of economic integration, to talk about the implications and possible outcomes. Kahlenberg spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek.
The need of schools to cope with crowding, financial constraints and other factors is real, Kahlenberg acknowledged. But simply rezoning children into more economically segregated schools is not the best solution, he said.
"The research is clear that moves that exacerbate concentrations of poverty are bad for kids," Kahlenberg asserted. Not only that, he continued, "Extra money in high poverty schools does not adequately address the problem."
He pointed to a recent Century Foundation study of Montgomery County, Md., schools called Housing Policy is School Policy for support. That study, which relied upon the school system's blind assignment of low-income students, demonstrated that low-income children attending mixed-income schools outperform their peers in schools with high concentrations of poor kids.
"This study was particularly powerful because the families were randomly assigned to public housing units in very different neighborhoods that then translated into very different students," Kahlenberg said. "There were no issues of self selection."
Meaning the successful students were not just those of highly motivated parents.
Some Pasco officials have contended that the new attendance boundaries will lead to increased parental involvement, as the low-income students will be attending school closer to their homes. Nonsense, Kahlenberg said.
"There's no research to back up that hypothesis," he said. "The key driver of parental involvement is the socioeconomic status of the family. Low-income families for a variety of reasons are much less likely to be involved in the PTA or to volunteer in classrooms. To take one example, middle class parents are four times as likely to be members of the PTA as low-income families."
He cited an example at a Raleigh, N.C., magnet school that sits across the street from a public housing unit that sends children there. "Almost all the volunteers in the school were the middle-class parents who live farther away. It's not so much distance that is driving low levels of participation among low-income parents. It's if you are working two or three jobs, you may not be able to volunteer in the classroom, or your job might not offer you the flexibility to get off in the middle of the day."
Some people will say that low-income kids will feel more comfortable if they are around other low-income kids, he observed. But "mountains of evidence" show that economic segregation is "disastrous" for education.
"Probably the best thing you can do for a low-income student is allow her to attend a middle income school," Kahlenberg said.
School choice often allows that to occur. But in instances where that's not the case, usually because of uneven growth and crowding, school districts might have to make other conscious choices to maintain economic integration, he said. The mix of people in a school does matter, he argued.
"You want to have peers who are academically engaged and expect to go on to college," he said. "You want to have parents who are volunteering in a school, people who know how to hold school officials accountable when things go wrong. And you want to have high quality teachers, and the evidence seems to indicate that high quality teachers flee high poverty schools."
If neighborhoods were integrated on their own, then action wouldn't be needed. "But the reality is because our neighborhoods tend to be economically segregated, a plan which assigns students in a compulsory manner to their local schools will result in highly unequal opportunities."