National Edition

'Controlled choice': Does mixing kids based on family income improve education?

Published: Thursday, April 10 2014 12:20 p.m. MDT

Until 2001, students were assigned to achieve racial balance. Now, the assignment ratios are based on socioeconomic challenges, measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches.

Since roughly half the city’s schoolchildren are economically challenged — while just 11 percent are African-American — many supporters of school integration today view the socioeconomic approach best to reach those most in need.

Cambridge is, of course, far from a typical town. But it is the oldest and one of the most enduringly successful models of controlled choice, and it always the first cited by proponents.

Home to Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the population of Cambridge is disproportionately educated, well-off and liberal. The city is also compact, just 6 square miles, and densely populated, with naturally integrated neighborhoods and well-funded schools.

“Cambridge is a strange town in many ways,” notes James Maloney, the Cambridge school districts chief operating officer, who readily admits that replicating anything done here could be difficult.

Maloney is careful not to overstate the benefits of controlled choice. Cambridge still struggles with disparities in standardized tests, he says, but it does much better on graduation rates. Nationally, high school graduation rates for black males are below 60 percent, he says, while in Cambridge nearly 90 percent graduate.

In any case, some of the benefits of socioeconomic mixing are hard to measure, Maloney argues. “A low-income child growing up in Cambridge going to integrated schools,” he says, “is probably going to have a perspective on life as a young adult that one might not have growing up in a segregated neighborhood in a large city.”

Learning from Boston

Cambridge started its program because it didn’t want to be Boston. For over a decade beginning in 1974, Boston’s public school system was thrown into chaos by a federal court order that sought to racially integrate Boston neighborhoods via forced busing. The result was years of friction, protests and even deadly violence, as two of Boston’s poorest — South Boston and Roxbury — were severely disrupted so white kids and black kids could study together.

And for all the pain, it didn’t work. During the 14 years federal courts controlled Boston’s schools, the public school enrollment dropped from 93,000 to 57,000. By 1988, the ratio of white students in the school district had dropped from 65 percent to 28 percent, according to a 1996 “Policy Review” article. And the slide continued. By 1996 just 17 percent of Boston public school students were white.

Much of this was due to “white flight,” as white families left for the suburbs beyond the reach of busing plans. Many of the white families who remained shifted their kids to private schools. In 2003, a whopping 44 percent of white children in Boston attended private schools.

Across the Charles River from South Boston, Cambridge was taking notes, as were the state legislators across town. No one wanted a repeat of the Boston mess.

Alves was hired in 1975 by Massachusetts to develop alternatives to the mess in Boston. He started by trying to build “magnet schools” — highly funded schools with special opportunities located in poorer neighborhoods, designed to attract middle-class parents. Magnet schools try to integrate students voluntarily through excellence.

Then came the epiphany. “Why couldn’t every school,” Alves asked, “become a desegregating school of choice?”

Because lawmakers were anxious to avoid the court-imposed integration, Alves had wide latitude to fashion solutions, and Cambridge, perhaps motivated by the fires across the river in Boston, was game to work with him.

An expanding model

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