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

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

Soon Alves was creating controlled-choice programs elsewhere in Massachusetts. To the North, in Lowell, he helped integrate Southeast Asians. In Lawrence, it was Latinos. And perhaps oddest of all, in Fall River on the Rhode Island border, he helped integrate recent Portuguese immigrants with existing Portuguese-Americans.

Then districts outside the Bay State took interest, inviting Alves to help set up controlled-choice programs. By 1985, Alves had established a similar program in San Jose, Calif., working with Latino advocates. Projects ranging from Florida to Illinois followed.

Now he is working with Fayette County, Tenn., which is launching a controlled-choice program under a court order, one of the few remaining federally managed desegregation cases. He is also working with New York City, which he calls “the most segregated school system in America in the most diverse city in the world.”

For the first 20 years, Cambridge balanced its schools by race. But starting in 2001, the system dropped racial goals in favor of socioeconomic balancing, just a few steps ahead of the Supreme Court, which in 2007 voted 5-4 to throw out a Seattle desegregation plan that relied on race. Only districts under federal court orders can use race to balance schools now.

Since 2001, parents who register their kids in Cambridge may choose to indicate whether they are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. The district then balances students from poor families with better-off kids throughout the district.

Alves says he actually prefers the socioeconomic balancing. His favorite program, in fact, is that of Champaign, Ill., which takes into account a variety of risk factors in its controlled-choice algorithm, including single-parent households, how many children the parent is raising and the parent’s own education level.

Champaign’s complex approach is analogous to considering one's medical history, Alves argues. “We don’t send a kid into a doctor's office and say, 'Give me his name and address.' That would be asinine. You want to know about the family medical history.”

Does it work?

Many proponents seem to shy away from the most obvious question: Does it work? By which they mean, Does it improve test scores? Maloney hesitates to make such a claim for Cambridge. Alves resists test scores as the primary measurement, as well.

“All I try to do is make sure that the child is going to have a fair opportunity,” Alves said. “If you have a school where there is a good mix of socioeconomic backgrounds, I know from firsthand knowledge that this is a better situation than having a school filled with kids who are poor.”

Others are less reticent about touting the statistical benefits of socioeconomic integration. Everyone talks about teacher quality or per-pupil expenditure in improving the performance for low-income students, says Kahlenberg. But both of these measures pale compared with the impact of socioeconomic status of a student's classmates.

“High-poverty schools are 22 times less likely to be high-performing than middle-income schools,” Kahlenberg says, “and low-income kids stuck in high-poverty schools are two years behind low-income kids who go to more affluent schools.”

Kahlenberg points to Raleigh, N.C., where an economic integration plan is in place, test scores are rising and 90 percent of students are reading at or above grade level. He also cites a study in Montgomery County, Md., where a carefully controlled experiment found that kids whose families were, by lottery, given public housing in integrated school areas significantly outperformed those whose neighborhood schools were given significantly bolstered resources.

Kahlenberg points to several reasons he believes integration matters more than resources, including the impact of peers on how kids form their own ambitions and the role of more confident parents in keeping a school on its toes.

Social engineering

The Fordham Institute's Finn is not terribly interested in whether controlled choice “works.” He sees the whole concept as an oxymoron. “It’s a social engineering scheme that superimposes someone else’s notion of what mixture would be good,” he says. “It’s a top-down regulatory approach.”

“We move kids around because we are unable to move teachers,” he says. “You might take teachers who drive cars and move to schools where the kids are, instead of loading the kids on buses.”

Finn argues that controlled choice is really not very different from forced busing, and he argues that racial issues are always thinly veiled behind the new language of “socioeconomic integration.”

One of Finn’s chief critiques is that such efforts always result in superficial integration, “not doing any more than nominally sitting under the same roof and maybe doing gym together.”

“I believe in school choice,” he says. “But we should leave it to the parents to sort out based on what they see as right for their kid, not try to manipulate it.”

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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