Deconcentrating Poverty is Route to Quality Schools

As we mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we know how poor America’s public school students are.   We also know from the Census and a recent Southern Poverty Foundation report how dramatically poverty among public school students has grown in the past decade. Student poverty makes it incredibly hard to improve student and school performance, given its link to chronic absence, housing instability, difficulty attracting and retaining strong teachers, and insufficient school resources.

In addition to growing poverty, we can see how much ground we have lost since the 1960s and 1970s in desegregating our schools. They’re intensely racially segregated not only in former Jim Crow states like Mississippi, but in New York, which now has the most segregated schools in the entire country—as measured by students’ exposure to peers of other races.

What is most critical, however, is how racial and income segregation interact with one another. Indeed, William Julius Wilson’s seminal 1967 book, The Truly Disadvantaged, jumpstarted an entire body of research on this issue. Recently, Richard Rothstein and Patrick Sharkey discussed both neighborhood- and school-level links between segregation, poverty, and related factors that particularly harm black and brown families and children. Their work prompted the Economic Policy Institute and Broader Bolder Approach to Education to explore what that interaction looks like for kids who are starting school now; our new paper uses data from US children who entered kindergarten in the 2010-2011 school year.

Our findings affirm those of Wilson, Rothstein, and Sharkey: due to racial segregation, minority status conveys multiple disadvantages. Chief among them, black and Hispanic kindergartners are disproportionately in schools in which the majority of their peers are poor. (The definition of poverty in this paper is that used by many policymakers to establish eligibility for many government supports – 200% of the federal poverty line, or less than about $37,000 annually for a family of three.

If our kindergarten classrooms were not economically and racially segregated, we would expect most students to be in classes in which about a quarter of their peers were low-income; since overall, about 25 percent of all kindergartners are from low-income households. But in our segregated society classrooms don’t look like that at all: Three in five white students are in classrooms in which just over 10 percent of their classmates are poor. This means that they are likely to be in schools that do not face obstacles like classmates whose lack of preparation demand extra teacher attention, or peers whose hunger and toothaches prompt them to act out and disrupt class. They are less likely to suffer from shuttered school libraries, counselors that must each support 1000 students, or a lack of nurses to treat ordinary and emergency medical needs – things that are increasingly common in low-income and heavily minority schools.

For black and brown students, the story is flipped: Only 11 percent of Hispanic and 7 percent of black students make it into such low-poverty kindergarten classrooms; most are in classrooms in which at least 75 percent of their peers are minorities, and the majority of those peers are poor. More than 56 percent of black students, and more than 55 percent of Hispanic students, enter kindergarten classes in which half of the kids are poor. Moreover, one-third of their classmates do not speak English at home, and the percentage of their peers’ mothers who have at least a bachelor’s degree is in the single digits. Less than 5 percent of white kindergartners attend schools facing these multiple disadvantages.

This pattern of concentrating black and Hispanic children in our poorest schools poses major obstacles to attaining the integrated schools and equal access to opportunity that our democracy demands. Reducing child poverty must be our ultimate goal, but if today’s students are to reap the benefits of schools with a diverse mix of peers, we must immediately enact education policies focused on deconcentrating poverty.

Revamping “choice” to incentivize integration by promoting socioeconomically mixed schools – at the federal, state, and local levels – would be a good start. For example, laws that authorize and evaluate charter schools could make socioeconomic integration a key metric, and districts that encourage choice among schools should also establish integration as a criterion for students who want to move out of their neighborhoods. At least one example suggests it’s good policy all around: students in Chicago’s non-selective magnet schools – which tend to integrate rather than further segregate students – see larger test score gains than their charter school peers.  Finally, the obsessive focus on test scores as a measure not only of student, but of school success, has exacerbated segregation by unfairly weakening and stigmatizing schools. Dialing that pressure back in federal and state policies would also promote integration. Policies such as these would help ensure that all schools are well-resourced, attractive options for parents, and conducive spaces for children to learn.

Elaine Weiss is the National Coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA). She works with BBA’s three co-chairs and a diverse task force to shift the focus of education policy discussions from achievement gaps, which are symptoms of our education problems, to opportunity gaps – the root of the problem, in BBA’s view – and to advance policies that address poverty-related impediments to teaching and learning.