Q&A with Richard Kahlenberg, consultant on magnet school admissions

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Anticipating the district’s release from its long-standing desegregation consent decree, CPS officials brought in Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, in 2008 to begin crafting a new plan for admitting students to magnet and selective schools. Kahlenberg is a longtime advocate of socioeconomic integration and has written extensively on education and civil rights, including the book All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice.

Anticipating the district’s release from its long-standing desegregation consent decree, CPS officials brought in Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, in 2008 to begin crafting a new plan for admitting students to magnet and selective schools. Kahlenberg is a longtime advocate of socioeconomic integration and has written extensively on education and civil rights, including the book All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice.

The new plan gives siblings preference for open seats in magnet schools. Half of the remaining seats go to neighborhood children, and the rest are allocated based on socioeconomic factors in a student’s neighborhood, such as income, adult education levels, single-parent households, home ownership rates and the number of non-English speaking households. Kahlenberg notes that 70 other school districts across the country consider socioeconomic factors in seeking to create diversity.

Kahlenberg spoke with Associate Editor Rebecca Harris about the possibilities for integration in a district in which most students are low-income children of color.

Much of your research has focused on the benefits of schools where the majority of students come from middle-class families. Is this an attainable goal in Chicago?

Many districts use eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch as a dividing line between low-income and middle-class students. But about 85 percent of students in Chicago Public Schools are eligible for free and reduced lunches. So, integrating based on that measure wouldn’t truly reflect the cross-section of CPS students. The tier approach that we use in the plan divides students into four [socioeconomic] groups, rather than two.

I think it is quite possible to get an economic cross-section of students within selective and magnet schools. And Chicago’s four-tiered integration plan is educationally sound. For example, it’s an advantage for children to have classmates with large vocabularies. Children of professionals enter kindergarten already knowing many words, but children from working-class families still have bigger vocabularies than students whose families are on public assistance. This plan is meant to capture the tiered nature of inequality.

The focus on socioeconomic integration within CPS is an enormous first step. But down the line, Chicago may want to consider programs that break down the barriers between the city and the suburbs. That way, you increase the proportion of students who can attend economically integrated schools.

Is there an educational rationale for giving neighborhood students such a strong preference?

It’s not uncommon, as a way of maintaining strong political support for the program. If an individual lives across the street from a school and cannot get in, that’s the first place the television cameras go — to interview that parent. It’s a reasonable accommodation to make, to ensure there is strong support for magnet schools.

But at the same time, there needs to be an effort to draw in kids from outside the neighborhood. You’re trying to balance a need to provide seats for people who live close by with the interest in economic and racial diversity.

Will this plan work evenly across schools? Could some get less diverse?

It will depend on the school. If a school is currently lower-income, this plan would provide an opportunity for middle-class and more affluent students to participate if they choose to. If the school is located in an economically diverse area, that will also promote economic diversity [within the school].

Currently, some of the selective high schools skew quite wealthy. This plan ought to bring them greater socioeconomic diversity.

There is unevenness in the way the current race-based plan works, as well. In assessing the results of the new plan, it will be important to use the current plan as a benchmark.

The new admissions policy uses the socioeconomic status of a student’s census tract, not an individual student. Is it possible that schools will draw, and admit, students who are the exceptions within their neighborhoods?

There is that possibility. But there are problems with using the individualized data. Free and reduced-price lunch data are presented by individual parents. There is usually very little verification that goes on.

Using census data, we are able to get a rich set of factors. You could ask all these questions of people, but once it became clear that there was an advantage to being in one category, there might be an incentive for individuals to provide false information.

Why is socioeconomic integration important? Will this plan also produce racially integrated schools?

At the selective schools, socioeconomic status provides a better approximation of merit. A [higher]-scoring student from a low-income tier probably has at least as much promise as a higher-scoring student who did not have to overcome any obstacles. Another rationale is to avoid concentrations of poverty. Failing to consider socioeconomic status makes this much harder.

An exclusive focus on racial integration ignores the first two points. But socioeconomic integration is likely to produce racial diversity, as well, which benefits all students. Chicago’s plan looks at socioeconomic data for census tracts. And there is a strong correlation between race and ethnicity, and living in an area of concentrated poverty. In some studies, middle-class African-Americans are as likely to live in low-income neighborhoods as low-income whites.