Richard Kahlenberg was in town last week for a conference Thursday at UNC-Chapel Hill and for presentations to civic groups in Raleigh the day before. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington and formerly a law professor at George Washington University, is one of the leading scholars in the country on school diversity policies, and he has a long-standing and well-developed expertise regarding Wake County’s policy. Bottom lines, Kahlenberg says:

One: Wake’s diversity policy is a national model, “with impressive results” to show for it academically, when it comes to maintaining racial and socioeconomic balance in its schools — and avoiding re-segregation.

Two: As our ’09 school board elections heat up, and opponents of Wake’s policy raise doubts based on the relative test results in Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools, it’s important to remember — Kahlenberg says — that Wake’s high-school graduation rate is substantially better than C-Meck’s rate. Which means, of course, that more students are dropping out in C-Meck and aren’t being tested. The graduation rates at right are for the four-year “cohort” that entered high schools in the fall of 2003 and should’ve graduated in 2008. In Wake, that rate was 78.8 percent. In C-Meck, it was 66.6 percent. (The slide is Kahlenberg’s, and is reproduced here with his permission.

There’s more to what Kahlenberg said about Wake’s policy and C-Meck’s, and it wasn’t all favorable to Wake. Below, I review his presentation in detail. But all things considered, he finds, Wake’s not merely A national leader … it’s THE national leader among urban school districts.

There are 65 urban school districts across the country trying to maintain “balanced” student populations in every school — with the goal of not having some “good” schools and other “bad” schools. To this end, they assign students to schools based at least in part on their family’s economic status, using as an indicator the student’s eligibility for the federal “free and reduced lunch” program (F&R.) Students who qualify for F&R are considered low-income (for a family of four, the cutoff is $39,000 a year); those who don’t are designated “middle-income.” In addition, some districts try to distribute low-performing students, regardless of income, so no school gets too many underachievers.

Among these 65 districts, Kahlenberg says, Wake County is considered the model system nationally. Wake’s policy is to keep the number of F&R students in a school below 40 percent of the population — and, thus, the middle-income component above 60 percent — to keep the number of low-performing students (those who test a year or more under grade level) below 25 percent. Wake doesn’t always hit those targets, and in fact in recent years it has tolerated more and more exceptions to the rule, he notes. But at least it tries. And it tries in one of the largest urban systems in the country, one with (currently) 156 schools and almost 140,000 students.

It’s not uncommon elsewhere in the U.S. for a single urban county to have two or three dozen separate school districts within, one for the dying city schools (e.g., Detroit’s) and many others for the prosperous suburbs that surround it (Wayne County, where Detroit is located, has a total of 34 school districts).

Wake, by contrast, ever since the merger of the county and Raleigh school systems in 1976, has maintained a single unified school district and sought to maintain balance in every one of them.


The initial impetus, obviously, was the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that school segregation by race unconstitutional. Accordingly, for two decades following the ’76 merger, the Wake district sought to balance student populations by race in order to integrate every school. But by 2007, when a by-then very conservative Supreme Court declared racial classifications suspect in the case of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle, Wake and most other school systems seeking to balance student populations had already moved away from race as a determining factor and were using socioeconomic status (SES) instead.

SES, Kahlenberg says, is not a “clumsy proxy” for race, however. It’s actually a better method for keeping schools in balance, he argues, for this reason: Years of academic research has affirmed a much stronger correlation between student achievement and the socioeconomic composition of a school than between student achievement and a school’s racial composition. Kahlenberg cited a recent student based on national test data, from Arizona State University, showing that a so-called “low-poverty” school (one in which the F&R population is below 50 percent) is 22 times as likely to be high-performing than a “high-poverty” school (above 50 percent F&R).

Yes, he says, there are a few shining examples of schools with a preponderance of very poor students and very dedicated teachers who achieve great things. But they are rare: just 1.1 percent of the nation’s high-poverty schools qualified as high-performing, while 22.4 percent of low-poverty schools did. (High-performing was defined as being in the top third in the state in two subjects over a two-year period).

The reasons for this, as Kahlenberg explains them, are easily understandable: Middle-income kids come to school with better preparation (twice the vocabulary in kindergarten, for instance), higher aspirations and parents who push them to succeed; a majority of such students in a school set the standard, and low-income kids are more likely to rise to it. On the other hand, if a majority of the kids are low-income, two things happen: one, the kids themselves are less prepared and motivated; and two, middle-income parents get their kids out of there, resulting in a downward spiral.

(Teachers, too, are selective, Kahlenberg says. In a “fair” world, the best and most experienced teachers would go to the low-income, low-performing schools where they’re needed the most. But in fact, research shows that they choose to work in the “better,” more pleasant schools — accelerating the downward spiral of the others.)

The Coleman Report, a massive student of student achievement done by a federal commission in 1966 (its principal author was Johns Hopkins University sociologist James Coleman), found that the single biggest factor in a student’s success was the economic status of the school he or she attended, followed by the economic status of the student’s family. Four decades of research since then has only affirmed what the Coleman study found, Kahlenberg said, which is that it’s very hard for even the brightest students to succeed in poor schools — and very easy for low-income students to fail in them.

The research shows, Kahlenberg says, that there’s no negative effect on middle-income students who attend “balanced” schools. But middle-income students who attend high-poverty schools lag the performance of low-income kids who attend low-poverty schools. And low-income kids in high-poverty schools are, on average, two years behind low-income kids in low-poverty schools.

Kahlenberg said the 2006-8 performance of Wake’s high school students overall, and in every relevant sub-group (black, white, Hispanic, low-income, middle-income), exceeded that of students in three other “large districts” in North Carolina (Durham, Guilford and Forsyth), as measured by the state’s end-of-course exams. But Wake’s results versus Charlotte-Mecklenburg were “mixed,” he acknowledged. C-Meck’s students were close overall, and the black and lower-income subgroups narrowly outscored their Wake counterparts.

C-Meck dropped its diversity policy eight years ago, and since then the district is generally acknowledged to have re-segregated along economic and racial lines, with some inner-city Charlotte schools now all-poor, all minority and low-achieving. For Wake diversity proponents, the C-Meck experience is considered the cautionary story: If diversity policies slip away, before long Raleigh’s inner-city schools, some of which are now its best (Enloe HS, Broughton HS, Ligon Middle, Martin Middle), will be abandoned by middle-income families — and Raleigh’s inside-the-Beltline neighborhoods will die with them.

Do the C-Meck results belie that story?

Kahlenberg says they don’t, for three reasons that need to be understood as the election campaign begins. First is, as noted above, is the fact that C-Meck’ss test results are net of its higher dropout rate — presumably, if the dropouts stayed in, they’d do badly on the tests. Second, C-Meck spends almost $500 more per student than does Wake, and most of the difference is the extra money C-Meck has poured into its inner-city schools in a futile attempt to bring them up to the levels achieved in its predominantly middle-income schools. If Wake spend an equivalent amount of money per student, it would total some $65 million a year countywide.

The third reason for C-Meck’s pretty-good results, however, is one that Kahlenberg thinks Wake might emulate. C-Meck, along with a few other systems nationwide, has poured money into a “Bright Beginnings” curriculum for pre-kindergarten students, a “literacy-rich” program that focuses the attentions of well-trained teachers on low-performing kids. Research shows, he said, that the Bright Beginnings curriculum gets results, though it’s not clear yet whether they hold up as kids get older and reach their middle- and high-school years. Still, Kahlenberg thinks Wake should maintain its diversity policies AND get started with Bright Beginnings. “My contention,” he said, “would be that if you put the two together, you’d have the most powerful effects on student outcomes.”