Districts like Wake County shifted to socioeconomic integration in part to produce healthy racial integration indirectly, without running afoul of the Constitution. And now they look prescient. The courts have long held that distinctions based on income are permissible: The progressive income tax, for example, which imposes a higher marginal tax rate for the wealthy, presents no constitutional problem, while a tax system that imposed a higher marginal rate on whites than blacks would likely be struck down. Even the Bush administration has said that income-based school integration is perfectly legal.
And integration based on income can yield racial integration. African-American and other minority students are almost three times as likely to be low-income as white students. For example, among fourth-grade students nationally in 2005, 24 percent of whites were eligible for federally subsidized lunch, compared to 70 percent of African-Americans and 73 percent of Latinos. Furthermore, poor blacks in particular are more likely to attend high-poverty schools than poor whites. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that in the 2003-04 school year, 76 percent of schools with minority rates at or above 90 percent were high poverty, compared with only 15 percent of schools with minority populations at 10 percent or lower.
In the higher-education arena, some poorly crafted income-based affirmative action plans have failed to produce sufficient racial diversity. That's in part because low-income whites tend to achieve at higher levels than low-income blacks. But at the K-12 level, the achievement gap between racial groups can actually be used to increase the racial dividend of income-based programs. Wake County's plan to avoid concentrations of low-income students and low achieving students has yielded almost as much racial diversity in schools as its old race-based integration plan. One study found that under Wake County's old policy, 64.6 percent of schools were racially desegregated in 1999-2000. Two years later, under the new socioeconomic integration policy, 63.3 percent of schools remained racially desegregated.
Significantly, however, income-based integration isn't just a clever proxy for racial integration. For 40 years, researchers have found that the single most important thing you can do to raise the achievement of low-income students is to send them to attend a middle-class school, where classmates tend to have big dreams and make good peers, parents in the community actively volunteer in the school and hold school officials accountable, and good teachers teach based on high expectations.
Indeed, education research has long suggested that the economic mix of a school matters more than the racial mix in promoting the academic achievement of students. UCLA professor Gary Orfield, a strong proponent of racial desegregation, notes that "educational research suggests that the basic damage inflicted by segregated education comes not from racial concentration but the concentration of children from poor families." This is a better way to further the promise of Brown—and one that the Supreme Court won't lay a glove on.