All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools through Public School Choice

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This provocative book asks a simple question: since we know that middle class schools tend to work best, why not give every child in America the opportunity to attend a public school in which the majority of students come from middle class households? Economically integrated schools, the author argues, will do far more to promote achievement and equal opportunity than vouchers, standards, class size reduction, or any of the other leading education proposals on the left and right that seek to make "separate but equal" schools work. Building on two recent education trends —the decline in racial desegregation as a legal tool and the movement toward greater public school choice —All Together Now provides a blueprint for creating schools that educate children from various backgrounds under one roof. Concurring with the concerns of voucher proponents about the unfairness of trapping poor kids in failing schools, the book provides a practical, viable, and legally sound plan for promoting economic and racial integration among public schools.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The premise of this book is highly provocative: all children in America should attend a middle-class public school.... [The author] carefully argues that neither racial integration nor compensatory educational spending has achieved equal opportunity, for our schools remain segregated by economic status. Kahlenberg offers much to digest." — Library Journal, 12/5/2000

"The book is certain to provoke a new debate in academic and policy circles; perhaps more important, it will inform the judgements and affections of all thinking Americans who read it." —William C. Louthan, Ohio Wesleyan University, Perspectives on Political Science, 7/1/2001

"Richard Kahlenberg has written a well-researched policy book on improving America's public schools.... Kahlenberg's ideas and proposals are compelling and he makes a very convincing case for his key policy goal to break up the harmful concentrations of poverty in U.S. schools." — NASSP Bulletin, 5/1/2001

"Kahlenberg offers a forward-thinking plan for fixing America's many broken-down schools." —Siobhan Gorman, National Journal, 3/9/2002

"ALL TOGETHER NOW is a clarion call for the socioeconomic desegregation of U.S. public schools. Simultaneously principled and pragmatic, Kahlenberg marshals a great deal of evidence to support his argument that integrating U.S. schools along socioeconomic lines is a necessary precondition for successful educational reform.... At a time when racial desegregation efforts have run afoul of federal court rulings and declining public support, and when voucher proposals challenge some of the core ideals of the common school, Kahlenberg's important book proposes an integration strategy that has a chance of garnering broad support and raising overall educational performance. It deserves to find a broad audience." — Harvard Educational Review, 12/1/2001

"Of all those who have been involved in the intense continuing debate on affirmative action, Richard Kahlenberg is the most knowledgeable and clearest advocate of the way to include everyone in need of opportunity. ALL TOGETHER NOW is an essential contribution to moving this debate in the K—12 area to a just conclusion." — Nat Hentoff, syndicated columnist

"Kahlenberg makes a substantial contribution to a national conversation that could be described as 'Whither Education?'" — The Washington Post

Library Journal
The premise of this book is highly provocative: all children in America should attend a middle-class public school. Middle class is defined as not being eligible for subsidized school lunches, which are granted to families of four making no more than $32,000. Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation, notes that low-income schools, which make up 25 percent of American public schools, overwhelmingly fail to educate children at high levels of achievement. He carefully argues that neither racial integration nor compensatory educational spending has achieved equal opportunity, for our schools remain segregated by economic status. Kahlenberg offers much to digest and supports his serious argument with 2500 footnotes. This study complements Kahlenberg's The Remedy (LJ 6/15/96), which argued that affirmative action should be based on economic need rather than race. For all libraries.--Leroy Hommerding, Fort Myers Beach P.L. Dist., FL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
In All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice, Richard Kahlenberg (senior fellow at The Century Foundation), advocates giving every child in American the opportunity to attend a public school in which the majority of students come from middle class households. He persuasively argues that the only way to make good on the American assumption that public schools will provide equal educational opportunity is by teaching disadvantaged and advantaged children together within the same facilities, with the same faculties, the same curriculums, and the same educational resources. The only way to achieve this socioeconomic integration is to establish a critical mass of middle-class students within all schools. The recommendations offered in All Together Now outline a blueprint for creating middle class schools and draw upon the experiences of current experiments with economic integration in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Connecticut, and elsewhere. Based on these case examples are practical ways to bring about integrated schools for the future, and guidance for successfully overcoming political, logistical, and legal obstacles to an economic desegregation. All Together Now is informative, challenging, and occasionally inspiring reading which is particularly recommended to education reform activists, policy makers, school administrators, faculty members, and concerned parents.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815748113
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 390
  • Sales rank: 1,299,782
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.74 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where he writes about education, equal opportunity, and civil rights. He is the author of four books, including Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007) and All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools through Public School Choice (a Century Foundation Book published by Brookings, 2001). He is also the editor of four more, including America's Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education (Century Foundation Press, 2004) and Public School Choice vs. Private School Vouchers (Century Foundation Press, 2003).

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


IN A SOCIETY marked by some of the highest rates of income and wealth inequality in the industrialized world, we in the United States put enormous stock in the idea that strong public schools serve, in the words of Horace Mann, as "the great equalizer." However, Mann, the noted nineteenth-century educator, believed that to give all students a chance to achieve and do well in life, public schools had to be "common schools," educating disadvantaged and advantaged children under one roof. Separate schools for the children of the poor and the working class, on the one hand, and those of the wealthy and the middle class, on the other, are inherently unequal, he believed.

    The animating vision of this book is that all schoolchildren in America have a right to attend a solidly middle-class public "common school." They may not have a right to middle-class parents, or a right to live in a middle-class neighborhood, or a right to a middle-class income and life-style. But every child in the United States—whether rich or poor, white or black, Latino or Asian—should have access to the good education that is best guaranteed by the presence of a majority middle-class student body.

    Today, in about 75 percent of American public schools, a majority of students are from middle-class households. (This book uses a standard definition of middle-class income as more than $32,000 for a family of four, the eligibility threshold for the subsidized school lunch program.) Those schools tend to work pretty well at educating children, whatever their individualfamilycircumstances. In the other 25 percent of schools, the majority of students are from low-income households, and those schools overwhelmingly fail to educate children to high levels of achievement. When parents describe certain schools as "bad" they are usually talking about schools dominated by poor children. This parental attitude is not fundamentally racist or classist. It is based on the historically validated social reality that when public schools educate poor students separately from other students, the high-poverty schools do not normally provide an equal, or even adequate, education to their students. In an overwhelmingly middle-class country such as ours—where the parents of almost two-thirds of students are solidly in the middle class—we should be able to find creative ways to ensure everyone access to a good middle-class education.

    It is important to note that the right to attend middle-class schools should apply to middle-class children, too. Small numbers of middle-class children should not be assigned to schools in which a majority of children are poor, just to achieve some greater degree of economic mixing. Middle-class children also perform less well, on average, in majority-poor schools, and they should not have to attend them, just as poor children should not be compelled to do so. This book strives to hold the proposal to a standard rarely met in the era of racial desegregation: that supporters of integration should be willing to send their own children to the integrated schools they advocate. The evidence suggests that middle-class children are not hurt by economic integration as long as schools remain predominantly middle class; that poor students are able to raise their levels of achievement and attainment and success as adults by attending middle-class schools; and that the lives of all students, and of the nation, are enriched by exposure to diversity, even as students are bound together in a common enterprise.

Time to Create More Middle-Class Schools

Revolutionizing school assignment policies to ensure that the student bodies of all schools are predominantly middle-class schools is an ambitious goal. But it is time to take this significant step for two important reasons.

    First, existing efforts to realize the ideal of equal educational opportunity have fallen short. For the past half century, we have tried to promote equal opportunity—to tap into the potential of all American children and thereby to raise the overall level of achievement—by pursuing a twin strategy of racial integration and compensatory educational spending. We now know that neither strategy has achieved what we had hoped. Racial integration was cut off at the knees in 1974, when the Supreme Court effectively exempted most suburban jurisdictions from desegregation plans. As a result, city-centered busing plans helped promote white flight and, in many cases, integrated only those poor white and poor black students left behind. These racially integrated but predominantly poor schools failed to raise achievement or improve life chances for their students because the academic benefits of integration to blacks stem not from the whiteness of classmates but from higher achievement and aspirations found among the children of the middle class.

    The other strategy, pouring greater and greater amounts of money into high-poverty schools, has also proved disappointing. Money does matter to educational achievement, but research—and common sense—tells us that the people who make up a school, the students, parents, and teachers, matter more. Financial investment alone cannot significantly improve schools in which large numbers of classmates misbehave and ridicule achievement, parents are inactive, and the best teachers transfer out as quickly as possible.

    In short, although the two principal strategies of the past forty years have been positive and necessary, they are ultimately limited and flawed tools for attaining the goal of equal opportunity. Our schools remain highly segregated by economic status. Today, low-income twelfth-grade students read on average at the level of middle-class eighth-graders. Children whose families are in the bottom income quintile are twice as likely to drop out of high school as those from families in the top quintile. In the end, some 76 percent of high-income students complete bachelor's degrees, compared with a mere 4 percent of low-income students.

    Abraham Lincoln noted that education is "the most important subject we as a people can be engaged in." In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court reiterated the importance of education: "In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education"—a statement far more true now than it was in 1954. Today, education spending constitutes the single largest budget item in nearly every state budget; and yet we fail, miserably, to educate large segments of our population.

    Second, this backdrop of failure has opened the way for a dramatic new assault on public schools by conservative advocates of private school vouchers. This movement, which has gained a greater hearing than at any time in recent memory, capitalizes not only on the popularity of "choice" but also, ironically, on the importance of equity. In 1998, five Republican governors joined to make the following declaration: "We believe every child, regardless of social or economic status, should have the same variety of educational opportunities, wonderful teachers, and safe schools as the most privileged children enjoy." Implicit in the conservative argument that it is unfair to trap poor children in bad local schools is the profound truth that neighborhood assignment can be a source of great unfairness to poor people.

    In reality, the call for equity through a voucher system is usually misguided: privatization under most circumstances will only further segregate the schools by race and class because the "choice" that advocates talk about ultimately resides with private schools rather than with students. Yet conservatives are right—and politically adroit, as well—to call for dramatic change. In a 1997 NBC News—Wall Street Journal survey, 58 percent of Americans agreed that "we need to make fundamental changes" in public education, compared with 35 percent advocating "some changes," 4 percent favoring "minor changes," and just 1 percent arguing for "no changes at all."

    Instead of advocating dramatic change, Brown University's Michael Alves notes, "education reform is out there trying to make Plessy v. Ferguson work." Progressives have embraced a variety of modest steps: reducing class size, encouraging the voluntary adoption of national standards, ending promotion based on social development rather than academic achievement, promoting charter schools, and ensuring better teacher training. These good ideas are positive steps in the right direction; but even if all those changes were enacted (which they will not be) they would not accomplish half as much as embracing Mann's one big idea of economically integrated common schools. Economically separate schools are the fountainhead of countless discrete inequalities, and the best guarantee that a school will have what various individual reforms seek to achieve—high standards, qualified teachers, less crowded classes, and so on—is the presence of a critical mass of middle-class families who will ensure that these things happen. The social class of a student body is so significant that poor children attending middle-class schools perform on average better than middle-class children attending high-poverty schools.

    If Mann's old idea is to work today, it must be married to a new one: public school choice. Because neighborhoods are increasingly separated by class, advocates of common schools should latch on to the revolution in public school choice (charter schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, and the like) to ensure that these movements promote, rather than undercut, integration. In so doing, the common school approach can build on the best elements of the existing big education ideas—vouchers, racial integration, and compensatory spending—while avoiding the drawbacks of each.

    Like advocates of a voucher system, proponents of the common school approach believe in choice of schools rather than compulsory assignment based on where one can afford to live. Both groups seek to shake up the system, to provide competition between schools, and to close down failing schools. But unlike voucher advocates, backers of common schools consciously seek integration of students as a way of promoting social mobility and social cohesion. Common school advocates also fundamentally believe in public education as more accountable than private education and as more likely to instill democratic values and unify a diverse nation.

    Like advocates of racial integration of public schools, proponents of the common school approach acknowledge that in determining school quality, the people in the school community are more important than the average expenditure for each pupil or the physical facilities; that all benefit from exposure to diversity; and that separation breeds distrust and disunity. But in place of busing to achieve racial balance, the common school approach employs legal tools to ensure suburban participation in integration efforts, uses choice rather than compulsory assignment, avoids the constitutional problems now associated with using race in student assignment, and avoids as well the insulting assumption that predominantly black schools are inferior by emphasizing that economic status, rather than race, drives school quality. Common school advocates note that Brown v. Board of Education addresses only the most glaring shortcoming of a much larger failure to give all students access to good schools.

    Like advocates of equal and compensatory spending, advocates of common schools believe in genuine equal opportunity for all students; and like backers of programs from Head Start to Title I, they believe that policy remedies should be geared to economic status more than race. Unlike advocates of equal spending, however, common school supporters believe separate schools for middle-class and poor students—even if they are equally funded—are inherently unequal. They openly acknowledge that existing compensatory programs like Title I have been hugely disappointing and believe that spending will be much more effective in raising achievement in integrated schools.

    In sum, while avoiding the pitfalls of each approach, the common school strategy builds on the insight of voucher advocates about the importance of choice over local school assignment, the insight of Brown on the importance of student body over per capita spending, and the insight of Title I and compensatory programs on the primacy of class before color. By synthesizing the best elements of each strategy and making common schools common (rather than the exception), economic integration can help fulfill the promise of public education as a powerful engine for social mobility.

An American Idea

Although the idea of reviving common schools is not currently part of the mainstream political discussion among cautious politicians, it is profoundly American, and by tapping into three central American values—fairness, unity, and choice—it should resonate deeply with the public. Americans want schools to be fair, to serve as a basis and training ground for meritocracy rather than aristocracy. Even as Americans are disappointed with public schools in practice, they overwhelmingly support the idea of open and democratic public education as an institution. (When is the last time a politician said he was a "proud product" of a private school?) Americans are fairly judgmental of the poor, but they have a more generous attitude toward poor children and view bad schools as a source of poverty that needs to be addressed.

    Americans also want their schools to be a source of unity and cohesion, particularly as our society grows more ethnically and racially diverse. Public schools are a place in which people of different backgrounds come together to learn, among other things, what it is to be an American. Most people realize that segregation of public schools, whether by law or in fact, precludes that type of assimilation and the process of Americanization.

    Finally, in more recent years, Americans have become increasingly enamored of school choice. Liberty, of course, is a deeply American notion, and part of the reason the busing of the 1970s and 1980s aroused so much anger is that parents whose students were shipped to schools outside of their neighborhoods had no say in the matter. Today, Americans are increasingly realizing that poor children, trapped in bad neighborhood schools, lack choice just as surely as those who were bused, and we have seen an astonishing rise in support for public school choice.

    None of the three predominant educational strategies reconciles all three of these values. Vouchers provide choice without fairness or unity: they are unfair because they allow schools, rather than students and their parents, to decide who enjoys the best education, and they promote disunity because they tend to segregate schools by class and religion. Busing seeks unity but sacrifices choice, and, to a certain degree, fairness: remedying historic wrongs with reference to children born after the laws were changed did not strike people as fair, nor did the double standard under which primarily poor whites were involved in integration efforts; in addition, the heavy hammer of busing left little room for choice. Compensatory spending programs provide fairness but without unity or choice: the Title I program is premised on the idea of extra money for separate poor schools, so it is not designed to promote unity; and because the poor cannot take Title I funds with them under current law, the program is not premised on choice. Only the common schools strategy, achieved through public school choice, simultaneously holds out the promise of fairness and social mobility, the yearning for national unity and assimilation through the spread of middle-class values, and, for the first time, genuine choice in education for all American families. By melding new and old, common school choice honors the trio of values that other plans must trade off against one another.

    La Crosse, Wisconsin, was the first town to explicitly endorse economic school integration in the early 1990s. The plan, school board member and local attorney Roger LeGrand recalls, was seen neither as radical nor as liberal; the issue was one of "fairness." The school board consisted of some progressives and some "very conservative" members, all of whom liked the idea "of giving everybody from whatever background ... the same shot." The plan was not dreamed up by "crazy liberal professors," LeGrand says; "I always thought this whole thing was just about America ... where the sun comes up in the morning, and kids, no matter where they are, all go to the same school."

Chapter Outline

Chapter 2 begins the discussion by outlining three goals of American public education: to prepare workers in a global economy, to prepare citizens in a democracy, and to forge national unity among diverse Americans. The chapter then evaluates the sobering evidence that America's public schools today are not promoting equal opportunity or social mobility but tend to replicate and freeze a student's economic position at the level of his or her parents' and that racially and economically separate schools undercut the goals of promoting citizenship and American unity.

    Chapter 3 begins to build the affirmative case for economic school integration, drawing its inspiration from the comment of one educator that "there is no need to add to the criticism of our public schools.... The question now is what to do." The chapter reviews the sociological evidence on integration, the vast majority of which suggests that allowing poor students to attend middle-class schools will increase their academic achievement and attainment, provide them access to better social connections, and improve their chances of long-run success without reducing the achievement of middle-class children. It reviews the evidence that directly bears on economic integration of schools as well as evidence from related fields (the effects of economic neighborhood integration and the effects of racial school desegregation). It then turns to evidence that suggests the common schools approach will also promote the other goals of education, bringing about a better realization of unity in a diverse democracy.

    Chapter 4 explains why socioeconomic integration of schools matters. Classmates provide a "hidden curriculum" in all schools. In high-poverty schools, peers are likely to have smaller vocabularies and less knowledge to share; they tend to have lower aspirations and negative attitudes toward achievement and to engage in anti-achievement behavior (cutting classes, failing to do homework). Similarly, levels of student disruption are higher, and student mobility and absences are greater, all of which interferes with teaching. Among parents, the poor are less likely to be involved in school affairs, to ensure high standards, and to put pressure on administrators to fire or transfer bad teachers. These parents are less likely than parents in middle-class schools to volunteer in class, to have the ability to apply political pressure to ensure adequate funding, or to provide private financial support. The evidence shows that because of these aggregate differences between students and parents in high-poverty and middle-class schools, teachers in poor schools are on the whole of lower quality: they are more likely to be unlicensed or inexperienced, to teach out of their field of concentration, to have less formal education, and to score lower on teacher tests. Teachers in high-poverty schools are also likely to have lower expectations and to teach a watered-down curriculum.

    The discussion in chapter 5 follows from that in chapter 4, detailing why attempts to improve separate but equal schools through piecemeal efforts at reform (trying to improve standards, encourage parental involvement, and equalize public spending, for instance) tend to fail. The chapter then reviews the various disappointing efforts to make high-poverty schools "effective" and explains why universal reforms, such as reduction of class size, can create their own inequality when background differences between poor and rich schools are not addressed.

    The chapter then explains why two large-scale reforms—racial desegregation and school vouchers—fail to bring the full benefits of the common school. Racial desegregation has suffered from four sets of problems. First, whereas race once offered the legal rationale to order desegregation, the legal posture has recently changed 180 degrees so that some districts seeking to integrate voluntarily are now being forbidden from doing so. Second, demographic shifts, particularly the growth of the black middle-class population, have made racial integration a less reliable proxy for the more important educational issue of economic integration. Third, as a matter of psychology, some blacks have criticized integration efforts, challenging the assumption that majority black institutions are inherently inferior. Fourth, politically, racial desegregation court orders have served to divide the New Deal progressive coalition of working-class whites and blacks, a development that has had broad consequences in the larger push for equal opportunity.

    Vouchers have failed because they generally produce greater socioeconomic concentration, not less; divert funds to the wealthy; and will further divide Americans by race and religion. Chapter 5 closes by noting that on closer examination the apparent success of some Catholic schools with significant poor populations in fact underlines the importance of common schools. Because these schools are populated in great part with self-selected striving poor families, who are more like middle-class families in values and aspirations, Catholic schools are very different from public high-poverty schools and are replicable only with middle-class public school populations.

    Chapter 6 explains how socioeconomic desegregation might be achieved in concrete and practical terms. It makes recommendations on how socioeconomic status should be measured and suggests that those students ineligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program (those students whose families are living at no more than 185 percent above the poverty line) be defined as middle class. The chapter also examines the optimal mix of poor and middle-class children and sets a middle-class minimum of 50 percent. It then spends a fair amount of time exploring a promising mechanism for achieving integration—namely, "controlled choice," a system under which families choose from a number of public schools and choices are honored with an eye to integration. Controlled choice offers several advantages over three other leading models: forced busing, uncontrolled choice, and magnet schools. The vast majority of the nation's districts can achieve majority-middle-class schools within existing boundaries, but for those districts in which economic balancing with majority-middle-class schools is a numerical impossibility, the chapter explores the use of metropolitan-wide choice. The chapter also addresses the important issue of life inside newly integrated schools: the role of transitional programs, ability grouping and tracking, and discipline codes.

    Chapter 7 examines the various political and legal strategies that could be employed to encourage or require states to adopt an economic integration plan. It reviews the political evidence that the popularity of school choice is reducing America's once-strong attachment to the neighborhood school; that district lines are more malleable than they once were; protections that can be put in place to ensure that the middle class will buy into socioeconomic integration; how the interests and values of the middle-class are served by efforts to assimilate the poor; and the reasons why important interest groups—business, teachers unions, and civil rights groups, among them—are likely to back economic school integration. It also looks at promising case law, building on a significant breakthrough in Connecticut, that suggests economic integration may be constitutionally required by a number of states. Finally, it discusses the federal sticks and carrots that can be used to encourage economic integration.

    Chapter 8 rebuts various arguments made against economic desegregation. It explains why economic integration need not be stigmatizing or patronizing to poor children in the way some racial integration schemes were sometimes seen as insulting to blacks. It takes on the issue of whether parents who have paid a premium for houses in certain school districts should be able to "buy" the right to have their children attend a given public school and to exclude others from attending. The chapter looks at what sort of impact moving away from "neighborhood schools" will have and reviews the evidence suggesting that the benefits of integration far outweigh the benefits of local assignment. It explores the philosophical and political reasons to focus reform efforts on schools rather than on inequalities rooted in family and neighborhood residence.

    Finally, and most significant of all, chapter 8 explains how economic integration through controlled choice differs from the forced racial busing of the 1970s. It examines, through the example of busing in Boston, Massachusetts, precisely why economic integration today is less likely to promote middle-class or white flight: the importance of using choice rather than busing; the importance of guaranteeing a middle-class majority; the way in which new legal tools should allow economic integration efforts to include suburban jurisdictions, and the importance of that inclusion to issues of flight and issues of equity.

    Chapter 9 examines in depth a few jurisdictions that are on the cutting edge of the new socioeconomic integration. La Crosse, Wisconsin, voluntarily implemented an economic balancing plan; Wake County, North Carolina, recently moved from a system of racial integration to one emphasizing economic status; and Manchester, Connecticut, uses a modified system of controlled choice to integrate its students economically.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1
2 American Schools Today: Falling Short of Our Goals 12
3 The Case for Economic School Desegregation 23
4 The Significance of the Socioeconomic Makeup of Schools 47
5 The Difficulty with Alternatives to Socioeconomic Integration 77
6 How Socioeconomic Integration Can Be Achieved in Practice 103
7 Political and Legal Strategies 146
8 Rebutting the Case against Socioeconomic Integration 191
9 Practical Experience with Socioeconomic Integration 228
Notes 258
Index 366
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