One intriguing idea that some school districts have begun to implement is integrating schools on the basis of income rather than race. The idea was first explored in the early 1990s, and as of 2002 several high-profile districts use it, including Wake County, North Carolina (which includes the capital city of Raleigh) and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The idea behind income-based desegregation is that income may play a more critical role in a child’s educational experience than race. If parents have enough money to make educational choices for their children, then it matters little what color they are; they can take their children out of the public school system or move to a more affluent community with better public schools. Wealthier schools and school districts will have more and better resources than inner-city schools, and all the students who attend will benefit. In contrast, no student benefits from attending an inner-city school with limited funds and overflowing classrooms.
Cambridge is best known as the home of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Like many college communities, its population is racially and economically mixed. There is no one ethnic majority group. As an article in Education Week noted in January 2002, “in a city with enclaves of working-class whites and upper-class African Americans, the lack of diversity in some schools had little to do with skin color or national origin. Instead, students from wealthier families tended to attend the same schools, and needier children were clumped together in other schools who tended to struggle academically.” Approximately 40 percent of the 7,300 students qualify for free or reduced-priced school lunches. As of January 2002, the percentages of these students in various schools ranged from 21 percent to 72 percent.
Innovative approaches such as this one may provide a different frame of reference that meets the needs of students and communities better. They will also keep current in the minds of parents and school administrators the need to improve educational facilities across the board. As racial and ethnic groups become less clearly defined, it may become harder to justify any kind of desegregation plan. That said, it will also become harder to justify helping certain schools or school districts thrive at the expense of others.