For Mann, it was axiomatic that in order for public schools to serve their function of preparing productive workers, enlightened citizens, and loyal Americans, those schools had to be common schools in which “the children of all classes, rich and poor, should partake as equally as possible in the privileges” of the enterprise. In terms of academic achievement, the presence of high-achieving students raises the standard, he argued, and “the mass will rise again and reach it. Hence the removal of the most forward scholars from a school is not a small misfortune.” In addition, Mann worried, if the advantaged families withdrew from the common schools, they would be less active in ensuring the quality of the schools and less willing to support annual public appropriations.

To inculcate a belief in democracy, Mann argued, what better way to teach privileged children that they share a common humanity than to teach them in the same school with the poor. Mann firmly believed that education in the common school was necessary to bind a people from diverse backgrounds and religions–an issue more pressing in America than in homogeneous European nations. Mann had observed religious riots in Boston in 1837 and felt strongly that Americans of diverse religious persuasions should be taught to peacefully coexist. The nation’s economic and ethnic diversity, Mann believed, could split it asunder unless a common school instilled shared values.

In Mann’s vision, then, there was something for everyone. For liberals, there was the promise of upward mobility by exposing poor kids to higher aspirations and new possibilities. For conservatives, there was the promise of economic assimilation and stability and inculcation of American values. For both, there was the promise of a better functioning democracy.

One hundred and fifty years later, as the nation struggled to purge itself of the most egregious violation of the common-school ideal–segregation by race–a well-known sociologist from the University of Chicago, James Coleman, sought to revive the idea of school integration based not only on race, but on social class as well.

But in the years since, no one has taken up Coleman’s concern about social-class integration. In the last half century, progressives have properly tackled a number of important educational issues having to do with race (desegregation), religion (ending compulsory school prayer), ethnicity (bilingual education), gender (Title IX), and disability (mainstreaming). When progressives do talk about class in education, it has to do with equal and compensatory funding through programs like Title I and Head Start.

But when parents say they want to live in areas with good public schools, they don’t normally mean institutions with the very highest per-pupil expenditures as much as places with solidly middle-class environments. Given a choice between a high-poverty school that spends more per pupil and a middle-class school that spends somewhat less, most parents would not have a hard time deciding on the middle-class school.

Parents know what Coleman knew and what 50 years of sociological data make clear: Being born into a poor family places students at risk, but then to be assigned to a school with high concentrations of poverty poses a second, independent disadvantage that poor children attending middle-class schools do not face. Taken together, being poor and attending schools with classmates who are poor, constitute a clear “double handicap.”

And yet, in the United States, social analyst David Rusk notes, “We surround children from the weakest families with the weakest neighborhoods and the weakest schools.” America’s problem, Rusk notes, is not Third World-style poverty in the sense of large-scale malnutrition. America’s problem is concentrations of poverty.

Economically separate schools are the fountainhead of countless discrete inequalities, and the best way to guarantee that a school will have what various individual reforms seek to achieve–high standards, qualified teachers, less crowded classes, etc.–is through the existence of a critical mass of middle-class families who will ensure that these things happen. The lack of middle-class presence in a school is so significant that one study found that poor kids attending middle-class schools perform on average better than middle-class kids attending high poverty schools.

All school children in America should have a right to attend a solidly middle-class public “common school.” Not 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 lifestyle. 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, about 75 percent of American public schools have a majority of students from middle-class households, where middle-class is defined as being well-enough off not to be eligible for subsidized school lunch–those making more than $32,000 annually for a family of four. Those schools tend to work pretty well at educating children, regardless of their individual family circumstances. The other 25 percent of schools are majority low-income, and those schools overwhelmingly fail to educate children to high levels of achievement.

When parents describe certain schools as “bad” they usually are talking about schools dominated by poor kids. 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 almost two-thirds of students are middle-class–we should be able to find creative ways to ensure everyone access to good, middle-class public schools.

It is important to note that the right to attend middle-class schools should apply to middle-class kids too. Small numbers of middle-class children should not be assigned to majority poor schools, just to achieve some greater degree of economic mixing. Middle-class children also perform worse on average in majority poor schools, and they shouldn’t have to attend them, just as poor kids shouldn’t be compelled to.

For the past half-century, we’ve tried to promote equal opportunity, tap into the potential of all American children, and thereby 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 students. The academic benefits of integration to blacks stem not from the whiteness of classmates, but from higher achievement and aspirations found among the middle-class.

The other strategy, pouring greater and greater amounts of money into high poverty schools, has also proven 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. Spending more money on schools where large numbers of classmates misbehave and ridicule achievement, where parents are inactive, and where the best teachers transfer out as quickly as possible, can do only so much.

In short, the two principle strategies of the past 40 years have been positive and necessary, but ultimately limited and flawed, tools for attaining the goal of equal opportunity. Our schools remain highly segregated by economic status. Today, low-income 12th grade students read on average at the level of middle-class 8th-graders. Children whose families are in the bottom income quintile are twice as likely to drop out of high school as those in the top quintile. In the end, some 76 percent of high-income students complete bachelor degrees compared with four percent of low-income students.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared: “In these days, it is doubtful 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 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.

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 declared: “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 kids in bad local schools is the profound truth that the neighborhood assignment can be a source of great unfairness to poor people.

In reality, the call for equity through vouchers is usually misguided, since privatization under most circumstances will further segregate the schools by race and class, because the “choice” that advocates talk about ultimately resides with private schools rather than students. But voucher advocates are right to call for substantial change. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, 58 percent of Americans said “we need to make fundamental changes” in public education, compared with 35 percent advocating “some changes,” four percent favoring “minor changes” and just one 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, adopting voluntary national standards, ending social promotion, ensuring better teacher training, and promoting charter schools. These are positive steps in the right direction; but even if all those changes are enacted (which they won’t be), they would not accomplish half as much as embracing Mann’s one big idea of economically integrated common schools.

Given neighborhood segregation by economic class, the best hope for promoting common schools today is to tap into the revolution in public school choice (charter schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, and the like). Compulsory busing is a nonstarter. But in communities like Cambridge, Mass. and Montclair, New Jersey, school officials use a system of “controlled choice” which honors parental preferences with an eye to also ensuring integration.

The evidence suggests that middle-class children will not be hurt by economic integration, so as long schools remain predominantly middle-class; that poor students will raise their levels of achievement and attainment and success as adults if they attend middle-class schools; and that the lives of all students, and of the nation, will be enriched by exposure to diversity, even as students are bound together in common enterprise.

There is a great deal of data which provides direct evidence regarding the importance of a school’s socioeconomic status on life chances, both with regard to academic achievement in school and subsequent accomplishments as adults. The notion that the socioeconomic status of classmates has a powerful effect on achievement is, Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton note, “one of the most consistent findings in research on education.” The seminal study is Coleman’s exhaustive 1966 report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” Summarizing the report’s findings in The Public Interest, Coleman wrote, “The educational resources provided by a child’s fellow students are more important for his achievement than are the resources provided by the school board.”

Dozens of studies conducted before and after the Coleman Report have come to similar conclusions. In 1994, an Urban Institute study of more than 1,000 public-housing students in Albuquerque, New Mexico, found that after controlling for home environment, if a poor child lived in a neighborhood and attended a school with 20 percent poverty rather than 80 percent poverty, his score on standardized tests was likely to improve by 13 percentile points.

In 1998, David Rusk’s study of the effect of poverty concentrations on school districts in Texas in the 1995-96 school year found that a middle-class school environment “significantly improves poor children’s academic achievement.” Controlling for income, Rusk compared the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills passage rates of low-income kids in two districts: Alamo Heights, with a 17-percent low-income population, and San Antonio, with an 88-percent low-income population. Even though San Antonio spent slightly more than wealthier Alamo Heights per pupil ($5,333 vs. $5,284), 61 percent of Alamo Heights low-income students passed compared with only 39 percent of San Antonio low-income students. Classmates trumped expenditure. The lesson of the study, Rusk concluded, was “don’t move money, move families.”

One reason it is possible for the poor to do better academically without middle-class performance suffering has to do with the disproportionate influence of the culture of a numerical majority. Most research finds that the effects of classmate poverty are nonlinear: there appears to be a “tipping point,” a “threshold” or “critical level” at which point the cumulative impact of classmate poverty becomes much worse. Writing about neighborhood poverty, Jonathan Crane found that in bad neighborhoods, “the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.” Change in neighborhood status at the bottom had 50 times the effect on black dropout rates as changes in neighborhood status in the middle. Likewise, another study found that, although there was no effect on teen pregnancy in moving from living in a high to middle status neighborhood, there was a significant negative effect in moving from middle to low. Crane concluded, “The nonlinear pattern of the model’s results implies that desegregation [by class] would have large net benefits. It would greatly reduce dropping out and childbearing among teenagers from the worst neighborhoods yet would increase these problems among those from other communities very little.”

A second reason it is possible for the poor to benefit without hurting the middle class is that the poor are more heavily influenced by school environment than the wealthy. This “differential sensitivity” to school environment, one of the central findings of the 1966 Coleman Report, has been dubbed “Coleman’s Law.” Coleman found that blacks are twice as affected by school environment as whites, and that integration is “asymmetric in its effects,” having “its greatest effect on those from educationally deficient backgrounds.” The reason, Coleman said, is straightforward: For those with strong family backgrounds, aspiration and achievement are more firmly rooted; those with weaker family backgrounds, who spend less time under adult supervision, are more open to the influence of peers–a conclusion consistently reached by researchers. This finding comports with studies finding that it is a disadvantage growing up in a single parent family not only because income is reduced but also because of an independent effect having to do with reduced parental attention. (Today, poverty is a particularly good marker for single parenthood: In 1960, 24 percent of poor families were headed by unwed mothers; by 1993, 53 percent were.)

Likewise, the poor are more affected by school environment because disadvantaged children have, in Alan Wilson’s words, “larger reservoirs of undeveloped talent.” Middle class children learn a great deal at home, Christopher Jencks and Susan Mayer note, while “poor children must learn such skills at school if they are to learn them at all.” To take one concrete example, one of the benefits to poor students from integration is picking up tips on how to apply to college. Gary Orfield found in a study of 5000 students in Indiana that “kids whose parents aren’t educated have no idea how to negotiate high school and get ready for college and if they don’t get that from their school and from the peer group that’s in their school, they’re just not going to get it.” Obviously, middle-class kids having some poor peers will not be “pulled down” in the sense of losing knowledge about how to apply to college.

An array of studies going back 40 years has found that low-income children have lower educational and occupational aspirations, even when controlling for IQ. That is to say, high-achieving poor students have lower aspirations than high-achieving upper-middle-class students. Students growing up in poverty often experience a daily life that does not include lofty dreams. Journalist Alex Kotlowitz tells the story of two young boys growing up in a Chicago housing project. Surviving into adulthood is not a given; the two “knew more funerals than weddings.” LaFayette, a 10-year old, tells Kotlowitz, “If I grow up, I’d like to be a bus driver.” Kotlowitz notes, “If, not when.”

Where in low income schools, students ask, “Are you going to college?” in wealthier schools, the question is, “What college are you going to?” A 1997 Congressionally authorized study of Title I found that parents in high poverty schools were much less likely to expect their children to graduate from college than parents in low poverty schools (52 percent vs. 74 percent).

Finally, middle-class kids will not be hurt if integrated schools employ sensible ability grouping and discipline policies. A new influx of poor children into a middle-class school will mean, on average, an increase in the number of slower students, though the change in ability range will not be enormous since 80 percent of the variance in achievement is already within schools rather than between them. Fair ability grouping and discipline policies should allow the top students to progress at their own speed, while exposing poor kids to middle-class values and habits, and provide a safe and productive environment for all students.

For the leading example of public-school integration by socioeconomic status, we turn not to left-wing hot spots like Greenwich Village, New York, or Berkeley, Calif., but to La Crosse, Wis., in the nation’s heartland. With 50,000 residents, La Crosse is small by national standards, but its nearly 8,000 students make it fairly large for Wisconsin.

Until the early 1980s, the population was virtually all white, but sharply divided by class. The school district, which includes some surrounding “suburban” towns (bringing the district population to 60,000) is narrow and extends vertically, bounded by the Mississippi River on one side and a line of bluffs on the other. It covers about 100 square miles, running 15 miles in length and seven miles wide. In the middle of the vertical strip, the town is divided by a marsh. The north side of the marsh is heavily blue collar, with brewery workers and other laborers. The south side tends toward professionals, including white-collar employees at of the University of Wisconsin, a small private college, and two major medical facilities.

During the 1980s, La Crosse had become somewhat more ethnically diverse as the town experienced an influx of Hmong refugees from Laos, many sponsored by local churches. By 1992, Hmong refugees made up 12 percent of the population, and the schools were 15 percent minority–12 percent Asian American and three percent black, Hispanic, or Native American.

The city has two high schools: Logan on the north side, and Central on the south side. When Superintendent Richard Swantz arrived in La Crosse in the late 1970s, Logan High School was considered a vocational school, and Central the college preparatory school. “The first thing that really hit me between the eyeballs,” recalls Swantz, was that “the north-side high school had a completely different set of graduation standards. It was credits below the other high school. It didn’t offer the same curriculum.”

Logan, says education reporter Joan Kent, was “considered the other side of the tracks. It was the place with the lowest scores. It was the place where you took more shop classes as opposed to college prep.” Attorney James Birnbaum recalled that the two high schools split the town: “The northsiders did not associate with the southsiders … Intracity athletic events were … emotional blood baths that mirrored the Civil War and the Crusades.”

When Swantz arrived, Logan was rebuilt to accommodate more students, and because Central was overcrowded, Swantz proposed moving the boundary line both to relieve overcrowding, and to create more economic balance between the schools. His plan was to move some of the affluent children living just below the marsh to Logan High. The move was hugely controversial.

“That marsh was like a Mason-Dixon Line,” Swantz recalled. After much debate, the board, by a 5-4 vote, went along. “For the first time,” says the Los Angeles Times, “the sons and daughters of the affluent south side sat in the classrooms with the blue-collar kids from across the tracks.” The board president at the time, Dr. Charles Miller, said his son, who was redistricted to Logan, “was one of the first doctor’s sons ever to go to that high school.”

University of Wisconsin professor Joe Heim recalls, “A lot of older people in La Crosse had a fit about this.” Some moved to avoid being in the new district; others rented houses to stay in the Central District. But over time, the shifting of high-school boundaries was considered, in the words of Mayor John Medinger, a “huge success.” “By any measure,” says Joe Heim, the “redrawing of the boundaries on that issue has had a very positive effect.” The economic makeup of the two schools is now very similar: In 1997-98, the free-lunch rate was 18 percent at Central and 19 percent at Logan. “The schools are completely equal now,” Swantz says. Whereas before the boundary change, the test scores were “significantly different,” since then they have been “similar year in and year out.” In 1995-96, the suspension and dropout rates at Central were actually slightly higher.

More importantly, the equalization did not come through leveling down. “Logan came up. Central did not go down,” Swantz notes. In 1979-80, before the boundary change, the 11th graders at Logan scored in the 49th percentile on standardized tests. By 1991, Logan students had risen to the 62nd percentile, and Central students had moved up too, to the 67th percentile. Board member Ken French, who attended blue-collar Logan, says in his day, “One in 100 would make something of themselves,” but today Logan is “equal” to Central. The SAT results remain high. In 1995-96, combined SAT scores were 1261, compared with 1163 in Wisconsin and 1013 nationwide.

Today, La Crosse has a relatively high rate of poverty, but a very low high-school dropout rate. In 1995, when Wisconsin’s larger school districts were ranked by the percentage of students on welfare, there was a strong correlation between the welfare rate and the high-school dropout rate–as there is nationally. La Crosse was an exception to the rule. Among 18 large Wisconsin school districts, La Crosse was the third poorest, but its low dropout rate–1.54 percent–placed it 15th. The number of high school dropouts district wide went from 122 in 1981-82, just after the merger, to 23 in 1990-91.

Medinger observes: “A lot of parents today would rather have their kids go to Logan for college prep than Central.” Moving the boundary “took this community, which was divided between north and south, and made it a blended community for high-school purposes.”

In the early 1990s, the La Crosse school board voted unanimously to replicate the high school integration strategy with a plan to better balance the free-lunch student population in the elementary schools. This effort, though controversial at the time, is still in effect today, and is associated with rising test scores. More recently, school boards in Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, and Manchester, Connecticut, have implemented income-integration schemes, and officials in San Francisco and Seattle are also considering doing so.

Nearly half a century ago, Brown ushered in an era of renewed concern for equal opportunity and provided a promising approach to ending not only racial apartheid in the South, but unequal educational opportunity nationwide. Today, shifting to class-based desegregation of the public schools will reinvigorate Brown’s broader promise and hone in more precisely on what has always been the key school factor in determining academic success–the social classes of a student’s peers. Emphasizing socioeconomic integration answers the conservative charge that it is insulting to presume that predominantly black schools are inferior, but also acknowledges the liberal insight that predominantly poor schools (many of them largely black) need to be desegregated in order to provide genuine equal opportunity.

As racial desegregation orders are lifted in city after city and even voluntary racial integration plans are struck down, economic integration represents the new frontier of school desegregation. It is an idea based not only on rectifying historic crimes, but on the notion that it is past time to implement the most important step we can take toward promoting equal educational opportunity. Common schools are very ambitious, even bigger than Brown. But Horace Mann’s old idea of the Common School, updated with an emphasis on public school choice, is precisely the type of big idea we need to help save public education.

Excerpted from All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools Through Public School Choiceby Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.