Three years ago, Kelly Williams-Bolar, a poor, single mother, stood in a Summit County, Ohio, courtroom facing a number of felony charges, including one count of grand theft. Her crime: stealing an education—estimated to be worth $30,000—for her two daughters.

According to prosecutors, Williams-Bolar, who lives in public housing in Akron, a once-booming industrial city that has fallen on hard times, illegally enrolled her two daughters in the affluent Copley-Fairlawn school district, a neighboring community in Summit County.

Williams-Bolar, desperate to get her girls out of Akron’s failing schools—on its 2013 state report card, the district had an overall grade of F on academic indicators—enrolled them in Copley-Fairlawn using her father’s address. Her father, whose home is in Copley and who pays taxes to the district, was also charged by prosecutors. The facts in the case came to light after the Copley-Fairlawn district spent more than $6,000 on a private detective to track the comings and goings of Williams-Bolar and her daughters.

While Copley-Fairlawn was trying to exclude low-income and disadvantaged students, however, the public school district in Montgomery County, Maryland, is doing just the opposite. The jurisdiction, which sits just north of Washington, D.C., is considered affluent, and indeed was listed by Forbes as the tenth-richest county in the United States, with a median household income of $92,213. But it also has growing pockets of poverty, particularly in the eastern regions that border neighboring Prince George’s County. Montgomery County, famous for its progressive politics, tried not one, but two approaches to lift up low-income students. The most recent progressive approach involved the allocation of school resources. In 2000, the district superintendent, Jerry Weast, decided to spend a boatload of extra money—$2,000 per pupil—to help students attending the district’s high-poverty schools. The system provided all-day kindergarten, reduced class sizes, and investment in teacher development, among other improvements. These interventions are all backed by considerable research.

At the same time, Montgomery County maintained its long-term commitment to another, very different experiment, one dating back to 1974. Concerned that poor and working-class families were being priced out of the county, officials pioneered “inclusionary zoning,” which allows for so-called scattered-site public housing—meaning that poor residents live throughout the county, including fairly affluent areas. Under the policy, 12.5 percent to 15 percent of developers’ new housing stock is required to be affordable to low-income and working-class families. Between 1976 and 2010, the program produced more than 12,000 moderately priced homes. The housing authority has the right to purchase one-third of moderately priced units for public housing.

Unlike the compensatory school spending approach, the housing model imposes few costs, either private or public. David Rusk, a national expert on such policies, says that inclusionary zoning results in “no overall cost to the developer.” Each development must set aside units for low- and moderate-income tenants, but at the same time, the county gives the developer a “density bonus”—meaning that a larger number of high-profit units can be built. Taxpayers, too, come out fine. While building new public housing units in high-poverty neighborhoods is typically cheaper because land prices are lower, under inclusionary zoning laws the housing authority buys the units at the reduced price charged for modest-income families—an amount linked to what is affordable to families making about half the area median income. According to the Center for Housing Policy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing affordable housing options, inclusionary zoning expands housing at “little or no direct cost to taxpayers.”

By simultaneously taking these two separate approaches—integration and compensatory spending—Montgomery County created, without necessarily meaning to, a natural social experiment to test a question that had long perplexed education researchers. To wit: If you are a low-income student, are you better off in a lower-poverty school that spends less per pupil or a higher-poverty school that spends more?

In normal circumstances that question is hard to answer because the kinds of poor families who find themselves living in more-affluent neighborhoods or going to more-affluent schools tend to have characteristics—more education, better connections, and so on—that make them not representative of low-income families generally. But that problem all but disappeared in Montgomery County, because residents there who apply for public housing are assigned homes on a random basis while most students in the county are assigned to schools in their neighborhoods.

Heather Schwartz, a researcher now at the RAND Corporation, was given access to student-level data in order to capitalize on this rare natural experiment. According to her groundbreaking 2010 study, Housing Policy Is School Policy, published by the Century Foundation, the spending programs did help boost achievement for some students, but the integration program provided far greater academic gains for poor children.

Tracking the elementary school careers of 858 Montgomery County students in public housing from 2001 to 2007, Schwartz found that “over a period of five to seven years, children in public housing who attended the school district’s most-advantaged schools (‘green zone’) far outperformed in math and reading those children in public housing who attended the district’s least-advantaged (‘red zone’) elementary schools.” On average, poor students attending “green zone” schools performed 9 points better in math and 8 points better in reading than public housing students attending the district’s “red zone” elementary schools.

Moreover, Schwartz’s research revealed that public housing students attending low-poverty schools began to catch up with their well-to-do classmates—cutting in half the initial achievement gap in mathematics, for example. Because students in the Schwartz study lived in low-poverty neighborhoods and attended low-poverty schools, one question that arises is whether it was the advantaged neighborhood or the school that mattered. Schwartz found that roughly two-thirds of the positive effect was attributable to attending a lower-poverty school, and one-third to living in a lower-poverty neighborhood.

“Of course this improvement all took time,” cautions Schwartz. “It’s not ‘bam,’ where you’re in kindergarten and by third grade you’re showing dramatic improvement. It’s much more gradual. … It took a whole elementary career where by the fifth and sixth grades you saw the achievement gap significantly narrowed.”

Economists speak in unison about the value of investments in human capital. Those made to help low-income kids learn better are especially important because they lead to greater economic growth and lower social costs—specifically, reduced expenditure on the criminal justice system and welfare programs. Interventions for low-income students can also make real the American promise of equal educational opportunity and reduce income inequality. The great question has always been: Which sorts of investments in education give the greatest bang for the buck? The Schwartz study suggests that if we want to really have growth with equity, we should be putting more money and energy into economic integration in schooling and housing.

The Montgomery County study is consistent with the groundbreaking work of the Equality of Opportunity Project, in which researchers from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, tried to sort through why poor children in some regions of the country had a greater likelihood of moving up the income ladder than poor kids in other regions. Having lower levels of economic segregation was a key factor in successful areas. The authors noted that, among other factors, “areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals were also particularly likely to have low rates of upward mobility.”

The new findings are consistent with a half century of research in education which concludes that being born into a low-income family often imposes educational hardships, and that being stuck in a school where most of your classmates are poor poses a second, independent, disadvantage.

While press reports routinely highlight high-poverty schools that beat the odds and succeed, such schools are, in fact, exceedingly rare. Majority middle-class schools are twenty-two times as likely to be high performing as are majority low-income schools, according to a study by Tulane University economist Douglas Harris. That’s partly because low-income students are less likely to have good health care and adequate nutrition. But concentrations of poverty pose an additional burden. Low-income fourth graders given a chance to attend low-poverty schools are two years ahead of low-income students attending high-poverty schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics.

Critics properly note that students from the most motivated low-income families may be more likely to end up in low-poverty schools, but careful studies using randomized lotteries such as the one used in Montgomery County also find positive outcomes for students who attend middle-class public schools.

Why should it matter whether your classmates are wealthy or poor? National research suggests that three main factors are at play: peers, parents, and teachers. Students learn a great deal from one another, and it is an advantage to be in a school where classmates come to school with larger vocabularies and are more likely to do homework and attend class regularly—qualities more likely to be found, on average, among middle-class students. It’s an advantage to be in a school where parents are actively involved in school affairs. Because middle-class parents are more likely to have flexible work schedules, have access to cars, be in two-parent families, and have had positive experiences during their own schooling, they are more likely to be members of the PTA or to volunteer in class than low-income parents, who have a different reality and more challenges.

Moreover, more-affluent parents, as one Harvard University researcher put it, are the proverbial “squeaky wheel,” advocating on behalf of their children to ensure that they get the best teaching available. And finally, exactly to that point, if life were fair, high-poverty schools would get the strongest teachers because disadvantaged students need them most, but substantial evidence suggests that the opposite occurs, as veteran teachers avoid high-poverty environments.

Having a high percentage of poor students in a school—especially above 75 percent—is detrimental both to those students and to the middle-class students who also happen to go there. According to research, the academic achievement of both groups declines in schools where 50 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

By the same token, because the numerical majority sets the tone in a school, having a minority of poor students doesn’t have any measurable negative effects on the academic achievement of the more-affluent students. But it does have a substantial positive effect on the poor students, who tend to absorb the higher aspirations and stronger study habits of the dominant middle-class culture while also benefiting from the better teaching and higher levels of parental involvement in the school.

There’s even something in it for the middle-class kids in such schools, in that they learn to work with people different from themselves, a skill highly valued by employers in the twenty-first-century workplace.

Addressing economic segregation will also disproportionately benefit African American and Latino children, who are most likely to suffer the effects of attending poor-quality, high-poverty schools. On average, more upper-middle-class black and Latino families (those with incomes above $75,000) live in high-poverty neighborhoods than lower-income whites (those making less than $40,000 a year). Simply put: even poor whites tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods. The extra burden associated with growing up in concentrated poverty that many African American and Hispanic students face helps explain why there is still an achievement gap between minority and white students of similar socioeconomic status.

While disproportionately benefiting students of color, most integration efforts now focus explicitly on class rather than race, for two reasons. First, in the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle, the justices struck down a racial integration plan as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plans that focus on a student’s socioeconomic status (often, his or her eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch) are, by contrast, perfectly legal.

Moreover, the social science research has long concluded that the academic benefits are associated with avoiding high-poverty, as opposed to predominantly black or Latino, school environments. African American children benefited from desegregation, researchers found, not because there was a benefit associated with being in classrooms with white students per se, but because white students, on average, came from more economically and educationally advantaged backgrounds.

All-black schools that included the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers and teachers alongside the offspring of less-advantaged parents often provided excellent educational environments because the economic, not racial, mix drives academic strength. (See sidebar) In the 1970s, working-class black students in Charlotte, North Carolina, posted strong academic gains when they attended schools with middle-class whites. By contrast, in Boston, Massachusetts, an effort beginning in 1974 to integrate low-income and working-class black students with low-income and working-class white students yielded no significant gains in academic achievement.

Boston’s desegregation plan was not only an academic failure, it also created a storm of violent white backlash and massive white flight from the city’s public schools, spawning a political cloud over integration that continues to haunt school officials. If there is a social science consensus that socioeconomic integration benefits students, there is an equally durable political consensus that there is not much that can be done without provoking parental backlash.

But growing evidence suggests that this political analysis is outdated. To begin with, school officials today emphasize public school choice—magnet schools and charter schools—to accomplish integration, having long rejected the idea of compulsory busing that gave families no say in the matter. In Hartford, Connecticut, for example, magnet schools with special themes or pedagogical approaches often have long waiting lists of white middle-class suburban families who are seeking a strong, integrated environment.

While many charter schools further segregate students, some are consciously seeking to bring students of different economic and racial groups together. The Denver School of Science and Technology, for example, uses a lottery weighted by income or geography to ensure a healthy economic mix in its seven middle schools and high schools.

These policies are needed more than ever, as our society is growing more segregated by income and more diverse racially and ethnically. For the first time, a majority of public school students are nonwhite. And the number of students eligible for subsidized lunch has grown to nearly half (although census data suggests that the real eligibility number is lower).

The rapidly changing demographics of the country may offer a political opening, as parents recognize that if they want their children to thrive in an increasingly diverse society, students need to learn to interact with classmates from a variety of backgrounds. In a 2013 study, researchers Allison Roda and Amy Stuart Wells from Columbia University found that white, advantaged parents in New York City were interested in sending their children to diverse schools and were troubled by segregation, but they wanted more quality integrated school options from which to choose. Likewise, a 2013 study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that about one in five parents place learning “how to work with people from diverse backgrounds” among their top educational preferences for their children.

Today, more than eighty school districts, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Raleigh, North Carolina, to Champaign, Illinois, promote socioeconomic integration, almost always relying on choice. These districts educate more than four million students nationally. Likewise, more than 400 jurisdictions employ a complementary inclusionary zoning strategy, like the one used in Montgomery County, Maryland, to ensure that low-income and working-class families have access to housing in good neighborhoods with strong public schools.

Of course, addressing segregation between schools does not, by itself, bring about equal educational opportunity. Researchers also raise important concerns about segregation within school buildings.

Harvard professor Ronald Ferguson, a renowned education expert who holds a doctorate in economics from MIT and is the founder of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, notes, “Even schools that are highly mixed [economically] can ration resources to students who are more affluent.” He says that in one racially and income-integrated Ohio high school where he recently served as a consultant, the more well-to-do students comprised the lion’s share of those in Advanced Placement and honors classes, which were on the second floor of the school, while the rest of the student body was taking classes on the building’s first floor—that is, the students were physically segregated from each other. This separation played out in many ways both overt and subtle, including through stark differences in the learning experience.

“There were two different environments in the same school,” says Ferguson. In first-floor classrooms, “kids were leaning backward” in their seats, away from the teachers giving lessons, and “guys were walking the hallways” and causing disruptions while classes were in session. “On the second floor they were leaning toward the teacher who was in front of the class” explaining classwork and engaging students, and “no one was in the hallways.”

Ferguson says that affluent parents, who are often white, are “made nervous” when the conversation is about closing achievement gaps. “They want to know the implication for their kids. Will resources be taken away from their kids and directed to poor kids so they can catch up?” Recalling his experience at the Ohio mixed-income school, Ferguson says, “The district had a debate about even having the word ‘equity’ in its mission statement.”

Ferguson notes that even when there is economic integration, teaching quality is the key. “What I find is that there is often a quality of instruction-allocation imbalance.” He says that students need teachers who are “up to the challenge” and committed to helping “kids who are struggling.” Achieving what he calls “excellence with equity” requires “resource allocation that is universal and inclusive” and the ability to “persuade everybody that we can help everybody.”

How do we shift the conversation so that, in Ferguson’s words, the goal is “world-class achievement levels for kids of all backgrounds”? Some parents recognize that in a country that will soon be majority-minority, it’s important to educate all children equally. But most parents are always going to care most deeply about their own children, so integration programs must be structured so that parents vividly see that their own children can benefit. For example, in Spanish-English dual-language immersion programs, dominant Spanish speakers can help English speakers learn Spanish, and vice versa. In the St. Louis area, a cross-district integration program brings greater funds to suburban districts, money that benefits all students in the schools.

And what can be done about the very real problem of superficially integrated school buildings that have segregated classrooms? According to researcher Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute, some schools, such as the economically and racially diverse Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) High School in Maryland, are successfully able to avoid tracking and segregation. In The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools, Petrilli notes that mixed-ability classes at B-CC work well because teachers engage in what is known as “differentiated instruction,” where students are given assignments of varying levels of difficulty within the same classroom. He writes, “B-CC continues to excel academically while also making the most of its rich diversity.”

Charter schools are another source of important experimentation about how to make economically mixed schools with wide ranges of achievement work well. Sold in part as benefiting low-income students, charter schools, paradoxically, are increasing economic segregation, because philanthropists and legislatures have provided incentives for charter schools who maximize the number of poor and minority students they enroll.

But there are a small number of charter schools that are bucking that trend and offering innovative lessons. At High Tech High in San Diego, teachers place an emphasis on collaborative learning in heterogeneous classes. All students are challenged, given their incoming achievement levels, but those who start further ahead go into greater depth on homework assignments than others. At Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn, school leaders create cultures that encourage integration within classrooms. Rather than papering over differences, students are invited to tell their family stories with an eye to making everyone feel welcome. The school also creates opportunities for students of different backgrounds to interact on the weekends through school-organized gatherings. As our nation becomes increasingly more diverse, this sort of experimentation becomes more important.

Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that separate schools for black and white students were inherently unequal, our schools still suffer from racial segregation. That historical curse is intensified by economic segregation. Today, economically disadvantaged students of all races are increasingly segregated from their middle- and upper-middle-class peers. The reality is that, even though we have spent billions of dollars on reform efforts over the past six decades, too many of our schools are still failing our children.

Kelly Williams-Bolar sought her own solution, and paid the price. She was found guilty on two felony counts of illegally enrolling her daughters in the affluent neighboring school district, and sentenced to five years in prison. The judge in the case, however, reduced her jail time to ten days plus three years of probation, in recognition of the fact that she had no previous criminal record and was going to school to be a nurse.

The real crime, of course, is that any parent would have to go to such lengths to get a quality education for her children. Certainly, it would be easy to give into the fatalism that typically arises when arguments are made for economic integration or for doing more to help low-income students do better academically. Many people are convinced that nothing works: we pour money into reform efforts, and schools are still failing; economic integration is impractical because our metro areas, especially the suburbs, increasingly segregate people by income; the upper and middle classes don’t want to rub elbows with the poor; and busing didn’t work.

But the Montgomery County experience and similar examples of economic-academic integration around the country seriously erode all these excuses. It’s not 1974. We’ve figured out better ways of educating our children to high and equal standards. And when there’s a strong enough will to do it, it can be done.

Return to “American Life: An Investor’s Guide.”

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Carl Chancellor and Richard D. Kahlenberg collaborated on this piece. Chancellor is editorial director at the Center for American Progress. For more than twenty years he was a reporter and columnist for the Knight-Ridder news service and its flagship paper the Akron Beacon Journal, where he won a Pulitzer Prize. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, the coauthor (with Halley Potter) of A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, and the editor of The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy.