Brown v. Board found that “separate is inherently unequal.” Research continues to come to the same conclusion. In fact, a re-analysis of a landmark study by James Coleman, focusing mainly on high school students, showed that “a school’s socioeconomic composition was one and three-quarters times more important than its students’ own socioeconomic status” in predicting educational outcomes.  Other research confirms that school composition can also be very important in the earlier grades; this even rings true for programs serving children before they enter kindergarten. While the federal government has been working to limit racial segregation in education,  racial and socioeconomic segregation still persist in many parts of the country.

The Century Foundation and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council recently released  A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education, drawing attention to the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in programs serving infants, toddlers, and pre-kindergartners. Early education data reveal that Hispanic children and children from families of low socioeconomic status (SES) are less likely to be enrolled in center-based programs, which tend to be higher quality than home-based alternatives. And, children from low-income families are more likely to attend low-quality programs, whether they are center-based or home-based. When it comes to pre-K, we know it can be incredibly beneficial for disadvantaged children, but only if the programs are high-quality.

Additionally, the data show that most public pre-K classrooms are segregated by family income and race/ethnicity. The report’s authors draw on research that suggests increased pre-K diversity at the classroom level is correlated with better student outcomes, particularly for low-income children. However, research on pre-K diversity is limited, and research on the later grades is complex. There are many possible explanations for why classroom diversity is associated with better outcomes. For instance, the report highlights the benefits of peer effects, explaining, “Specifically, in preschool, it is beneficial for children to be surrounded by classmates who have relatively high levels of language and math skills, and this is particularly true for children who are less skilled than their classmates; children who are highly skilled tend to be less influenced by the skills of their classmates.”

Oftentimes, the lack of diversity in early education classrooms is a reflection of residential segregation. As the researchers explain, “Because many parents prefer to send their children to neighborhood programs, early education programs often reflect neighborhood housing patterns that result in high levels of segregation by income and race.” Parents often prefer to have young children attend child care and pre-k programs that are easily accessible to them, making it difficult to increase diversity for young children who live in low-income or racially segregated neighborhoods.

One recommendation from the report is to increase funding by blending both public and private funding sources. (For more on blending and braiding multiple funding sources.) After funding sources are blended, the report recommends an “equity” set-aside in the current federal early education funding law, a set of incentives to reserve slots for publicly and privately funded children, and an increase in fiscal allocation for Head Start.

Head Start, which serves approximately 900,000 children nationwide between the ages of three and five, is one place where it may be particularly difficult to increase socioeconomic diversity, because the program is economically segregated by design. Head Start serves children from families earning up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line, prioritizing families under the poverty line. However, Head Start centers are allowed to enroll up to 10 percent of children from higher income families, leaving room for a small amount of socioeconomic diversity.

The research presented in this report suggests that Head Start could be more effective if it opened its doors to more higher-income children. Currently, the quality of Head Start varies significantly, so researchers and policymakers are constantly looking for ways to improve quality overall. But Head Start centers rarely take advantage of their ability to enroll higher SES students under the existing guidelines– as of 2012, more than 90 percent of Head Start participants came from families below the poverty line. Giving slots to higher-income peers is a difficult tradeoff due to the high demand for Head Start. However, an increase in the fiscal allocation for Head Start could potentially allow providers, in good conscience, to utilize the existing option of enrolling up to 10 percent of children from more advantaged families, without turning away low-income families and children.

Washington, D.C. offers a strong example of how this can work in practice. D.C. Public Schools currently serves almost all of the district’s 4-year-olds and approximately 70 percent of 3-year-olds by blending and braiding private and public funding– including Head Start funding– at the district level. UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp recently wrote about an early childhood center in Washington, D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood that effectively serves Head Start children alongside children from higher income families. Two-thirds of the center’s children are eligible for Head Start, but at Rosemount Center “it’s hard to distinguish the poor kids from the junior plutocrats” explains Kirp. Residential segregation makes this difficult to accomplish in some neighborhoods, but in gentrifying areas like Mount Pleasant, there are more opportunities to bring together children from different backgrounds.

Even though Washington, D.C. has some examples of success in this area, classroom-level diversity is not prevalent throughout the city. Universal pre-K, on its own, has not created classroom-level racial or socioeconomic diversity. Widespread classroom-level diversity remains very difficult to achieve in many of D.C.’s low-income neighborhoods. Although there is school choice, slots available in highly desirable schools (often in higher income neighborhoods) are limited. The last change to D.C.’s school boundaries was in 1968. When the city attempted to redraw its school boundaries in 2014, there was a great deal of political and community pushback causing the proposal to stall.

The tension between various stakeholders and equitable access to high-quality programs makes school choice only as diverse as the slots available. The report recommends additional funding for school busing to increase diversity, but this is a dying practice in most cities, often due to resistance from some stakeholders and the expense. For instance, long ago, Californians voted to outlaw mandatory busing to increase diversity and the courts upheld this decision.

Last month, Century Foundation fellow Halley Potter released a related brief on New York City’s recent and highly ambitious universal pre-K expansion. Policymakers have been skeptical that the city could successfully add 30,000 full-day seats in high-quality settings in only one year. Potter concludes that  NYC’s expansion has been successful on the whole, but she notes a lack of diversity as one potential shortcoming. As Potter explains, Mayor Bill De Blasio’s push for high-quality, full-day universal pre-K was largely centered around “fighting economic and racial injustice.” But unfortunately, NYC doesn’t have enough data to determine if there is integration. The New York City Department of Education collects income-level data from children in district and charter schools, but does not collect this information from those in community-based programs, making it difficult to even attempt to analyze the city’s mixed-delivery system in terms of diversity on a classroom-level. In addition, the UPK lottery system has made it difficult to foster diversity on the classroom-level because priority is given to children who live in the attendance zone or who have a sibling in the school, decreasing the slots in a classroom available for students who live outside of the immediate neighborhood.

Universal pre-K expands enrollment to students of different socioeconomic levels, races, and ethnicities. This is a crucial step to increasing diversity, but does not always improve classroom-level diversity. Classroom diversity is one way to create equitable access to high-quality pre-K programs, but with varied stakeholder interests and tensions like school choice, the report’s policy recommendations may be more idealistic than practical.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Abbie Lieberman

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst on the Early & Elementary Education Policy team at New America, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.