When poor children attend school with students from wealthier backgrounds, they perform much better on standardized tests, according to a new study of Baltimore-area schools.
But thousands of children don't get that chance. Increasingly, they're trapped in schools without economic and racial diversity, says the report written for the Abell Foundation by economist and urban policy authority David Rusk.
In the declining number of schools with economic diversity - poor children studying alongside wealthier children - Rusk found a positive effect on academic performance, as measured by scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.
For instance, in 2001 and 2002, low-income children who went to schools where most youngsters were not poor scored close to the national average on the tests. Those who attended schools where most children are poor scored 17 percentage points lower.
The report blames the "decamping" of wealthier families to the outer suburbs, which has left dozens of schools in the Baltimore area with few children from middle-class families.
Those schools also are mostly black, the report says.
An "astounding" 44 of them, all in high-poverty neighborhoods in the city, enroll a quarter of the region's African-American children, while three-quarters of the metropolitan area's black students attend schools that are more than 90 percent African-American.
"The region's schools are growing increasingly segregated," the report says, "both racially and along socioeconomic lines. Any effort to reverse this trend will be exceedingly difficult, but we cannot ignore the fact that students from the least advantaged backgrounds will pay the price as the schools become ever more economically segregated."
Rusk's findings are similar to those of sociologist James Coleman, whose national study in 1966 touched off years of busing to achieve racial balance.
Rusk's report says "political realities" in the Baltimore region dictate against the "dramatic action" of moving children across school system lines.
But it says the seven jurisdictions - Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne's counties - could agree to a "common policy" to achieve more integration within school systems, and he recommends "inclusionary" housing policies like those adopted by Montgomery County in 1973.
Montgomery was one of the first jurisdictions in the United States to require developers to build homes for low- and moderate-income families.
In an interview Friday, Rusk said his findings about the extent of segregation in Baltimore "are certainly not new, but they've been consistently, and one might say deliberately, ignored. Policy-makers just don't want to deal with reality."
The "good news," Rusk said, is that the Baltimore area "is a big-box region as far as its governing structure is concerned. The county government is the local government in Maryland, and if you think about it, all you've got to do is convince four members of a county council and a county executive, and you can change policy. It's a great opportunity."
Rusk said strategies that don't alter the economic mix of students in schools won't work.
"You could swap the Howard County superintendent and teaching staff for the superintendent and teaching staff in Baltimore City, and you'd get the same results we have now, maybe even worse results," he said.
2 kinds of segregation
The No Child Left Behind Act also is the wrong approach, Rusk said.
"People have been trying to shore up these schools for 35 years. Now [the act] says that if you're underperforming, we'll punish you," said Rusk.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said the report's timing, only a few months before the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that ended "separate but equal" education, "is appropriate. I've thought for a long time that this is a very important issue that's sort of been swept under the table."
Embry remembered that when he graduated from City College in 1955, "we had racial segregation, but not economic segregation. Now they're hand in hand."
The importance of diversity can't be underestimated, said JoAnne Carter, assistant Maryland superintendent for student and school services, who spends much of her time in low-performing Title I schools.
"Kids are motivated by their peers," she said. "When they see their peers succeeding academically, they'll try to succeed, too. And the expectations of parents and teachers in high-performing schools spill over on poor kids."
Xavier de Souza Briggs, a former official of the U.S. Department of Urban Development who teaches and writes about public policy at Harvard University, said Rusk "is right to point at Montgomery County as a model."
But he warned that such zoning policies "only work well in growing communities" like Harford and Carroll counties.
"At the end of the day," said Briggs, "all arguments for inclusion come down to one of two principles. One is enlightened self-interest. You'll create a stronger region when you end these imbalances.
"The other principle is that this is about American core values. One of those values is that people should have equal access to opportunities. There's no magic bullet here, but we make no progress if we don't rely on one of those principles."
Rusk's report, which will be released this week, is based on test data from elementary schools in the seven-system Baltimore metropolitan region, which formally includes Queen Anne's County.
He came to similar conclusions in a study of Baltimore and Baltimore County school achievement five years ago.