That's the question posed by this week's Washington City Paper cover story, about D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee's efforts to encourage middle class, college-educated parents to enroll their spawn in the city's public schools. According to reporter Rhee will personally contact parents who've visited or even just called a public school to inquire about enrollment, and even allow interested parents a voice in the hiring process for new teachers. In one especially controversial case, Rhee removed a middle school principal who some white elementary school parents complained was encouraging lax academic standards, even though the parents of actual middle schoolers liked and respected the guy.
What Rhee is trying to do could be called "reverse integration," and it's an outgrowth of reverse white-flight--the trend of white-collar (and often white) professionals choosing to live in urban neighborhoods in their twenties and then stay there for their child-rearing years, reversing the decisions, often made by these same people's parents and grandparents, to abandon diverse city neighborhoods in favor of mid-century suburbs.
On the whole, I think Rhee's efforts here are a good thing, because of the many benefits of integrated neighborhoods and schools for all kids, whether they come from affluent, middle class, or poor families. For one thing, when educated parents send their child to a school, they lobby for that school to have better staff members, art and music lessons, and richer curricula. That influence has the potential to give a boost to all the kids at the school, not just the privileged ones.
Furthermore, research by Amy Stuart Wells and Jomills Braddock (among others) shows that students who attend racially-integrated schools are more tolerant adults, even decades later, and that for poor, minority students, attending an integrated school can lead to concrete gains in the job market, as students become more familiar and comfortable with "mainstream" institutions.
Research also shows that middle class white kids do no worse academically when they attend school with poor students of color. But what's important to note is that integration alone is unlikely to raise the test scores or college attendance rate of poor kids. The principal with the highest academic standards for college-bound students may not be the same principal who will devote a ton of time to raising achievement for the kids at the bottom of the ladder. (Ideally, of course, teachers and principals would have both goals in mind. It's a balance.)
As I learned when I reported on the high school I attended, sometimes the most integrated schools and districts are the ones struggling most to raise achievement among needy students, in part because the diversity of these schools puts race and class gaps in stark and disturbing relief. Schools that serve low-income kids need to be laser-focused on providing those kids with extra academic and social enrichment and opportunity. Integration is a crucial education reform tool, and the right thing to do to increase civic investment in the public school system. But it's not a fix-all.