Wake County, NC to Use USDA Income Data for School Assignment

A ruling by the US Department of Agriculture is opening the door for North Carolina's Wake County school district to begin taking into account student family income when assigning them to a school, T. Keung Hui of The News & Observer reports. The income information will come from USDA data collected for the purposes of running the federally subsidized lunch program targeted at low-income kids.

The ways that Wake County can make use of the data are spelled out in a letter from US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which The News & Observer obtained the letter via a Freedom of Information Act request. It represents a change of heart for USDA, which forbade the use of financial information for school placement purposes in Wake County in 2011, and it will have broad implications on district policy.

The news could re-ignite a fierce debate over busing students to achieve diversity goals, which opponents cited to help vote in a Republican-controlled board in 2009. Last month, the Democratic-backed board elected in 2011 modified the assignment policy to include a goal of "minimizing high concentrations of students from low-income families at each school."

"Having high concentrations of poverty, based on decades of research, has an effect on performance," board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner, a Democrat, said Wednesday. "We can't ignore that."

The alteration in placement policy to include income has the support of Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow with the Century Foundation. He has long been a supporter of socioeconomic diversity in schools and has expressed reservations about increasing segregation between students of different economic backgrounds in America's public schools.

Wake County won't be the first district to use income as part of its placement formula. According to Kahlenberg, more than 80 districts around the country already make use of the information for this purpose.

Supporters of the policy argued that it helped school performance and made it easier to retain experienced teachers who didn't want to work in high-poverty schools. But critics noted that Wake's low-income students posted lower test scores and graduation rates than their peers in the rest of the state. In 2009, Cynthia Long, director of the Agriculture Department's Child Nutrition Division, which oversees the school lunch program, said Wake had to discontinue the use of school lunch data for assignment purposes unless it gave prior notice and received consent from the children's parents.

The Wake County School Board is not unanimous in supporting the use of income data. John Tedesco, a Republican board member, believes that this kind selection criteria could lead to a return to quotas and focus shifting away from the needs of individual students.

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