This is the third installment in our occasional series on poverty and segregation in Chicago’s schools.

Almost half of the children in the nation’s public schools are from low-income households, a new study shows. Their numbers have been growing, from 38 percent to 48 percent in the last decade, according to the Southern Education Foundation.

The national finding is disturbing, and it also serves to illuminate a much graver predicament in Chicago. The public school enrollment here is 85 percent low-income.

The rise in low-income students nationally is a long-standing trend, dating to at least 1989. The foundation attributes it to a variety of factors, including a higher birth rate among minorities and global economic changes that have led to more unemployment and greater economic inequality. The increase in low-income students is a predicament for public schools, because such students tend to do worse academically and are costlier to educate. (“Low-income” in school districts represents students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, because their households are within 185 percent of the poverty line.)

The Chicago Public Schools system is often disparaged, but there’s little evidence that the district is worse than others at educating schoolchildren. What CPS struggles with is educating poor kids. As does everyone else. CPS just has many more of them.

In 2009, when the National Center for Education Statistics last compared low-income proportions for the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., Chicago was fourth, at 83 percent. This high concentration of low-income students—in a city where the proportion of low-income families with children under 18 is 52 percent—is attributable in part to middle- and upper-class families enrolling their kids in private schools or moving to the suburbs once their children reach school age.

The school report cards issued two weeks ago by the Illinois Board of Education once again showed dreadful performance by CPS students. On the Prairie State Achievement Exam, given to 11th graders, 55 percent of Illinois students met or exceeded state standards in reading, while only 36 percent of CPS students did.

But the statewide low-income proportion is 50 percent—35 points lower than Chicago’s. And when the test scores of only the low-income students are compared, the gap is much narrower: statewide, 35 percent met or exceeded standards in reading, compared with 31 percent in Chicago. Likewise, in math and science the test-score gap is slight when the comparison is limited to low-income students:

Source: Illinois Report Card, 2013, Illinois State Board of Education

On the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, given to children in grades three through eight, 59 percent met or exceeded standards in reading statewide, compared with 48 percent of CPS students. In the apples-to-apples comparison of low-income students, however, the state and Chicago totals were identical. In math, among solely low-income students, Chicago nosed out Illinois:

Source: Illinois Report Card, 2013, Illinois State Board of Education

The link between low-income students and low test scores has been well documented—locally, nationally, and internationally. It’s obvious not just when comparing Chicago’s public schools with the rest of the state, but also within CPS itself. Our analysis of CPS data shows that the higher the proportion of low-income kids in a school, the worse the school did on the ISAT and the PSAE—and the correlation is dramatic:

Source: Reader analysis of CPS demographic and assessment reports for 2012-2013

Source: Reader analysis of CPS demographic and assessment reports for 2012-2013

All this suggests a different approach for improving Chicago’s public schools. Rather than concentrating on raising test scores, school and city officials should focus on sharply reducing CPS’s low-income proportion. Do that, and test scores and graduation rates will take care of themselves.

This wouldn’t be merely a statistical change. A host of studies indicate that poor kids do better in economically diverse schools—and that kids who aren’t poor do well in them too. CPS can offer few of those schools because of the makeup of its enrollment, which is partly the product of that exodus of middle-income children from the school system. Until that exodus is reversed, the vast majority of CPS students will remain stuck in schools that are socioeconomic ghettos. And the kinds of education reforms Chicago has been attempting—teacher accountability tied to test scores, charters, a longer school day—will continue to be ill-fated.

Illinois began publishing report cards for the state’s schools in 1986. The first results, for the 1985 school year, showed Chicago schools far behind suburban schools. Nearly all suburban Chicago high schools beat the state average on the ACT, 19.1, while only two of Chicago’s 64 high schools managed to. Those two schools, Lane Tech and Whitney Young Magnet, both had selective enrollments.

The Tribune pointed out that, at the time, 45 percent of Chicago’s public school students were from low-income families, compared with 24 percent statewide. A parents’ guide to the report cards published by the state board of education noted the “direct relationship between student achievement and family income” found by researchers.

Year in and year out, for 27 years of report cards now, Chicago has trailed the state in test scores, and trounced it in low-income figures.

CPS’s low-income proportion climbed to 82 percent by 1994, and it’s remained in the 80s since. The statewide proportion has increased from 37 percent to 50 percent since 2000.

The seeds for Chicago’s economically disadvantaged enrollment were sown in the mid-20th century, as we recounted in the first part of this series. That’s when African-Americans, many of them poor, moved to Chicago from the south in large numbers, and middle-class families, most of them white, began fleeing the city’s public schools, and often the city itself.

CPS’s low-income numbers have recently been contested. In a January report the inspector general for the Chicago Board of Education pointed out that because free- and reduced-price lunch figures are used in determining how much money CPS receives from certain state and federal programs, there’s an incentive to inflate the numbers. A review of a thousand randomly selected applications convinced him that fraud was systemwide.

Becky Carroll, chief communications officer for CPS, told me that where fraud had occurred, “we’ve taken action with individuals involved in those instances,” and that CPS has also “taken steps systemwide to further ensure schools are following proper procedure and protocol around this program.”

If there are incentives to inflate the low-income numbers, other school districts outside of Chicago have them as well. And even if the numbers CPS reports are exaggerated, the district unquestionably has a much higher proportion of poor kids than Illinois has statewide. According to the most recent census data, for 2012, the poverty rate in Chicago for children ages six to 17 was more than double the rate in Illinois outside of Chicago. (For a family of three, the poverty line is $19,090.) The depth of poverty is also greater here, with more than double the rate of school-age children living below half of the poverty line.

Source: Social IMPACT Research Center’s analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey 1-year estimates.

Children from poor families have “significant disparities in vocabulary and language processing efficiency” as early as age 18 months, Stanford researchers recently reported. In the journal Developmental Science in March, the researchers pointed to a slew of “adverse circumstances” that impair the development of poor children: inadequate nutrition and medical care, exposure to toxins, and unsupportive parent-child interactions. “Parents under greater stress tend to respond less sensitively to their children and provide less adequate social and cognitive stimulation,” the researchers wrote.

The new finding extends previous research that showed that by age two, children whose mothers speak to them often and responsively have vocabularies eight times greater than children whose mothers talk to them less—and that the talkative and responsive mothers tend to be educated and affluent.

Georgetown University researchers Craig and Sharon Ramey, who have been studying disparities in child development since the 1960s, have observed that the deprivation in early childhood has an enormous impact. “Unprecedented numbers of children start public kindergarten with major delays in language and basic academic skills,” they wrote in the journal Merrill-Palmer Quarterly in 2004. Those delays are “a serious educational challenge for classroom teachers and school districts, as well as for the children themselves.”

An abundance of research has shown that those early-childhood deficits are compounded when poor children are concentrated in schools with low-income enrollments—and that the deficits often diminish when they attend economically diverse schools.

A 2008 study in the Journal of Educational Policy found that having low-income classmates reduced a child’s reading growth from kindergarten through third grade. The authors wrote that their findings supported the concept of dispersing poor children “across multiple schools so that there is not a high concentration of low-income children in a single school.”

A study in the American Educational Research Journal in August found that high school students who attended economically diverse schools were 68 percent more likely to enroll in four-year colleges than students from schools that were highly segregated economically. The study controlled for the socioeconomic characteristics of individual students. Its author found the difference to be due mainly to the influence of school peers, and he concluded that while educational reforms “can reduce the negative consequences of socioeconomic segregation to some degree,” addressing these disparities fully “will likely require integrating schools.”

But does the presence of low-income classmates hurt the achievement of middle-class students? Studies have suggested that in predominantly middle-class schools, their achievement isn’t diminished—partly because the majority sets the tone, and partly because middle-class students seem to be less influenced than poor children by school environments.

Middle-class achievement “does not decline so long as a strong core of middle-class children is present,” Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation,
wrote last winter in the journal American Educator.

Kahlenberg has been advocating for socioeconomic integration in schools for years. In his American Educator essay, he observed that in middle-class schools, low-income children have more classmates who are academically engaged and who are less likely to act out and cut class; teachers tend to have higher expectations of students; and parents volunteer more often “and know how to hold school officials accountable when things go wrong.” He criticized the dominant approach of school reformers, who try to enhance conditions in poor, segregated schools without also attacking their segregation. This strategy “treats socioeconomic segregation as acceptable, thereby condemning children to very difficult learning environments,” he wrote.

Although the tier system has preserved only a modicum of economic diversity in Chicago, Kahlenberg argues that at least the low-income students who get into the selective schools are better off. “It’s a positive thing for those kids, and if we can expand that, all the better.”

Kahlenberg defines middle-class schools as those in which fewer than half of the students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. CPS has 51 such schools, out of 681.

Kahlenberg has consulted with school districts who want to increase the economic diversity in their schools. One of those districts is Chicago.

As part of a 1980 federal consent decree, under which Chicago agreed to desegregate its schools racially to the extent possible (which was minimal, given that the schools then were 82 percent minority), CPS created a magnet-school program. It began with 41 magnets and used race as an admissions factor. A few more magnets were later added, as well as a selective-enrollment-school program with gifted and classical schools. The special programs, along with the quota—their enrollments could be no more than 35 percent white—made these schools among the few racially and economically diverse public schools in the city. They also tended to be CPS’s highest achievers.

After a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling invalidated the use of race in school districts’ desegregation efforts, CPS had to drop the racial quota. The district then sought to revise its admissions process along socioeconomic lines.

In 2009 Kahlenberg helped CPS devise the process the district now uses. For the 34 selective-enrollment schools, the first 30 percent of available seats go to the highest-scoring applicants; the other 70 percent go to the highest-scoring applicants in four socioeconomic tiers. Applicants are assigned to the tiers based on the census tract in which they live. The formula for the 50 magnet schools is similar. Under that system, most of the selective schools have remained racially and economically diverse.

But the vast majority of CPS students are still in schools that are highly segregated, racially and economically—and many are in schools that are virtually all low-income and minority. Our analysis of CPS data shows that nearly one-third of the district’s schools have enrollments that are at least 95 percent low-income—in the aggregate, these 226 schools are 97 percent low-income. They also are 97 percent Hispanic and African-American.

Although the tier system has preserved only a modicum of economic diversity in Chicago, Kahlenberg argues that at least the low-income students who get into the selective schools are better off. “It’s a positive thing for those kids, and if we can expand that, all the better,” he tells me.

Increasing the number of selective schools is one of two approaches Kahlenberg thinks CPS should take to reduce its low-income proportion. He points to the great demand for the selective schools—applicants far outnumber those admitted. If CPS offered more of them, some middle-class families who now opt for private or suburban schools—such as the three families we wrote about in September, in the second story of this series—would send their kids to the public schools here instead, he says. The more selective schools there are, the more low-income students who benefit, Kahlenberg says; and the more middle-class parents who opt for CPS, the more the low-income proportion declines. “Over time, it could help bring down those free-and-reduced-price-lunch numbers from the 80s to something more manageable.”

Kahlenberg’s second recommendation is that CPS work with suburban districts on an interdistrict program that promotes two-way movement of students. Special programs in city magnets would be designed to attract middle-class suburban students to Chicago, and middle-class suburban schools would welcome low-income Chicago students willing to make the trip to a school not overflowing with poor kids. The suburban districts would be motivated to welcome low-income students by financial incentives from the state. Interdistrict programs are already being used in Saint Louis, Boston, Milwaukee, Omaha, and Hartford.

But could an interdistrict magnet program work here? Many of the southern and western suburbs are themselves struggling with a surplus of low-income students. And the northern suburbs are so wealthy that it’s hard to imagine financial incentives persuading them to open their arms to low-income Chicago students. The northern suburbs are also far from Chicago’s main concentrations of poverty, on the south and west sides.

Kahlenberg says that some affluent suburbs elsewhere—Newton, outside of Boston, for instance—have participated not only because of the financial incentives, but because white middle-class parents understand “that it’s good for their children to be in a more diverse environment.” An interdistrict program in metro Chicago “can start small and grow,” he says.

Interdistrict magnet schools may be a healthy prescription, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s eager to fill it. Desegregation advocates in Chicago were prescribing such a program 25 years ago, when I wrote a Reader article on the subject, but their arguments were ignored. A spokesperson for CPS told me in June that the district is not currently exploring the option.

Also in June, I asked CPS’s chief officer of teaching and learning, Annette Gurley, if the district was trying to increase its middle-class enrollment. She said that wasn’t a particular goal. “Our goal is to provide the highest quality experience for whoever comes through those doors. If our programs are quality enough, the middle class will come back.”

Kahlenberg is “mixed” about the prospects for socioeconomic school integration nationally. “Some trend lines are negative,” he says. “Poverty has been increasing. The free- and reduced-price-lunch numbers are much higher than ten to 15 years ago. And we’re also increasingly segregated by income.”

At the same time, though, more school districts have programs in place to increase the economic integration of their enrollments, and more are considering them, he says. State legislators, even some conservatives, have come out in favor of such approaches. He says legislators are frustrated by how long they’ve been “pouring money into high-poverty districts, and not getting results. They recognize that the poverty concentrations have to be dealt with.”

Kahlenberg is also encouraged by a different sentiment he perceives among younger parents. “A generation ago, it was almost automatic for families with the resources to move out of the city once their children became of school age,” he says. “But there’s an increased interest among millennials to live in urban areas, and a greater appetite and appreciation for diversity. That provides an opportunity for school integration that we didn’t have before.”

Connie Vaughn and Mac Irvine helped research this story.