Last summer, Money magazine named Eden Prairie as the "best small city" in America. It highlighted the Twin Cities suburb's "top-notch" schools as a primary reason the thriving community is "great for raising a family."
But the days of Eden Prairie's pride in its schools may be numbered. School officials have announced a plan to abandon the district's neighborhood-schools model and to bus hundreds of elementary students across town to balance schools on the basis of income. Parents are up in arms about the plan -- scheduled for a decision in December -- but officials insist the upheaval will be justified. The economic diversity that results, they promise, will improve the academic achievement of low-income, minority children.
Have we learned nothing? From the 1970s to the 1990s, America conducted a massive social-engineering experiment in race-based busing that was expected to improve the academic achievement of low-income, minority children. The experiment failed virtually everywhere it was tried -- from Boston to St. Louis, Kansas City to San Francisco. Busing for "desegregation" had little, if any, reliable effect on minority achievement. It did, however, wrench neighborhoods apart, create insurmountable obstacles to parental involvement, cost vast sums and send middle-class families fleeing to the suburbs.
Eden Prairie need look no farther than Minneapolis to see where forced busing can lead. The city bused students for racial balance for more than 20 years, but black achievement hardly budged. In 1996, a fed-up Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton called for an end to the practice.
Income-based busing is the new rage, because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled busing for racial balance unconstitutional in 2007. Wake County, N.C. -- which has bused for income balance for 10 years -- is often cited as glowing proof that this approach works. In 2007, Myron Orfield of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty, who has presented to the Eden Prairie school board on income-based school assignment, lauded Wake County's results in the Star Tribune.
Wake County citizens beg to differ. In 2009, they voted in a new school board, and today the program is being dismantled.
Income-based busing "sounds like a noble idea," says new board member John Tedesco. "But it was terrible for kids and for the community. We took our eye off the prize -- academic achievement for all kids -- and put it on trying to meet quotas in a balancing act."
In the last five years, Wake County test scores and graduation rates have dropped every year, and the racial achievement gap has widened, says Tedesco. Low-income students have suffered most. "We were classifying kids by group, and labeling low-income kids 'at risk' just because of the money in their parents' pockets," he says. "We've actually dumbed these kids down." A recent study found that 80 percent of high-performing low-income students, who should be in challenging classes, were in fact assigned to remedial classes, he adds.
Wake County's test scores and SAT scores are still better than those of most other North Carolina districts, according to Tedesco. But that's misleading. As home to the renowned "Research Triangle," the county has one of the most highly educated workforces in America. "The academic success we do have is attributable to our demographics, not our busing program," says Tedesco.
Income-based busing has provoked cultural division, not unity. "It started pitting us against one another, because it classified people in terms of groups and set school quotas," Tedesco explains. Ironically, racial segregation has actually increased in Wake County schools. While the county's overall poverty rate is about 10 percent, its schools are now at 30 percent because the affluent are fleeing to private schools, says Tedesco. The national average for opting out of public schools is about 8 1/2 percent, he says. "Our rate has doubled in 10 years to almost 18 percent. Guess who's left behind?"
Tedesco sums up Wake County's "nightmare" this way: "Income-based busing tore apart our schools. It tore apart our community. It got our parents fighting one another. It created an academic mess, an efficiency mess and a cultural mess."
Eden Prairie is one of a number of districts -- including Hopkins, Bloomington and Osseo -- where racial and income "balancing" is a growing issue. Orfield has proposed a "comprehensive strategy to integrate" the entire Twin Cities metro area.
Before Minnesota embarks on yet another grand experiment in wishful thinking and social engineering, we might listen to David Armor of George Mason University, who has studied busing and desegregation for 30 years. Districts that consider income-based busing plans "are undertaking policy shifts that bring great controversy and costs, with no solid evidence that this will improve education for anyone," he says.
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.