How School Busing and Socioeconomic Integration Can Help Reverse the Achievement Gap

ByColleen Connolly

Brown v. Board of Education declared that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal. However, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (2006), the Supreme Court held that integration programs using race as a factor in student assignments were unconstitutional.

In 1976, the Raleigh city and county schools merged to create the Wake County School System in North Carolina. From the 1970s to 1990s, Wake County integrated schools by race. In the early 1980s, Wake County Superintendent Walter Marks expanded two-way busing and turned 27 schools into magnet schools in one year, transforming the curricula in more than a third of Wake’s schools. In 2000, when court-ordered desegregation expired, Wake County transitioned to implement a socioeconomic integration plan. The integration plan gives parents a choice of schools within the district and caps concentrations of poverty at 40 percent of students per school. Approximately 40 U.S. school districts have followed, developing student assignment models and integration plans based on student socioeconomic status.


Under socioeconomic integration, more than 91 percent of all Wake County students in grades 3-8 passed the North Carolina math and reading tests in 2003. The test score gap between black and white students shrank from 37 points to 17 and similarly the gap between Hispanic and white students shrank from 28 points to 11. Furthermore, the passing rate for poor children increased from 55 to 80 percent. Wake County has proven the academic success of socioeconomic integration plans. Higher-income schools tend to obtain better funding, attract higher quality teachers, and set higher expectations for academic achievement. Furthermore, economically stable families tend to have the means and resources to hold schools accountable for their child’s education, thereby ensuring quality education. Socioeconomic school integration is beneficial for wealthy and poor students alike, but also critical to the development of a cooperative society. 

Next Steps 

A similar socioeconomic integration model – with a 40 percent poverty cap and the possibility of magnet schools and the expansion of busing programs – should be adopted in districts nationwide. Socioeconomic integration should be furthered as a national goal for all American public schools as a means to diversify schools, broaden students’ perspectives, and extend equality of opportunity in education. As Kleibard notes, the “betterment” of society can be achieved through education and schools are “the principal force for social change and social justice.”10  This philosophy highlights the need for socioeconomically integrated schools to promote broader social integration. A society that champions a movement toward integration, equality of opportunity, and social justice is surely in the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education.