For the past 15 years the city of Cambridge has worked toward - and largely achieved - racial balance in its schools. But that's led to an imbalance in another area.
"In many ways Cambridge has a bimodal school system," says Joseph McKeigue, principal of the King Elementary School. "There are a substantial amount of lower socio-economic schools, and a substantial number of higher socio-economic schools."
King Elementary falls into the lower socio-economic category under the current school assignment system, called the Controlled Choice Plan.
That's no surprise to McKeigue. "I think the reality of choice is that parents tend to choose to go to schools where like groups go to school," he says. "In that you do have a group of middle-class schools, parents will choose to go to those schools."
And that's proven to be a distinct disadvantage for schools like King Elementary, resulting in a socio-economic imbalance. So Cambridge schools superintendent Bobbie D'Alessandro has proposed a new system, beginning with next year's kindergarten class, that would gear school assignment toward achieving more socio-economic diversity.
"Parents would fill out a form that says if you're a free or reduced lunch family," D'Alessandro says, "and based on that we would assign children, based on percentages of socio-economics."
But city councilor and school committee member Denise Simmons thinks that may be swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. "If we believe, and Cambridge says this all the time that they believe in diversity, then you can't lay down one for the other," she says. "There are arguments that says socio-economic status is a surrogate for race. I don't believe so for a lot of different reasons."
Simmons says that the new plan doesn't just downplay racial diversity, it ignores it. "I'm concerned that five to six years from now we'll have socio-economically balanced schools but racially imbalanced schools," she says.
Superintendent D'Allessandro says that won't happen under the new plan, which will use race as a factor to retain diversity.
Principal McKeigue says the potential benefits outweigh the concerns. "I think socio-economic class issues are issues we need to confront more directly and I think schooling as as social vehicle can do that. I think academically everyone has something to gain with the new system."