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A New Way for Educators to Think About School Segregation

In the last 15 years, students in the nation’s large school districts have become much more isolated racially and economically. A national longitudinal study of schools suggests less court oversight and more parental choice may be to blame.

Researchers Sean Reardon and Ann Owens of the Stanford University Center on Poverty and Inequality tracked the racial and economic demographics of a nationally representative sample of schools from 1967 to 1990 and every public school in the country from 1991 to 2022. This allowed them to measure how much exposure a student of one race or income level would have to students of other racial or socioeconomic backgrounds.

Schools and districts have become much more racially integrated than they were before the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that racially separate school systems were unequal and unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. However, the researchers found that students’ exposure to students of other races and income levels regressed since 1991.

In 533 school districts serving at least 2,500 Black students—64 percent of all Black K-12 public students— Black-white segregation has risen by a quarter since 1991. Hispanic and Asian students also attend more segregated schools than they did in 1991.

School segregation between students who qualify for free meals and their wealthier peers has also risen 30 percent since 1991 in the highest-poverty districts. Likewise, in the hundred school districts with the highest concentration of students in poverty, racial-economic segregation—the share of students who qualify for free meals in the average white versus Black students’ schools—has risen 60 percent over the same time.

In 2012, Michael Lomax, then president of the United Negro College Fund, told Education Week that the drive for equality that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now” had birthed the charter school movement as a potentially better alternative for students of color in urban districts. But Owens and Reardon said the expansion of urban charter schools and other choice programs, with the rollback of court oversight, explain the deepening of segregation in these districts.

In most large school districts, Owens and Reardon found neighborhood segregation and inequality declined since 1991, and the researchers said changing residential segregation has not driven racial and economic isolation in schools.

“School systems became more segregated, but that increase in segregation isn’t because neighborhoods got more segregated,” Reardon said. “It’s because school systems stopped trying to create schools that were more integrated than neighborhoods, and let them kind of revert to their neighborhood patterns.”

For example, in 1968, when courts ordered Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., public schools to integrate, the average white student in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina attended a school that was 90 percent white and 10 percent Black, while the average Black student attended a school where more than three-quarters of students were Black and only a quarter were white. By 1971, after court-ordered bussing, magnet programs, and race-based school assignment policies, both Black and white students attended schools that were roughly one-third Black and two-thirds white.

School integration stable until court relaxed desegregation order

School integration remained generally stable until the late 1990s, when the court began to relax its desegregation order. In 2001, a federal appeals court ended the desegregation order and ruled schools could no longer use race-based attendance policies. Segregation has risen significantly in the district since then.

Owens noted that most active integration policies, such as bussing students among schools or rezoning attendance boundaries, are costly and without court pressure, “some districts have voluntary programs … but the sort of real carrots and sticks that came with desegregation orders, you know, those tools just aren’t available to districts anymore.”

“Simultaneously, we had this introduction more broadly towards market-based solutions: this idea of choice systems being a preferred student-assignment policy in a lot of districts,” Owens said. “I wouldn’t want to say it’s entirely about expansion of the charter sector, but as an indicator of broader choice, we see that association between that expanded choice and segregation.”

Owens cautioned that segregation between different districts accounts for more of the overall racial isolation than segregation among schools within individual districts. For example, about 3 in 4 students in Los Angeles Unified schools are Latino, while neighboring Beverly Hills public schools are three-quarters white students.

“In places where a metropolitan area is carved up into lots of districts, residential segregation is higher,” she said, “and part of that seems to be families with kids jockeying to live in their preferred school district.

The researchers advised school districts and states to work to create more regional approaches to integrating schools.

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