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Suburban Segregation Is Rising. What States and Districts Can Do

Nearly a third of all public school students attend a school in the suburbs surrounding the nation’s 25 largest cities.

And it’s increasingly likely the school they’re attending is effectively segregated.

More than twice as many of these suburban students now attend a highly racially isolated school than did in 2011—and tools used historically to promote integration have proven ineffective in stopping suburban segregation, according to a study released last week by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles.

“What I think we’re seeing is this wider geographic scale … of school districts that are experiencing many of the same demographic patterns that we’ve seen in urban segregation,” said Erika Frankenberg, a co-author of the study and an education and demography professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Frankenberg and her colleagues found some 14.4 million K-12 students attend suburban districts surrounding the 25 largest cities—more than double the 6 million students in those 25 central city districts. Within these districts, the majority of students are enrolled in districts that are 90 percent to100 percent Black and Latino—a trend that the study calls a “sea change from a decade ago,” when most suburban students attended an overwhelmingly white school.

While white students continue to make up a greater percentage of enrollment in suburban schools, that share fell from 48 percent to 40 percent from 2011 to 2020. In suburban schools, Latino students now make up a third of the student body, Black students 15 percent, Asian students 8 percent, and multiracial students 4.5 percent.

“When we look at Fairfax County [Va.] and Montgomery County, Md., those used to be very racially diverse but majority-white, and very affluent,” Frankenberg said, “and now if you are looking for majority-white suburban spaces in the D.C. [District of Columbia] metro [area], you have to go much further out.”

Ongoing public perception of suburban districts as white, wealthy enclaves can lead policymakers and the public to downplay the need for attention to intra-district racial and economic segregation. Separate studies have found low-income suburban students are more likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty than low-income students who live in cities.

The study also found Asian students becoming more racially isolated in suburban schools—a reversal of historic overall trends in schools. “Asian students typically have [had] the most exposure to students of other races,” Frankenberg said, compared to white, Black, and Latino students, who are more likely to attend schools serving mainly students of their same race.

District ‘fragmentation’ increasing racial isolation

In the last decade, the number of charter schools has significantly increased as states lifted or eliminated caps on their growth. The Civil Rights Project found inner-ring suburban districts were more likely than other kinds of districts to have experienced rapid demographic changes as well as budget stresses, which have in turn spurred the creation of more charter schools.

The Civil Rights Project found more than 43 percent of new suburban schools opening in the largest 25 metro areas from 2011-19 were charter schools. More than a quarter of these serve all or nearly all Black and Latino students.

The rise of independent charter schools and the growing creation of small, breakaway districts, many of which have been created in response to demographic changes, “just really increases the fragmentation overall,” Frankenberg said.

“It’s just fundamentally different to try to change patterns of segregation when you have four entities at the table versus a metro [area] where you may have hundreds of small school districts and charter schools on top of that,” she said. “It fundamentally limits what the possibilities are, and that’s one change from where we were a generation or two ago.”

Halley Potter, a senior research fellow at the Century Foundation who tracks school integration policies in metropolitan districts, agreed. In separate research, she found two-thirds of the racial segregation for suburban students comes from differences between, rather than within, school districts.

Few cities and suburbs use true regional approaches to school integration, but Potter said some policies can encourage more integration across districts, including:

  • States can require segregation studies or restrictions for schools that wish to split off to create a separate local education agency.
  • States can schedule “redistricting” of school district boundaries as demographic populations change, similar to redistricting for congressional districts.
  • District and charter schools can create a single unified enrollment system to assign students to schools across different local education agencies, such as those now being used in Denver and the District of Columbia, or charter schools with higher-than-average populations of white and wealthier students (such as some schools in New York City) may choose to reserve a portion of their seats for students from underrepresented demographics across boundary lines.
  • Regional education agencies—operating across several districts but not statewide— like one in Hartford, Conn., can operate inter-district magnet programs to create more integrated multi-district schools.

States have an important role to play in encouraging these sorts of cooperative enrollment or integration models, Potter said.

“It’s hard to get everyone’s interests aligned,” she said. “Having some kind of carrot-and-stick approach—some incentive for districts to cooperate … is an important lever.”

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