Why school segregation is getting worse

Why school segregation is getting worse

A teacher and students in a public classroom in Salmon School District in Idaho. | Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Seventy years after the Brown decision, many students are divided by their race and socioeconomic status.

Friday marks the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” schools for racial minorities were inherently unequal and unconstitutional.

But so many years after the watershed ruling, new research confirms a startling trend: School segregation has been getting steadily worse over the last three decades.

Researchers at Stanford University and the University of Southern California found that racial segregation in the country’s 100 biggest school districts, which serve the most students of color, has increased by 64 percent since 1988. Economic segregation, or the division between students who receive free or reduced lunch and those who do not, increased by 50 percent since 1991.

The study primarily focused on white-Black segregation, the groups that the Brown decision addressed, but found that white-Hispanic and white-Asian segregation both also more than doubled since the late 1980s in the large school districts.

Why is history reversing itself?

Residential segregation, which researchers have historically identified as the root cause, isn’t the chief driver, according to the new study. The increased segregation also isn’t due to shifting demographics nationwide, as the country becomes less white. In most of the large districts that the researchers examined, housing segregation and racial economic inequality declined.

Instead, they cited two policy choices America has made: increasing school choice options and ending court oversight of integration efforts.

“When we switched from a commitment to integration and equity to school choice, it’s not terribly surprising that we see rising school segregation,” said Ann Owens, a professor of sociology and public policy at USC and one of the report’s authors. “We’ve abdicated our responsibility to integration, and unfettered choice does not magically lead to integration.”

And now, the steady increase means that Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be concentrated in higher-poverty schools with fewer resources, a trend that worsens academic and life outcomes.

School choice, namely charter schools, has expanded

School choice, the programs and policies that let families use public funding to access alternatives to traditional public schools, has grown in the past few decades. That’s particularly true of the charter school sector, which creates publicly funded schools that have greater flexibility than traditional public schools due to “charter” agreements with states. Some of the first charter schools were introduced in the 1990s to create alternative learning environments, with their own curricula and discipline policies, for example.

Charters now serve 3.7 million students in 8,000 schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. During the 2021-22 school year, they enrolled 7.4 percent of all public school students.

That might not seem like that many students — but it’s less how many are enrolling, and more who is.

The study supports the idea that parents, particularly white parents, have enrolled their children in charter schools that are majority white. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, white parents have opted out of big urban district schools. There’s generally more segregation both within the charter sector and between charter and traditional public schools.

“We do see that as the charter sector expands, the places where it expanded fastest from the late ’90s to today tend to be places where segregation grew the most even after we take into account lots of other things that were going on,” said Sean Reardon, the faculty director of Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Project that produced the report and a new “Segregation Explorer” tool.

It’s not just white families driving the change: Some charters explicitly market themselves to families of certain racial or ethnic communities or neighborhoods, which has helped increase segregation too.

As school choice programs were expanding, another policy that helped integrate schools was ending.

Court oversight has vanished

When Brown was decided in 1954, the Court didn’t immediately require school districts to desegregate.

It wasn’t until the Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County that schools were mandated to develop plans to dismantle their segregated enrollment systems. The decision introduced new criteria courts could use to evaluate schools’ compliance — such as the quality of a school’s physical resources and amenities (think: the type of extracurricular activities offered or the kind of transportation they provide all students, the number of teachers, etc.) or the ratio of Black and white students and teachers.

The orders had a huge impact, but by the early ’90s, districts were released from the mandates after a series of cases that gave districts local control.

The new research shows that within five to eight years of districts being released from mandates, segregation increased. Since 1991, about two-thirds of school districts that were required to meet court desegregation mandates were removed from court oversight.

Why this matters — and how to reverse school segregation

Brown was supposed to lead to long-lasting desegregation. Though school segregation in most school districts is much lower than it was 60 years ago, it’s higher than it was 30 years ago. And today’s divisions are enough to concentrate Black and Hispanic students in higher-poverty schools.

And that in turn “drives a lot of inequality and disparate outcomes that we see,” said Owens. “It’s not that sitting next to a kid of a particular racial group is on its face beneficial. It’s that resources from home, social resources, and political resources in our society are linked to race.”

Achievement gaps are larger and grow faster as kids progress through school in more segregated districts than more integrated districts, Reardon said, adding that integration efforts tailored to a specific town’s issues have led to very large improvements in educational and life outcomes for students of color. Research has also shown that desegregation doesn’t worsen outcomes for white students.

Given that housing segregation helped create school segregation in the first place, tackling this issue will mean taking a “a multi-sector approach because the education system alone can’t address it,” Reardon said.

Barring that, there are a few solutions to at least help us counteract the slides of the last three decades. Everything from voluntary integration programs to socioeconomic-based student assignment policies — and if we’re committed to school choice policies, choosing ones that affirmatively promote integration.

This story originally appeared in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.

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