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With US schools becoming more segregated by race and income, many educators and civil rights advocates are concerned. Pressure from the courts and the government has waned in recent years, they say, allowing racial isolation and unequal access to education for minority students to creep back. Housing discrimination and wealthier towns seceding from larger school districts have also contributed to segregation’s resurgence. The debate over what to do about it is complicated. Not everyone agrees that integration should be the top priority for boosting equity. Undaunted, some areas are prioritizing integration – often based on socioeconomic factors rather than race – and are having some success. Their approaches range from adjusting attendance zones to giving students choices, such as crossing district lines for school. Beyond academics, students of all backgrounds gain from attending desegregated schools. Among those benefits, explains Jenn Ayscue from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, are that “they have friends in other racial groups, there are less stereotypes, there’s improved communication, improved critical thinking skills, and … better economic outcomes.”
Nationally, school segregation has been on the rise. With less pressure from courts and the federal government in recent decades, it’s increasingly up to local communities to get creative if they see integrated schools as key to promoting equity, improving academic outcomes, fostering a less divided society, or all of the above.
After the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the subsequent wave of desegregation orders, black and white student integration increased – until it peaked in 1988. Hundreds of school districts still have open desegregation orders, either through the courts or federal civil rights agreements, but many are no longer actively monitored, researchers say.
“We’ve lost much of that progress,” says Halley Potter, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in New York, which advocates for reducing inequality. Add to the mix the growing Hispanic segment and many immigrants, and “we’re in danger of becoming a country where we have an incredibly diverse population overall, but with even greater siloing of neighborhoods and schools.”
Many reasons for resurgence
The reasons for segregation’s resurgence are complex – ranging from housing discrimination and neighborhood patterns to restrictions the Supreme Court has placed on the use of race in integration plans. Some wealthier towns have also been seceding from larger school districts, leaving high-poverty areas to fend for themselves.
In many places, the political will for integrating schools isn’t strong, although 64 percent of Americans say school segregation is an important issue, the Center for American Progress reports.
Integration “is important … [but] it shouldn’t be the top priority,” says Gerard Robinson, executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, a research and education initiative supported by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Charles Koch Foundation, and Koch Industries.
School systems can improve students’ opportunities through better use of technology, private-school scholarships, and public schools that have academic admissions criteria but do not consider race, he notes. “To make integration, or what I call color-coding classrooms, the driver … is not going to get you the kind of opportunities you want,” says Mr. Robinson, who once headed up Florida’s and Virginia’s education departments.
The US Department of Education had been slated to distribute $12 million in grants to support voluntary socioeconomic integration, but after the change of administration in 2017, it canceled the program. The department did not respond to the Monitor’s request for comment.
More attention for economic factors
Economic factors now receive even more attention than race in many discussions of voluntary integration. That’s partly because it’s considered a proxy for race given the legal restrictions districts face, but it's also in response to growing income inequality. Race and economics combine in a sort of double disadvantage for some students, civil rights advocates say, with recent years showing a significant rise in the percentage of public schools that have high concentrations of low-income black and Latino students. (See related graph.)
Among these schools, “disparities in education … are particularly acute,” concluded a 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office.
“Segregation is associated with a lot of harms, whereas desegregated schools are associated with a lot of benefits,” says Jenn Ayscue, research associate at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Beyond academics, students of all backgrounds gain from attending desegregated schools. Research shows “they have friends in other racial groups, there are less stereotypes, there’s improved communication, improved critical thinking skills, and … better economic outcomes,” Dr. Ayscue says.
New study identifies integration efforts
Swimming against the tide, at least 60 school districts across the United States are trying – voluntarily – to ensure their schools don’t reflect racial and economic segregation in their city or region. Among the examples:
- Cambridge, Mass., uses a “controlled choice” plan – giving choice to parents, but also granting assignments by balancing schools with students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
- The Dallas Independent School District has long boasted selective magnet schools, which have special features designed to draw students from a variety of neighborhoods. But in recent years it has added themed schools with no admissions criteria. Enrollments are monitored so that impoverished neighborhoods are represented in those schools in balance with middle-class and wealthier neighborhoods, and the schools strive for a culture of equity and inclusivity.
- New Haven, Conn., offers an interdistrict magnet program and transportation to encourage a mix of urban and suburban students.
Other districts adjust attendance zones or allow transfers to reduce segregation. Some, like San Jose, Calif. and St. Lucie County, Fla., combine several strategies.
The 60 districts were identified for a groundbreaking study by Erica Frankenberg and co-researchers at Pennsylvania State University, which they presented at the April meeting of the American Educational Research Association. (The study did not include interdistrict programs or court-ordered desegregation plans.)
These districts, on average, have reduced economic segregation, based on a close look at the distribution of students who receive free or reduced price lunch (FRL) in the schools.
In 2000, the schools were 15 percent less economically diverse than the districts. By 2014, that had declined to 13.2 percent. (Anything below 10 percent is considered low, while above 25 percent is extremely high, says Dr. Frankenberg, co-director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights.)
As a group, the districts did not reduce racial segregation between 2000 and 2014.
However, that doesn’t mean the policies had no effect. School levels of racial segregation were lower than residential segregation: 13.7 percent vs. 22.4 percent in 2014. School levels also stayed virtually flat during the years studied, even as residential segregation rose for the first 10 years.
The findings are less surprising when considering that only 13 of the 60 districts use racial factors in their integration plans. That’s allowed in certain circumstances, if race isn’t the only characteristic or if the district considers the racial composition of an area, such as a neighborhood.
These 13 districts did show less racial segregation in schools – about 9 percent, compared with 13.5 percent in districts that did not consider race.
“There is this assumption among policymakers and educators that race-neutral plans are indistinguishable from race-conscious plans,” Frankenberg says, so the new finding may shift that discussion.
It’s also important to bear in mind that some districts may do a good job of mixing students in their schools, but if the whole student body is more than 75 percent black and/or Latino, because white families don't live there or are opting for private or charter schools, those students can still be racially isolated. That is why some advocates call for more interdistrict plans.
Districts in the Penn State study that adjust attendance zones or offer controlled choice showed lower rates of school segregation than the group overall, as did districts combining multiple strategies – which affect a larger portion of students than, for instance, a small number of magnet schools.
Charter school impact
But “controlled choice” for integration refers to a distinct set of policies, not the broader “school choice” movement. The charter sector in particular – autonomous public schools that parents can opt in to via lottery – faces vocal critics who say it has tended to exacerbate segregation.
More than 1,000 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, an Associated Press analysis found last year. That’s about 17 percent of charter schools, compared with 4 percent of traditional public schools that show similar racial isolation.
Some charters do intentionally integrate, by weighting lotteries or reaching out to diverse families, for instance. And some have produced high achievement and graduation rates among low-income minority populations. Pointing to such examples, charter advocates see the movement as key to today’s fight for civil rights.
For advocates convinced of the benefits of students of different backgrounds learning together, desegregation is just the first step, but integration means something more.
“With desegregation, we’re really talking more about who is enrolled in the school and … getting students through the front door…. Whereas with integration, we’re talking more about … students of different races meaningfully interacting with one another once they’re inside the school,” Ayscue says.
Whether they are creating open access honors courses or requiring anti-bias training for staff, a small but growing number of schools are directing their energies toward figuring out how to truly integrate.
Next in the series: An integrated Montessori charter school in St. Louis where everyone's challenged to undo racism.