A recent federal government study found that, while the student population in American public schools has grown significantly more diverse, segregation remains a persistent concern.
According to the Government Accountability Office, more than one-third of K-12 students attend schools where 75% or more of the students are the same race or ethnicity. According to the study, approximately 15% of students attend schools where 90% or more of the students are of a single race or ethnicity.
Although school segregation is frequently associated with the civil rights-era integration battles of the 1950s and 1960s, the findings of the report provide insight into how racial and economic divisions persist today.
The Midwest and Northeast had the highest proportions of schools where the majority of students were of the same race or ethnicity. According to the report, the majority of those schools were predominantly white.
According to the report, the West had a large number of Hispanic-dominated schools. The South had more schools that were predominantly Black or Hispanic than other regions.
According to the GAO study, approximately half of white students attended a school with 75% or more white students in the 2020-21 school year. And, for the same time period, approximately 25% of Black students and nearly 33% of Hispanic students attended a school where each had a clear majority.
These figures come as white students make up a smaller proportion of the overall public school population. According to census data, white students made up nearly 90% of public school students in the 1950s, while black students made up slightly more than 10%, according to the report. White students now make up less than half of the K-12 public school population.
Much of the racial student consolidation can be traced back to housing, school district secession, and a history of discriminatory practices.
Today, nearly 70% of schoolchildren attend neighborhood schools, which are primarily supported by state and local property taxes. As a result, a school in a low-income area may have less money to pay teachers or maintain the building than a school in a high-income area.
According to the GAO study, approximately 14% of K-12 public schools with a majority of one race or ethnicity are within 10 miles of another school with a majority of another race.
According to a 2021 report from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, school boundaries have also been influenced by redlining, a practice that used race to determine whether residents could access federally backed home loans.
The GAO report identified 36 new school districts that broke away from existing ones between 2009-10 and 2019-20. The newly formed districts tended to be more white, Asian, and prosperous.
A large body of research demonstrates how school segregation affects the fortunes of students and communities.
According to the GAO report, approximately 80% of students attending low-income schools are Black or Hispanic. Both groups are more likely to be sent to alternative schools for disciplinary reasons than white students. Furthermore, high concentrations of students from low-income families were linked to poor academic outcomes.
According to Nowicki, integration has been linked to lower dropout rates and narrowing achievement gaps.
However, attempts to integrate schools have been complicated and contentious. Some school districts have been ordered by courts to bus children to schools outside of their neighborhoods in order to integrate them. Other districts voluntarily went through the process, but the contentious practice was phased out in some places following court challenges.
Magnet schools were also established to aid in school desegregation by attracting students from outside their neighborhood to a special program, such as the arts or sciences. However, according to the GAO report, nearly one-quarter of magnet programs are dominated by one race or ethnicity.
According to a recent report from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, approximately 45% of Black adults living in minority communities have a negative opinion of their public school. About 25% of Black adults in predominantly white areas gave the same rating to their public school system.
According to Alonzo Plough of the foundation, segregation harms both white and minority communities.