Phenomenon of majority-White school districts
One year shy of the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, American schools remain highly segregated by race and class.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) did an analysis last year of the 2020-21 Common Core education data in reporting that more than a third of American students attended racially segregated schools. More than one in 10 students–about 14%--attended schools where 90% of students were one race or ethnicity.
The report came just six years after the agency found a stark increase in the percentage of poor, Black and Latino students attending predominantly poor and minority schools over an 18-year period. While African-American students account for roughly 15% of the U.S. public school population, some 23% of them attend schools that are more than three-quarters Black. By comparison, 43% of White students–who comprise less than half of the nation’s secondary school enrollment–attended predominantly White schools, nearly double that of Black students. Latino students (accounting for about 28% of the U.S. school population) were 31% more likely to be part of an exclusive Latino student body.
New school district boundaries
Government officials highlighted two contributing factors to the continued resegregation of America’s school children: (1) School district boundaries that determine who has access to what schools, and the rise of school district successions, and (2) the phenomenon of towns breaking away from larger school districts to establish their own education sectors. The GAO report also found that, between the 2009-10 and 2020-21 school years, more than 30 new school districts in seven states have broken off from previous districts.
“There is clearly still racial division in our schools,” said Jackie Nowicki, director of K-12 education at the GAO and lead author of the report. She said schools with large populations of
African-American, Latino and Native Indian/Alaska Native students–minority groups with higher rates of poverty than White and Asian students–are rapidly increasing. Last year’s GAO report was a follow-up to a 2016 GAO investigation on racial disparity. While that initial report painted a slightly worse picture, findings from the new analysis are equally distressing, she said.
“What that means is you have large portions of minority children not only attending essentially segregated schools, but schools that have far less resources available to them,” Nowicki explained.”
‘Whiter and wealthier’ schools
Nowicki said that in the 10 years that the GAO has looked at district succession, they found that “overwhelmingly” those new districts were generally “whiter and wealthier” than the remaining districts. The GAO found that when municipalities remove themselves from a larger district for a smaller district of their own, the practice more often creates more racial and socioeconomic segregation.
Public school funding relies heavily on property taxes, therefore students often attend schools close to where they live. This can create unequal access to resources when communities are segregated. Of late, court cases have limited desegregation efforts, or, what voluntary integration methods could be undertaken within public school districts.
When Brown was decided, U.S. schools were overwhelmingly White with about one-eighth of enrollment Black students. Other groups had very small populations; Latinos and Asians were not counted nationally until 1968. The proportion of White public school students has dropped considerably and continuously for the past 25 years. It’s not because of transfer to private schools. According to the GAO, the White decline reflects continual low birth rates among Whites, as well as shifting immigration patterns that are overwhelmingly non-White.
History has revealed that school desegregation was only implemented where there was a “proven history” of official discrimination against Black students. In some places it was hard to show because segregation was enshrined in state law, hence Justice Felix Frankafurter’s famously elusive phrase “with all deliberate speed” (or no timetable) in the Brown ruling. In other states, civil rights lawyers had to prove that schools had been intentionally segregated by school officials.
Continual segregation by class
Civil rights enforcement had a lasting impact until it was largely undone by the 1991 Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell decision which effectively ended school desegregation measures nationwide. The fallout since then would find Black students far more segregated from White students now than they were during the Civil Rights Movement. There is continual segregation by class (largely demonstrated in the Los Angeles Unified School District) which finds Black students attending school with more Latino children as opposed to their White peers. A 2020 report from the Civil Rights Project found that Black students’ share of Black classmates has been dropping as the Latino share has increased.
While the Brown decision continues to be celebrated as a civil rights milestone, a growing number of parents and educators argue that the decision inadvertently resulted in dismal failure as some 80% of Black children nationwide now attend segregated schools. There are a myriad of reasons why there is continual disagreement with school desegregation measures, chiefly among them waning support for desegregation by local schools districts, federal government policies and the Supreme Court itself.
In 2007, Chief Justice John Roberts stated in his majority opinion in two court cases that used race in determining transfer policies and school plans to foster desegregation: “The way to stop race discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Failure to share power and resources
As a result of such court decisions–on the national and state levels–Black children, while no longer barred from attending White schools, are now limited by class status and neighborhood location. And while busing attempted to overcome residential segregation, it could not withstand a strident national backlash.
Elise Boddie, professor at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey, has studied at length the ongoing process of re-segregating public schools. She said the process goes against the idea of teaching children and teens how to share power and resources and to create a society that is equitable and just.
“I don’t believe you can do that in a segregated system,” Boddie said. “Although quite a few school districts in the South are still subject to federal oversight, many re-segregated after changes in the law made it easier for federal courts to release them from supervision.” She noted the 1974 Supreme Court case (Milliken v. Bradley) that limited the power of federal courts to order integration across school district boundaries. “As a practical matter, the case made school desegregation in [these] areas very hard to achieve,” she said.
As well, the loss of Black teachers also decimated Black institutions as the character of these schools suddenly disappeared. By the late 1970s, African-Americans, once staunch proponents of busing, had become wary as they saw their beloved neighborhood schools deteriorate or close. They wanted desegregation to be a “two-way street,” but not at the expense of dismantling their schools.
Los Angeles Unified
School District enrollment
Almost 50 years later, for instance, in Los Angeles LAUSD enrollment for the 2020 school year found Latino students comprising 73%, Black students at 11%, White students at 9% and Asian-Pacific Islander (4%). California public secondary school enrollment is roughly 55.4% Latino, 21.7% White and 5.2% Black. Statewide, it’s about 5% for Asian-Pacific Islander students.
In 2020, of the 49.4 million students enrolled in public schools nationwide, some 22.6 million were White. An estimate from the National Center for Education Statistics projects that number will decrease (down from 46% in 2020 to 43%) by the fall of 2030. Just at the start of the 2020 school year, nationally, some 46% of White students were enrolled in public schools that were mostly composed of White students (i.e. at least 75% White). In contrast, 23% of Black students were enrolled in public schools that were mostly composed of Black students.
The GAO analysis also found that school segregation across all school types, including traditional public schools, charter and magnet schools. Across all charter schools–which are publicly funded but privately run–more than one-third were predominantly same-race/ethnicity in serving mostly Black and Latino students.
“We know that school segregation doesn’t just isolate low-income students and students of color; it also deprives them of equal access to educational opportunities and resources,” said Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, former chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. He previously called on Congress to pass legislation that would send funding to school districts and states to devise plans to voluntarily integrate schools and to “address policies and practices” that may have a discriminatory impact on students.
Black children and ‘educational disadvantage’
“We simply cannot allow our progress toward educational equality in America to be further eroded,” Scott said.
Cornell University in 2022 conducted its own study of the increase in school segregation. Researchers found that a generation of federal education reforms aimed at closing racial gaps in achievement and attainment has not adequately addressed two primary drivers: “Systemic economic inequality” and “severely segregated” schools.
“Our analysis reveals a stark divide in the social origins of Black and White children coming of age in the beginning of the 21sat century,” said Cornell sociologist Peter Rich, “and the toll this divide takes on educational inequality.” Rich and his colleagues revealed that schools–specifically, schools that are highly segregated due to systemic inequality in wealth and housing–are “consequential” in disproportionately exposing Black students to “educational disadvantage” for longer periods of time.
“This finding implies that material differences in the contexts inherited by Black and White children–rather than individual effort–drive the large education gaps we observed,” Rich said.