Report Indicates Significant Re-Segregation of Public Schools

By Kimberly Shannon — September 19, 2012 3 min read
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The nation’s public schools have experienced dramatic re-segregation over the past two decades, a trend that is “systematically linked to unequal educational opportunities” for minority students, according to a new report released Wednesday by the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA. In its latest in a series of reports analyzing segregation trends in public schools, “E Pluribus...Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students,” the organization used federal data from the 2009-2010 school year, in comparison to previous trends.

Desegregation in the nation saw an increase from 1960 through the late 1980s, and then changed course. In 1991, Oklahoma City v. Dowell “made it easier for school districts and courts to dismantle desegregation plans,” according to the report. That ruling took a heavy toll on the South in particular, where school re-segregation is happening most dramatically among African-American students, says the report. Elsewhere, a rapid growth in diversity has also been a factor. In 1970, nearly four out of every five students across the nation were white, but by 2009, just over half were white.

These factors have combined to fuel re-segregation across the country in recent decades, according to officials with the Civil Rights Project.

“In spite of declining residential segregation for black families and large-scale movement to the suburbs in most parts of the country, school segregation remains very high for black students,” the report states. “It is also double segregation by both race and poverty.”

In the early 1990s, the average Latino and black student attended a school where roughly a third of students were considered low income, but now attend schools where low-income students account for nearly two-thirds of their classmates, nearly double the level in schools of the average white or Asian student.

Additionally, the rapidly growing Latino population has seen increasing segregation recently, particularly in the West. Latino enrollment in public schools has gone up from one-twentieth of U.S. students in 1970 to one-fourth in 2009. Latino student populations have become more concentrated in segregated minority settings in almost every region of the nation. In the West, however, the share of Latino students in such settings has increased fourfold, from 12 percent in 1968 to 43 percent in 2009. Latino students are now the dominant minority group in the western half of the country.

“These patterns are basically being ignored in educational policy,” Gary Orfield, a co-founder of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles said on a press call. “Is it really reasonable for us to talk about education policy without considering this tremendously differentiated reality?” he asked. With the exception of a “small and temporary” initiative called Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans in 2009, the report says, the Obama and Bush administrations have not taken significant action to increase school integration or help stabilize urban schools that are experiencing racial change. In fact, the report criticizes President Obama’s pressure on states to expand charter schools, which are the “most segregated sector of schools for black students,” saying that it undermined “small positive steps in civil rights enforcement.”

The report offers a list of recommendations for reversing the current trend: making the public aware of the re-segregation trends; promoting diverse schools as highly desirable places to learn; enforcing laws that would encourage desegregation; renewing government policies that assist with integration; and creating regional magnet schools and regional pro-integration transfer programs.

On the media call, Orfield, a prominent desegregation expert, praised the Race to the Top program, encouraged school choice plans that would foster stable diverse schools, and advocated training programs for the thousands of schools that need help dealing with racial change.

(Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly characterized Oklahoma City v. Dowell. This 1991 ruling “made it easier for school districts and courts to dismantle desegregation plans,” according to the report.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.