Equity & Diversity Opinion

Why Suburbs Need Integration Plans

By Erica Frankenberg & Gary Orfield — October 22, 2012 6 min read
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We are a predominantly suburban nation, with suburbia considered the center of our society and politics for decades. Decades ago, suburbs resisted helping the cities in crafting solutions associated with racial change, but now suburban communities face similar challenges. Already, most students of color in many metropolitan areas attend school in the suburbs. Presidential-election campaigns focus on residents of middle-class suburbs, but civil rights policy—such as the housing integration effort proposed by Mitt Romney’s father during the Nixon administration—directed at the suburbs and their schools has been long absent.

As we write in a just-published book on the subject, millions of African-American and Latino families have moved to the suburbs, and neighborhood and school segregation by race and class is rapidly on the rise. This suburban racial transformation is multiracial: In the period from 1999-2000 to 2006-07, Latinos accounted for more than 70 percent of the growth of the nation’s suburban enrollment, while the percentage of suburban whites declined in most metropolitan areas.

The reality is that when suburban schools resegregate, they usually move toward a poorer student population with lower levels of peer-group competition."

How suburban schools and communities handle demographic change will make a deep impact on the future of our children, the development of communities and, in the aggregate, race relations in America. Policy discussion has been so dominated by test scores and accountability issues that we are sleeping through these portentous changes, which are unlikely to work out well without a coherent response. In a society where race has always been profoundly linked to educational opportunity and a community’s future, we pretend that just raising the bar on student scores and teacher accountability will solve inequality. Thus it falls to suburban school districts to shape the destiny of America’s multiracial middle class and a growing segment of the poor of all races, but most of these communities remain unprepared to deal with the massive social changes occurring there.

Press coverage and court action about segregation issues often focus on cities, which have long had few whites in their schools and little desegregation. There is scant research on how suburban districts are grappling with racial change. It is even difficult to find information on this topic in educational literature despite the fact that—based on urban districts’ experiences—it is likely such demographic transformation of suburbia will have major implications for schools, teachers, and students. This is why we decided to study suburbs across the country and look at how school districts were conceptualizing and responding to racial and economic change.

In our study of seven suburban districts, we found little evidence of any comprehensive response, despite substantial resegregation. We did find, in every district, some helpful decisions or initiatives. They were, however, often carried out on a small scale, and sometimes other policies simultaneously contradicted these efforts. Most responses to change were focused on professional development for teachers and on classroom-level changes. Education and community leaders failed to conceptualize integration in a positive way or do much to mobilize for integration—which may explain the lack of a comprehensive response. In most districts, there was little pressure from community groups to create more integrated schools.

In fact, what pressure that did exist was often from privileged communities wanting to be rezoned to avoid diversity, possibly violating civil rights law. School choice policies in some districts created more inequality and possibly increased resegregation. Yet, there was also a sense from school leaders that, by the time the issue became publicly visible, they had waited too long to address the change, limiting future policy options. They received little or no guidance or assistance from state and federal officials or professional associations.

Schools alone cannot solve this demographic challenge. We believe it must be a collaboration between schools, municipalities, and, if possible, the federal government’s school, housing, and civil rights agencies. At the same time, recognition of the changes occurring, followed by serious responses from educational leaders, must happen in order to prevent replicating the segregation process of city districts in suburbia on a far larger scale. Unlike central-city districts, which were often the largest systems in the region at the time of racial transition, suburban districts in the path of racial change are, in many cases, just a small fraction of the overall suburban enrollment. This limits the ability of schools and small districts—particularly when not coordinated with housing efforts—to stabilize change before it goes beyond the reach of local initiatives.


The reality is that when suburban schools resegregate, they usually move toward a poorer student population with lower levels of peer-group competition. They often lose their stronger teachers and administrators, who may not be prepared to deal with diversity and may not want to be blamed under accountability policies for the often less-prepared students moving in. In other work analyzing the survey responses of hundreds of teachers in diverse schools, we found that teachers in stably diverse schools reported more positive school environments as compared with their peers working in schools under rapid transition. Teachers in stably diverse schools believed their faculty peers were more capable of addressing the needs of students from different racial backgrounds, noticed less racial tension and student self-segregation, and thought the school was safer. It’s likely that these conditions would make it easier to retain and attract a higher-quality, experienced teaching force, and that the educational experience for students in these schools would be more positive.

It is also essential that we understand how doing nothing allows resegregation to continue and increase rapidly, all while the suburbs need help. Under the almost exclusive focus on test scores, we have virtually ignored the massive transformation of large sectors of suburbia. Teachers and administrators need serious training, not sets of inaccurate stereotypes from consultants who occasionally come in for a day. Student-assignment and choice plans need to be designed to support stable and positive diversity, not to merely placate white and Asian families who wish to avoid the district’s more diverse schools. Staffs also need to be integrated. Educators need to work with fair-housing and community-development officials to prevent racial steering. Because racial change is often very apparent in the earliest grades long before it affects the overall population, there needs to be a close watch on demographic trends. Regional collaboration, such as regional magnet schools, could be a great help in this process.

There is a tidal wave of change crossing swaths of suburbia. Pretending it does not exist is deeply destructive, and eventually surrenders suburbia to a fate similar to that of many urban communities a generation ago, only on a wider geographic scale. Communities that achieve lasting integration prosper and are attractive to all groups. If regions, municipalities, and districts can find a way to act early and effectively, the future of both the children and the community as a whole will be enhanced.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Diversity or Resegregation?


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