Equity & Diversity

Public Schools Are Still Segregated. But These Tools Can Help

By Eesha Pendharkar — June 07, 2023 4 min read
Dennis K. Bordley, 6, right, one of the first two black children at a previously segregated all-white school, Caesar Rodney Elementary School in Camden-Wyoming, Del., strides along with hand in pocket on the way to first grade, Sept. 9, 1959.
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Public schools in the United States remain racially and socioeconomically segregated, confirms a report by the Department of Education released this month.

The report was released in May, the same week as the 69th anniversary of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools is unconstitutional.

In 2021, Congress directed the agency to analyze and release information on racial and economic segregation using its internal data.

The report outlines the ongoing problem of school segregation, emphasizes the advantages of diverse schools based on decades of research, and offers some solutions for districts wanting to desegregate and foster diversity. Simultaneously, the Education Department announced grant funding districts can apply for to help with efforts to foster socioeconomic, racial, or cultural diversity in schools.

The report also lists existing federal policies and grants, which can serve as funding sources for districts wanting to adopt measures against segregated schools, and provide equitable opportunities and access to all students.

The Education Department did not respond to requests for comment about the report.

Segregation seems to have increased over the past three decades

After the Supreme Court outlawed racially segregated schools with Brown v. Board of Education, the department passed a series of federal statutes that helped to make public education accessible and equitable.

Desegregation efforts may have been associated with improvements in educational outcomes, the report says. However, the gains in school diversity reversed by the 1990s, according to 2018 research by the Learning Policy Institute.

Minority student enrollment numbers have continued to grow in public schools, with white students now making up less than half of all students enrolled in public schools, according to 2022 enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

But the report says that, between 1991 and 2000, segregation between white students and Black students increased, and between 2000 and 2020, it remained unchanged. Socioeconomic isolation likely increased between 1998 and 2020.

In segregated schools, students don’t often have teachers who share similar backgrounds, according to the report. Black teachers make up only 6 percent of the profession in public schools, yet Black people comprise 14 percent of the U.S. population and 15 percent of the K-12 public school student population, according to the report. Federal funds have not been enough to offset these local inequities, the report found.

“Students are going to very different types of schools depending on their races,” said Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography and director of the center for education and civil rights at Pennsylvania State University.

For all students to succeed, districts need to work to ensure diversity and focus on desegregation efforts with the help of the federal government, Frankenberg said.

Research has shown that students in diverse schools have stronger academic outcomes than students in schools with concentrated poverty. They’re more likely to enroll in college, less likely to drop out of school, and more likely to be civically engaged, according to a 2019 report by The Century Foundation.

Meanwhile, racially and socioeconomically segregated schools often have less access to the resources and funding needed to ensure that high quality educational opportunities are provided for all students, according to a 2015 report from Stanford University. That means students from low-income backgrounds and students of color are less likely than higher income and white peers to have access to the learning experiences and opportunities that prepare them for college or career success, the Education Department report says.

The report found that three in five Black and Latino students and two in five American Indian or Alaska Native students attend schools where at least 75 percent of the enrollment is students of color, whereas about half of white students attend schools in which students of color make up less than 25 percent, according to the department of education report.

Solutions for districts wanting to foster diversity

Districts wanting to address segregation in their schools have options to seek federal funds, according to the report.

A newly announced program allows districts to apply for grants to help fund their plans to increase socioeconomic diversity, according to the program website. They can also make a case for applying to improve racial diversity, according to a press release.

The grant program website includes a guide for districts to follow if they choose to apply.

In the report, the department also lists existing federal policies and funding districts can use to address desegregation. These include:

  • The Magnet Schools Assistance Program, which offers grants to districts to operate magnet schools if they’re established with the goal of desegregation.
  • The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act for transportation to overcome the historical barriers put in place by policies such as redlining, a now-outlawed practice that was used to separate the wealthier neighborhoods from more racially diverse, poorer ones.
  • Various grants are available to colleges—particularly historically Black colleges and universities and higher education institutions that serve minority populations—to train more educators of color.

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