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Equity & Diversity

Share of High-Poverty, Racially Isolated Schools Rising, GAO Report Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 17, 2016 5 min read
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Exactly 62 years after a famous Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional, segregation in American education is not just alive, it is apparently thriving.

The percentage of U.S. schools in which students mostly are black and Hispanic students and also from low-income backgrounds has risen in the last several years, a condition associated with schools that have fewer resources and important academic opportunities for students, a congressional watchdog agency reported Tuesday.

The report from the Government Accountability Office, “Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination,” also found disparities in discipline policies between those schools and their wealthier counterparts with smaller shares of black and Hispanic students.

In addition to highlighting instances where states and districts attempted to address the issue, the report also recommends that the U.S. Department of Education track civil rights data more routinely to highlight disparities between different schools. It also says the U.S. Department of Justice should track data related to open school desegregation cases.

School integration and diversity, and the lack thereof in American public education, have become a more significant part of discussions about education policy and politics recently. President Barack Obama’s administration put a priority on economic integration in various parts of its recently proposed federal budget. And Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. has said that making schools more racially diverse and socioecomically integrated is a powerful way to improve educational outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students.

These sorts of findings are not new. In 2014, for example, we covered a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights that highlighted relatively thin academic offerings for many minority students, among other disparities between students of color and their peers.

The GAO prepared its new report at the request of Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the ranking member of the House education committee, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. and ranking member of the House judiciary committee. The data covers the academic years from 2000-01 to 2013-14. The report was released on the 62nd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal.

Broadly speaking, what does the increase of economically and racially isolated schools look like? Here’s a chart from the GAO report to answer that:

The GAO also found that while most of these disadvantaged, racially segregated schools with large shares of low-incomes students continue to be traditional schools, the share of charter and magnet schools qualifying as racially and economically isolated increased from 2000-01 to 2013-14.

“An extensive body of research over the past 10 years shows a clear link between schools’ socioeconomic (or income) composition and student academic outcomes,” the GAO report says.

And on a related theme, the GAO says there’s a clear correlation between high-poverty schools with mostly black or Hispanic schools and their course offerings. Take a look at the math classes offered by these schools, compared to those offered in their wealthier counterparts with smaller shares of black and Hispanic students:

The report also examines various approaches districts have taken to increase racial and economic integration. For example, the report highlighted one (unnamed) district in the South that said a school could be considered “diverse” if it met at least one of the following measures:

  • enrolls multiple racial/ethnic groups, and no single group represents more than 50 percent of the school’s total enrollment;
  • enrolls at least three racial/ethnic groups, and each represents at least 15 percent of the school’s total enrollment; or
  • enrolls at least two racial/ethnic groups, and each represents at least 30 percent of the school’s total enrollment;

... As well as at least two of the following measures:

  • percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-priced meals is at least two-thirds the average of other schools,
  • percentage of English-learners is at least two-thirds the average of other schools, or
  • percentage of students with a disability is at least two-thirds the average of other schools.

Other stats from the report include these:

  • Of the more than 93,000 K-12 schools in this country, 90% are traditional public schools, 7% are charter institutions, and 3% are magnet centers.
  • In reviewing data from school years 2000-01 and 2013-14, racial and socioeconomic isolation in K-12 public schools grew from 9 to 16 percent. In that same period, students who were eligible for free or reduced-lunch increased by 143%.
  • Sixty-one percent of all high poverty schools are populated by at least 75% students of color. Hispanic students were the largest minority group (25%) of the total student population in schools for school year 2013-14, compared to Black students at 16%.
  • Black and Hispanic students have poverty rates that are 2-3 times higher than the rates of White students.
  • The growth in racial and socioeconomic isolation was concentrated in schools where 75-100% of the students were Black or Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

UPDATE: Scott also announced yesterday that he was introducing legislation in Congress to address the issue. HR 5260 would amend Title VI of the Civil Rights Act “to restore the right to individual civil actions in cases involving disparate impact” and other purposes. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin for programs receiving federal assistance. The bill was referred to the House education committee.

Despite the recent priority put on integration and diversity by King and others, not everyone believes that integration should be an educational lodestar. Education advocate and blogger Chris Stewart, for example, who works for Education Post, has argued that integration itself “is not a high enough aim to suspend expectation that black children learn in their current environments. Segregated or not, we know they can achieve.”

Photo: George E.C. Hayes, left, Thurgood Marshall, center, and James M. Nabrit, the lawyers who led the fight before the U.S. Supreme Court for abolition of segregation in public schools, descend the court steps in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 1954, after the court ruled that segregation is unconstitutional. (AP-File)

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