“These are dramatic shifts.”
For Penn State University education professor Erica Frankenberg, that’s the big takeaway from a new analysis of demographic changes in America’s suburban public schools conducted by the EdWeek Research Center.
The analysis updates a study at the heart of groundbreaking 2012 book called The Resegregation of Suburban Schools, co-edited by Frankenberg and UCLA professor Gary Orfield.
Back then, the researchers found that between 1999 and 2006, the share of white students attending public schools in the suburbs of the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas had declined by almost 9 percentage points, indicating significant racial change. Still, Frankenberg and Orfield determined, white children constituted a solid majority—almost 60 percent—of suburban public-school students in those areas during the 2006-07 school year.
To better understand how things changed in the years that followed, the EdWeek Research Center worked with Frankenberg to examine enrollment trends in roughly 30,000 public schools across America’s 25 largest metropolitan areas between 2006-07 and 2017-18.
During that period, some suburban schools closed, opened, or changed their attendance zones. Students in the closed schools were disproportionately white, and students in the new schools were disproportionately non-white. The boundaries of some metropolitan statistical areas also were redrawn, and the National Center for Education Statistics adjusted some of its racial/ethnic classifications (adding “two or more races” and “Pacific Islander,” for example). As a result of such changes, Education Week’s analysis represents a conservative estimate that likely underplays the population shifts in the areas studied.
Still, the results show that the diversification of America’s suburban public schools has accelerated dramatically. Following are seven key data points to know:
White students are no longer a majority of suburban public school students, accounting for 48 percent of total enrollment in the suburbs of the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas. The number of white students attending these schools fell from nearly 7 million in 2006-07 to 5.5 million in 2017-18, a drop of nearly 20 percent.
During the same period, the number Hispanic, Asian, Pacific-Islander, and multi-racial students in suburban public schools rose by 1.4 million.
Between 2006-07 and 2017-18, the share of Hispanic students in the suburbs of America’s largest metros rose 7 percentage points, to just over 27 percent. The number of Hispanic students attending these suburban public schools rose from roughly 2.3 million to about 3.1 million.
During the same period, the number of Asian suburban public-school students rose by nearly 17 percent, to roughly 870,000.
As of the 2017-18 school year, newly counted students of two or more races accounted for 4 percent of suburban public school enrollment. That new multi-racial category may partially explain why the number of Black students in suburban public schools fell from about 1.55 million in 2006-07 to about 1.45 million in 2017-18. White enrollment was also likely impacted.
+10 percentage points
In 2017-18, about 40 percent of public school students in the suburbs of the nation’s 25 largest metros were eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch (a rough indicator of poverty.) That was up from about 30 percent in 2006-07.
-10 percentage points
In 2017-18, fewer than 6 percent of suburban students attended public schools that were at least 90 percent white. That figure was down more than 10 percentage points from 2006-07.
Across the country, the changes are fueling policy shifts and political tensions in suburban communities such as Chandler, Ariz., where the public schools were 49.9 percent white at the start of this school year.
“Very few suburban school systems are oases of overwhelming whiteness now,” Frankenberg said. “All districts need to have plans in place for educating and welcoming diverse students.”
Benjamin Herold was a 2019-20 Spencer Fellow in Education Journalism at Columbia University. His book on suburban public schools and the American Dream will be published by Penguin Press in 2022.