School Segregation Is Bad And Getting Worse, But It’s Supposed To Be Solved Voluntarily


Six decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that determined that segregating white and black children is unconstitutional, American schools are drifting back toward racial segregation.

Across the country, schools are resegregating, with 53 percent of black students whose districts were released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011 attending “apartheid” schools, where less than 1 percent of their classmates are white, according to an analysis by ProPublica. A 2012 report from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA also noted that schools with high-minority populations usually have low-income populations, making the schools economically homogeneous as well.

This economic and racial segregation of students has real and pernicious effects. Schools with overwhelmingly black and Hispanic student populations usually have fewer resources and attract less experienced teachers, have higher teacher turnover, and have higher dropout rates, putting students of color at a disadvantage. Students in segregated schools also tend to make smaller gains in reading, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

Of course, the isolation of black and Hispanic students is only one piece among other social and economic barriers that children of color face. But education experts say that desegregating schools could make a real difference in bridging the racial achievement gap. (And despite white families’ fears that an influx of black and Hispanic students will hurt their children’s academic achievement, white students don’t experience any decline in integrated settings.)

Students at Hartford’s Classical Magnet School leave classes for the day. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Students at Hartford’s Classical Magnet School leave classes for the day. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

There are a few major school systems making serious efforts to desegregate. In Connecticut, for instance, a 1996 court decision forced the state to make a plan to desegregate Hartford region schools, partly thanks to an intradistrict magnet school system, which helps attract white families to Hartford city schools, the region has made major progress toward integration. But a lot more work needs to be done. According to an April report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, as many as 73.6 percent of Hispanic students and 65.4 percent of black students were enrolled in intensely segregated schools in 2012–2013.

But effectively desegregating is easier said than done.

The struggle to integrate public schools

Efforts to desegregate schools are usually associated with busing. Under that model, mostly black and Hispanic students are bused from their neighborhoods in low-income, urban areas to attend mostly white schools in more affluent, suburban areas.


But busing isn’t very popular. Critics say it’s too costly, too forced, and too uncomfortable for everyone — an attitude that was responsible for the anti-busing movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The push to end busing eventually gained support from members of Congress, including the then-freshman Democratic Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, who voted for many of the Senate’s anti-busing bills. The opposition to busing heated up in places such as Boston, where white mobs threw bricks through bus windows. Soon, integration by busing waned.

“People grew away from ‘Why are we doing this in the first place?’”

“The Brown decision was a very lofty statement of principle, but in late ’60s and ’70s, because districts were dragging their feet, the debate got from ‘Why are we doing this?’ to ‘How are we doing this?’” said Erica Frankenberg, an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies in the College of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. “People grew away from ‘Why are we doing this in the first place?’ That was a real tactical misstep for integration activists because Nixon helped to reduce this to a busing issue and not an integration issue.”

This type of pushback continues today. In 2010, Wake County ended its busing program after members of the school board said the program was too costly and outdated, with one school board member, John Tedesco, remarking, “This is Raleigh in 2010, not Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s — my life is integrated.” Although the local tea party group supported the change, protesters came to voice their opinions outside of a school board meeting.

Students reading at Breakthrough South Magnet School. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Students reading at Breakthrough South Magnet School. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

Another thing that makes integration challenging is a general resistance to consider race as an important factor. According to Frankenburg, some experts suggest that school districts should distribute kids based solely on their economic status. But the data suggests otherwise.Even poor white populations live in better neighborhoods than poor black and Hispanic populations. When you look at the wealth gap between white people and black and Hispanic people, you find that the median white household had $111,146 in wealth compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household. Still, some experts suggest using a student’s neighborhood as a major factor instead of race to desegregate schools, since neighborhood and race are more likely to match up.


“I think race intersects with place in really important ways,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, but she adds that there is no substitute for considering race itself. “Even in the past six months we’ve been reminded in very visceral ways of the salience of race in this country, so completely minimizing it seems jarring when we see how central a role it still plays in society.”

The housing policies that keep schools segregated

The housing policies that reinforce a segregated school system began as an explicit effort to separate white populations from black populations, and the effects of those original intentions stay with us today, explained Colin Gordon, an expert on discriminatory housing policies and a history professor at the University of Iowa.

This dynamic often fits into what’s known as NIMBYism, or “Not In My Backyard.” State planners and developers typically say they agree that in principle there should be housing at a variety of price points, including support for low-income families — but maintain that is the plan for the whole city as opposed to “our neighborhood,” which should remain single-family homes rather than public housing.

“Often what you see, particularly in fragmented areas like St. Louis, is that people will acknowledge the need to do something about but it doesn’t translate into their corner of the metro area doing anything about it,” Gordon said. “So what you would have in discussions in St. Louis, in the ’50s and ’60s was that there should be housing for African Americans in St. Louis. It should exist, but it shouldn’t be ‘out here.’”

“It should exist, but it shouldn’t be ‘out here.’”

And now, because of the way municipalities are defined, school districts are often stratified by income in a way that directly affects school district funding. Because a relatively small number of homes became an affluent suburb and lack the variation in income, they have very high property taxes and a smaller number of students in the schools, which means those districts can more easily provide a higher quality education in comparison to municipalities where there is low-income housing and a lot of nonprofits that are exempt from property taxes in addition to schools serving a large number of students. According to Gordon, the criteria for defining a municipality makes very little sense. For example, a developer may put up a large swath of identical homes that don’t make sense as a town, since towns should have a mix of incomes and housing units.

Mariela, an eighth grader, says hello to third grade students at Breakthrough South Magnet School. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Mariela, an eighth grader, says hello to third grade students at Breakthrough South Magnet School. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

“It’s sort of a fiscal strategy, so if I have a bunch of property, not only do I get a lot of income from the property tax but you know because the houses are big and I don’t have a lot of kids in my schools, it doesn’t take much to run them, and the revenue is off the charts,” Gordon explained. “So if you have a ton of Section 8 housing and the schools are crowded, you have no money.”


There are some policies that can help address this dynamic. Gordon mentioned innovations in St. Paul, Minnesota-Minneapolis region, where every municipality gives a percentage of the money resulting from an increase in value from commercial and industrial property is thrown into a regional pool. Another solution could be to install a regional zoning board that provides more oversight for municipalities. In places like Hartford, where almost half of the property is non-taxable, the school district is especially dependent on state funding, a problem the superintendent of schools, Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, testified to earlier this year.

The suburbanization of the country, which has been going on for many decades, makes segregation even worse.

Now that white families have moved to more homogenous neighborhoods in the suburbs, it’s difficult to convince them to send their kids to diverse public schools in the city — especially when they already have high-quality schools in their own neighborhood bolstered by their property taxes. According to Pennsylvania State University’s Frankenburg, it’s also harder to desegregate the suburbs because it’s an area that hasn’t gone through the same history of integration attempts.

“Segregation is being implemented on a wider geographic scale.”

“When you look at political will, it’s more sustainable in districts that had recent and more importantly, positive, experiences with court-ordered desegregation, so suburbs of course are less likely to have that than urban districts,” Frankenberg said. “The critical support for the community that helps desegregation — It can be really hard to find an administrator or teacher of color to interview and almost impossible to find an active NAACP person to talk to, so when you don’t have really strong groups that are able to advocate for students of color coming into these white schools, it can be hard to keep foundation there.”

Even though students of color in urban areas face more segregation than students of color who live in the suburbs, there’s a higher rate of segregation in the suburbs than Frankenberg expected — which challenges the idea that school segregation is an inner city problem. “We also need the diversification of suburbia,” Frankenburg said. “What we’re seeing is that segregation is being implemented on a wider geographic scale, so though we see black and Latino and Asian families moving to the suburbs, they’re not moving to the suburban schools where white students are or they aren’t staying there.”

According to Dennis Parker, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program and the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in Connecticut’s Sheff v. O’Neill case, which ordered the Hartford school district to work on desegregating, it has been particularly challenging to get suburban schools to offer more seats to Hartford students. Only 2.68 percent of Hartford students attend suburban schools, and although more than 300 seats recently opened up to Hartford students, it’s a small share of a large student population looking to attend high-quality schools.

“I think there is particular frustration at the number of seats available in the suburbs and the amount of time and difficulty there has been in getting suburban school districts more Hartford students. The way it works now, the [education] commissioner’s role is basically just to reach out to the school districts and encourage them to make seats available, but that’s wholly up to the schools,” Parker said. “There has to be some objective way of measuring a fair number of seats that should be made available in each of the school districts. It’s hard to say if within the parameters that exist now whether they’re doing all that they can do, but you know, for whatever reason, we believe there is room for far more room for growth in the suburbs and we think it’s necessary that some action to increase the number of seats.”

Voluntary segregation may be the only path forward — but it’s not an easy one

Although there has been some recent enforcement of old court-ordered desegregation cases from the U.S. Department of Justice, the general trend is that courts have released schools of their court orders to desegregate. Meanwhile, many schools that do still have court orders to desegregate aren’t even aware their cases are open. Because there has been a significant slide in the courts’ enforcement of integration and recent U.S. Supreme Court cases have limited some of what school districts can do to integrate, only a few models for integration remain viable.

For instance, the 2007 case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 — which was about voluntary school desegregation efforts in Seattle, Washington, and Louisville, Kentucky — decided that schools may not use individualized racial categories to increase diversity. The court found that although schools may have a compelling interest in promoting diversity, they still have to use “serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives” to achieve this goal, as established in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, which centered around affirmative action policies.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Breakthrough South Campus Principal Julie Goldstein
CREDIT: Courtesy of Breakthrough South Campus Principal Julie Goldstein

It’s hard for schools to decide to integrate on their own, rather than to make a plan as the result of a court decision, such as Hartford’s Sheff v. O’Neill, said Derek Black, professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Black pointed out that the effort to get a more diverse mix of students is a struggle at the collegiate level. Trying to talk about race is even more challenging in public school districts. “It is political enough to consider in colleges let alone enough to do it high school, where there are elected board members. It’s a nonstarter,” he said.

One of the other challenges with voluntary desegregation is the fact that schools need the active participation of white families — and those families don’t always have the incentive to desegregate schools.

“The affluent largely white community doesn’t have a stake in the schools anymore, and you have to rely on the goodwill of people with no stake in the schools to provide the extra resources or else it fades out over time,” Siegel-Hawley, the educational leadership expert at Virginia Commonwealth University, said. “For the past few decades we’ve been pursuing policies that are about funneling resources to very segregated settings and allowing affluent, wealthy communities to be off the hook for being involved in the solution.”

What city officials could do to help

One way to desegregate schools would be to seriously invest in the city to make it more appealing and bring back some of the white population that left to live in the suburbs, said Bruce Douglas, director of the Connecticut Regional Education Cooperative, which runs several magnet schools and focuses on improving the quality of education in the state.

“There has been no discussion of using revitalization of the city as a tool for desegregating the schools, which would have been the best way to do it,” Douglas said.

For example, the Sarah J. Rawson Elementary School, which was considered a struggling school, has been turned around to include classes on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, as well as forming partnerships with various education and business groups. But it is one of few attempts at revitalization in the Connecticut city.

Parker would like to see an improved downtown as well, as long as it doesn’t negatively affect low-income families.

“The prospect of development also brings the prospect of gentrification and people being forced out of homes, and those are obviously not outcomes we would want,” he said. “But it would be desirable to have [a city] that provides fair housing for people and affordable housing but also deals with the current racial and ethnic isolation.”

Parker said he’s “hopeful” that Hartford’s new mayor-elect, Luke Bronin, may take on school desegregation through efforts to revitalize the city.

In an interview with The Hartford Courant, Bronin said “strengthening neighborhood schools,” which are under-enrolled and highly segregated, will be a priority for him, though he didn’t answer yes or no on whether or not he would close some neighborhood schools with low enrollment. It’s also unclear where he stands on certain zoning laws, though he told the Courant he plans to honor the “integrity” of certain zones, he wants to make sure zones aren’t too strict to allow for two unrelated people to live in single-family homes.

Bronin’s wife serves as the chairwoman of the city zoning and planning commission. The mayor-elect would not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.

What Congress and the U.S. Department of Education could do to help

There often isn’t enough financial support to ensure desegregation policies work as intended. Although there was some language in No Child Left Behind, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), to allow for more integration, there weren’t any teeth. The latest reauthorization of ESEA is in conference, but does not include any real incentives for desegregation.

“There was some language around cooperation, but no real incentives and no real assistance for doing it,” Siegel-Hawley said in reference to No Child Left Behind.

Black said that it would only take a few “simple measures” to use the ESEA to spur school integration. But people involved in the legislative effort may not want to rock the boat.

“I don’t know if it’s anti-integration stance, but I think that with ESEA money, there are vested interests and people don’t want to get less money than they got last time and it would cause a redistribution of resources,” he said.

“There are vested interests and people don’t want to get less money than they got last time.”

Although Congress may not act by including additional (why was additional added) desegregation measures in the ESEA reauthorization, the U.S. Department of Education could advocate for more funding for its magnet school assistance program, which has largely remained the same for the past few budget years while funding for programs that provide assistance to charter schools continues to grow. This may be because Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has been the education secretary since the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, has a long record of championing charter schools.

However, charter schools are not always the best path to integration, experts say, especially in comparison to magnet schools.

“Given that they’re just standalone schools and they’re part of the marketplace, they have to compete for dollars and students in order to survive — so you can understand why a school may say you as a student, for whatever reason, are hard to educate,” Frankenburg said. “They’re not going to say, ‘We don’t want your child here because of your race,’ but they may worry about whether that would give them too many subgroups or hurt their scores.”

That lack of focus on desegregation may change, however, now that Duncan is leaving in December and John King will take his place.

King has used federal money from the federal schools improvement grant to encourage schools to integrate as New York’s education commissioner, and recently said he hoped ESEA would include encouragement of diversity. According to The Washington Post, King has also said the department could use competitive grants to provide an incentive for integration — a tactic that Duncan has been criticized for not pursuing.

In response to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on whether King would pursue some of these integration efforts as secretary, a spokesperson for the department did not provide specific comment from King but cited some of his previous work as education commissioner.

In absence of a federal initiative, schools remain highly segregated, even those in Hartford, where educators, city and state officials, and the Sheff plaintiffs are actively taking steps to desegregate the school system. Although 47.5 percent of Hartford students are attending desegregated schools, the majority still attend segregated schools, which is a huge concern to Parker, an ACLU lawyer for the Sheff plaintiffs.

“Now there is such a sharp disparity between the magnet schools and the non-magnet schools,” Parker said.

He added that while Hartford has made tremendous progress compared to when the lawsuit against the state first began, the work is far from finished.

“If I just condemned the state and said nothing good has happened, that wouldn’t be true,” Parker said. “But I don’t think we can afford to sit back and relax and say, ‘Well things are better so therefore we’ve done what we had to.’”