We recently released a report on school segregation in the U.S. While we think that following national trends are helpful, and that lessons can be learned from one region to another, we also acknowledge that segregation looks different in each region, state, and metropolitan area. So, even though racial balance overall has been improving over the past 10 years as an average of all metropolitan areas in the U.S., the reality is that it’s been getting better in about 65 percent of cities and getting worse in the other 35 percent. We should definitely be working to learn best practices from those who are improving student integration to apply to areas that are getting worse.
Brown v. Board of Education really addressed de jure segregation, or laws that required that black and white students attend different schools. These laws were on the books in 17 southern states at the time of the landmark 1954 court case. States didn’t truly begin to integrate schools until the late 1960s, as the courts enforced Brown v. Board, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1968 court case Green v. County School Board of New Kent County. As the graph below shows, the South saw the greatest decrease of black students in racially isolated schools of any region from 1968 to 1989, as they were the ones that originally had segregation laws that were overturned. Court orders were in place in many southern school districts through the 1980s, with a few still being in place today.
What should also be noted in this graph is that the Northeast has the highest rate of black students in isolated school settings. Some of this may be attributable to having smaller school districts, which allows for more sorting and separation of students of different races and less ability for school district leaders to truly integrate schools if they have little diversity within their borders. However, Maryland has one of the highest rates of isolated schools for black students, despite having large, county-wide districts (Maryland also has a high proportion of black students). It may also be due to large, segregated urban areas that have greater impacts on statewide segregation rates. For example, New York City public schools have very few white students, which means that black students are isolated, weighing heavily on racial isolation statistics for the entire state. Nearly two-thirds of black students in the state of New York attend schools that are less than 10 percent white, making New York the most isolating state for black students. Chicago has a similar impact for Illinois.
Of the largest 25 metropolitan areas, Chicago has the highest dissimilarity rate between black and white students; 79 percent of black students would have to move to a school with more white students in order to achieve complete racial balance (in which all schools have equal proportions of each student group). While this, of course, is not practical, as families often live in segregated neighborhoods, it highlights the separation between students living in the same metropolitan area.
We can do better. We did do better, but we let gains in integration slide. School leaders need to start thinking innovatively across attendance zones and district boundaries to ensure that all students are exposed to a diverse set of peers and equal resources. That means having community support from parents who understand that diverse schools benefit all students.