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70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, new research shows rise in school segregation

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A new report from researchers at Stanford and USC shows that racial and economic segregation among schools has grown steadily in large school districts over the past 30 years — an increase that appears to be driven by policy decisions, not demographic changes. (Photo: Shutterstock)

70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, new research shows rise in school segregation

Researchers at Stanford and USC launch the Segregation Explorer, a website providing data on segregation trends and patterns across the United States.

As the nation prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, a new report from researchers at Stanford and USC shows that racial and economic segregation among schools has grown steadily in large school districts over the past three decades — an increase that appears to be driven in part by policies favoring school choice over integration.

Analyzing data from U.S. public schools going back to 1967, the researchers found that segregation between white and Black students has increased by 64 percent since 1988 in the 100 largest districts, and segregation by economic status has increased by about 50 percent since 1991.

The report also provides new evidence about the forces driving recent trends in school segregation, showing that the expansion of charter schools has played a major role.  

The findings were released on May 6 with the launch of the Segregation Explorer, a new interactive website from the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University. The website provides searchable data on racial and economic school segregation in U.S. states, counties, metropolitan areas, and school districts from 1991 to 2022. 

“School segregation levels are not at pre-Brown levels, but they are high and have been rising steadily since the late 1980s,” said Sean Reardon, the Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford Graduate School of Education and faculty director of the Educational Opportunity Project. “In most large districts, school segregation has increased while residential segregation and racial economic inequality have declined, and our findings indicate that policy choices – not demographic changes – are driving the increase.” 

“There’s a tendency to attribute segregation in schools to segregation in neighborhoods,” said Ann Owens, a professor of sociology and public policy at USC. “But we’re finding that the story is more complicated than that.”

Assessing the rise

In the Brown v. Board decision issued on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and established that “separate but equal” schools were not only inherently unequal but unconstitutional. The ruling paved the way for future decisions that led to rapid school desegregation in many school districts in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Though segregation in most school districts is much lower than it was 60 years ago, the researchers found that over the past three decades, both racial and economic segregation in large districts increased. Much of the increase in economic segregation since 1991, measured by segregation between students eligible and ineligible for free lunch, occurred in the last 15 years.

White-Hispanic and white-Asian segregation, while lower on average than white-Black segregation, have both more than doubled in large school districts since the 1980s. 

Racial-economic segregation – specifically the difference in the proportion of free-lunch-eligible students between the average white and Black or Hispanic student’s schools – has increased by 70 percent since 1991. 

School segregation is strongly associated with achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups, especially the rate at which achievement gaps widen during school, the researchers said.  

“Segregation appears to shape educational outcomes because it concentrates Black and Hispanic students in higher-poverty schools, which results in unequal learning opportunities,” said Reardon, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and a faculty affiliate of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning

Policies shaping recent trends 

The recent rise in school segregation appears to be the direct result of educational policy and legal decisions, the researchers said. 

Both residential segregation and racial disparities in income declined between 1990 and 2020 in most large school districts. “Had nothing else changed, that trend would have led to lower school segregation,” said Owens. 

But since 1991, roughly two-thirds of districts that were under court-ordered desegregation have been released from court oversight. Meanwhile, since 1998, the charter sector – a form of expanded school choice – has grown.

Expanding school choice could influence segregation levels in different ways: If families sought schools that were more diverse than the ones available in their neighborhood, it could reduce segregation. But the researchers found that in districts where the charter sector expanded most rapidly in the 2000s and 2010s, segregation grew the most. 

The researchers’ analysis also quantified the extent to which the release from court orders accounted for the rise in school segregation. They found that, together, the release from court oversight and the expansion of choice accounted entirely for the rise in school segregation from 2000 to 2019.

The researchers noted enrollment policies that school districts can implement to mitigate segregation, such as voluntary integration programs, socioeconomic-based student assignment policies, and school choice policies that affirmatively promote integration. 

“School segregation levels are high, troubling, and rising in large districts,” said Reardon. “These findings should sound an alarm for educators and policymakers.”

Additional collaborators on the project include Demetra Kalogrides, Thalia Tom, and Heewon Jang. This research, including the development of the Segregation Explorer data and website, was supported by the Russell Sage Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 


Faculty mentioned in this article: sean reardon

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