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New 'Segregation Index' shows American schools remain highly segregated by race, ethnicity and economic status

Photo of parent and student walking toward school bus
Segregation is growing in the nation’s largest districts, according to new findings from researchers at Stanford and USC. (Photo: SDI Productions)

New 'Segregation Index' shows American schools remain highly segregated by race, ethnicity and economic status

Researchers at Stanford and USC developed a new tool to track neighborhood and school segregation in the U.S.

As the nation marks the 68th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, a new project from researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education and USC shows American schools remain highly racially and economically segregated and that segregation is growing in the nation’s largest districts.

White-Black segregation between schools within large school districts increased 35 percent, and segregation between poor and non-poor students increased by 47 percent over the past 30 years, according to the Segregation Index, a comprehensive new resource for tracking neighborhood and school segregation in the U.S.

Researchers said most school segregation in the U.S. occurs between school districts. In other words, students are unevenly enrolled across school districts by race/ethnicity or economic status. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is 74 percent Latino and 11 percent white, while neighboring Beverly Hills Unified is only 9 percent Latino and 69 percent white.

However, “we found racial/ethnic and economic school segregation between schools, within the same school districts, has also increased over the past three decades in large districts,” said Ann Owens, professor of sociology and public policy and associate director of the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation.

“We know segregation leads to unequal educational opportunities and outcomes, so the rapid growth of segregation in large districts indicates that we need a renewed focus on reducing segregation and equalizing educational opportunity,” said Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Key findings on U.S. school segregation

  • In large school districts, white-Black segregation between schools increased 35 percent and white-Asian segregation more than doubled from 1991 to 2020. White-Hispanic segregation was higher in 2020 than in 1991, peaking in the late 2000s.
  • Three large school districts – LAUSD, Philadelphia and New York City – all fall in the top 10 most racially segregated for white-Black, white-Hispanic, and white-Asian segregation based on average levels from 1991-2020.
  • In large school districts, segregation between poor (students who are eligible for free lunch) and non-poor students increased by 47 percent since 1991.
    • In 2020, the poverty rate in the average poor student’s school was about 20 percentage points higher than in the average non-poor student’s school in the same district

Addressing segregation 70 years after Brown v. Board

In the Brown v. Board ruling on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously decided 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. Decades later, education remains deeply unequal.

The creators of the Segregation Index acknowledge that educational policymakers can’t control things like housing affordability, income inequality, the racial wealth gap, migration patterns or families’ neighborhood choices, all of which contribute to school segregation. But, they say, school districts can implement enrollment policies to mitigate segregation, including voluntary integration programs, socioeconomic-based student assignment policies, and school choice policies that affirmatively promote integration. 

Policymakers must also invest in public education so that schools attract families from all backgrounds and develop teachers and school leadership skilled at educating children in integrated spaces. Finally, state and national policies should hold the schooling system accountable for promoting equity through integration and resource distribution metrics, the researchers say.

Reducing school segregation is not easy, but it’s critical, they add, because school segregation – along with neighborhood segregation – remains a key barrier to social mobility and equal opportunity.

“Our findings point to an urgent need to address rising segregation in large districts,” said Owens. “We hope the Segregation Index will help urban, housing and education policymakers understand how their policy areas are intertwined so they can work toward integration solutions.”

About the Segregation Index

The Segregation Index launched in May 2022 with new findings on school segregation. The index will be a comprehensive resource for tracking neighborhood and school segregation in the U.S., across every neighborhood and every school.

Additional data and resources coming soon include:

  • Longitudinal datasets on racial/ethnic and economic segregation between schools and neighborhoods at multiple levels of geography (e.g., national, metropolitan area, school district)
  • Research papers and briefs on key trends and findings
  • Methodological explainers on interpreting measures of segregation
  • Code for researchers to create customize segregation estimates


This work has been supported in part by the Russell Sage Foundation. 


A version of this story was originally published on USC News. This was reposted with permission.

Faculty mentioned in this article: sean reardon

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