The American student body is more diverse than ever. Nevertheless, public schools remain highly segregated along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.
That’s according to a report released Thursday by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). More than a third of students (about 18.5 million of them) attended a predominantly same-race/ethnic school in the 2020-21 school year, according to the report. And 14% of students attended schools where nearly all students were of one race/ethnicity.
The report follows a 2016 GAO survey of racial disparity in K-12 schools. That initial report painted a slightly worse picture, but the new report’s findings are still concerning, says Jackie Nowicki, director of K-12 education at GAO and lead author of the report.
“There is clearly still a racial divide in the schools,” Nowicki says. She adds that schools with large proportions of Hispanic, Black, and Native American/Alaska Native students — minority groups with higher poverty rates than white and Asian American students — are also increasing. “What that means is that you have a large portion of minority children who go not only to essentially segregated schools, but also to schools that have fewer resources available to them.”
“There are layers of factors here,” she says. “They paint a rather dire picture of the state of schooling for a segment of the school-age population that federal laws were meant to protect.”
School segregation occurs across the country
Segregation has always been associated with Southern Jim Crow laws. But the report finds that, in the 2020-2021 school year, the highest percentage of schools serving a predominantly monoracial/ethnic student population – whether predominantly white, predominantly Hispanic, or predominantly black, etc. – was found in the Northeast and Midwest.
School segregation has “always been a problem across the country,” says U.S. Representative Bobby Scott, D-Va., who heads the House Education and Labor Committee. He commissioned the 2016 and 2022 reports. “The details of the strategies may be different, but during the 60s and 70s, when desegregation cases were at their peak, cases were all over the country.”
GAO’s analysis also found school segregation across all school types, including traditional public schools, charter schools, and magnet schools. Across all charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, more than a third were predominantly same-race/ethnic, serving primarily black and Hispanic students.
There’s a story behind the report’s findings
Nowicki and his GAO team say they weren’t surprised by any of the report’s findings. They point to historic practices, like redlining, that have created racially segregated neighborhoods.
And because 70% of American students attend public schools in their neighborhood, Nowicki says, racially segregated neighborhoods have historically made racially segregated schools.
“There are historical reasons why neighborhoods look like this,” she explains. “And part of that is because of how our country chose to encourage or limit where people could live.”
Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited housing discrimination based on race, the GAO says that in some states, current legislation reinforces racially isolated communities.
“Our analysis showed that predominantly same-race/ethnic schools of different races/ethnicities exist in close proximity to each other within districts, but most often exist in neighboring districts,” the report said.
School district secessions worsened segregation
One of the causes of the lack of meaningful improvement, according to the GAO, is a practice known as district secession, where schools separate from an existing district – often citing the need for greater oversight. local – and form their own new district. The result, according to the report, is that segregation deepens.
“Over the 10 years we’ve looked at district secessions, we found that the vast majority of these new districts were generally whiter, wealthier than the remaining districts,” Nowicki said.
Six of the 36 district secessions identified in the report occurred in Memphis, Tenn., which experienced a historic district merger several years ago. Memphis City Schools, which served a predominantly non-white student body, dissolved in 2011 due to financial instability. It then merged with the neighboring district, Shelby County Schools, which served a predominantly wealthier white population.
Joris Ray was a Memphis City Schools Administrator at the time of the amalgamation. He recalls that residents of Shelby County were unhappy with the new consolidated district. They successfully split into six separate districts.
As a result, according to the GAO report, racial and socioeconomic segregation has grown in and around Memphis. All of the newly formed districts are whiter and wealthier than the one they left, which is now called Memphis-Shelby County Schools.
“This has negative implications for our students as a whole,” says Ray, who has led Memphis-Shelby County Schools since 2019. “Research has shown that students in more diverse schools have lower levels of bias and stereotypes and are more prepared for top employers to hire an increasingly diverse workforce.
The GAO report finds that this model — of municipalities pulling out of a larger district to form their own smaller school district — almost always creates more racial and socioeconomic segregation. Overall, new districts tend to have a higher proportion of white and Asian American students, and a lower proportion of black and Hispanic students, according to the report. The new districts also have significantly fewer students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty.
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