A new analysis by the Center for American Progress, which examined 1,700 large public school districts across the country, shows that public schools are in as much need of integration today as they were 100 years ago.
The report finds that millions of students attend highly segregated schools, with four out of 10 U.S. public school districts experiencing intense economic isolation.
A two-year research project, CAP’s report examines class-based economic segregation across the nation, and it features a new interactive data tool that generates “segregation scores” for most large urban districts in all 50 states, covering 60 percent of the student population.
The report also examined public opinion on this issue. Using survey data and focus groups, the report finds that the public underestimates the problem of economic segregation in schools. While Americans believe that school diversity issues exist, they are not fully aware of how pervasive the problem is, according to Ulrich Boser and Perpetual Baffour, the report’s authors.
“At a time when President Donald Trump has used divisive rhetoric to threaten many of the bonds that hold modern Americans together, public schools can serve as critical space to bring people closer to teach and embrace the nation’s diversity. This report outlines and encourages policies to move our educational system to a place where it reflects the country as a whole,” said Boser, senior fellow at CAP. “The report comes at a time when a wave of research shows that students perform better in diverse classrooms,” he said in a news release.
According to the report, most Americans are not aware of these shared benefits of diverse schools. Nonetheless, support for reform remains high. According to the report, 70 percent of Americans support the economic integration of schools.
“Class-based segregation remains deeply entrenched in the educational system despite public support for more diverse schools,” said Baffour, research associate at CAP. “It’s time for local, state and federal leaders to tackle the pervasive and insidious problem of segregation.”
CAP’s report profiles a variety of policy solutions for federal, state, local, and district leaders, from weighted student lotteries to innovative housing policies. The report also finds that parents believe in school diversity in theory, but they generally reject policies that limit the educational options for their child.
The report calls for policymakers to be more innovative in their approach to solving the problem of income segregation in schools.
CAP’s report focuses on economic segregation rather than racial segregation as a result of a growing number of schools and districts that have integrated based on students’ socioeconomic status rather than by race or ethnicity.
Part of this shift is a result of a Supreme Court opinion limiting the use of race and ethnicity in school integration plans.
The District has one of the nation’s highest-quality preschool programs but it’s also segregated. A separate published report noted that, in the 2013-14 school year, 86 percent of the city’s black pre-K students attended what experts call “racially isolated” schools where fewer than 10 percent of students are white.
For the 2016-17 school year, the waiting list for D.C. pre-K classes skyrocketed into the thousands. More than 4,000 preschoolers were on waiting lists in traditional and public charter schools.
White 3- and 4-year-olds represent 15 percent of pre-K students in D.C. in the current school year, up from 11 percent in 2013-14. The black and Hispanic shares dropped slightly over the same period.
Most of D.C.’s black pre-K students attended schools where the African-American share of enrollment was 90 percent or higher, although school officials point out that the city has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of black residents, the report said. Nearly two-thirds of the city’s Hispanic preschoolers also attended racially isolated nonwhite schools.
The District also has the nation’s highest overall enrollment rate of both 3- and 4-year-olds in pre-K: 84 percent of 4-year-olds and 70 percent of the city’s 3-year-olds attend public preschool, according to the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which monitors the programs. Those figures don’t include children who attend private preschools.
A majority of D.C. pre-K students — nearly 6,700 — attend charter schools. More than 5,900 of them attend traditional public schools, and about 600 attend community-based child care centers, according to city data confirmed by the DCPS and the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
“This is a reality that is not simply fixed by a single law. What we should be looking at and deconstructing are the ways in which segregation of schools de facto have continued to grow over the decades since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954,” said Allen E. Lipscomb of the College of Social & Behavioral Science at California State University, Northridge. “We need to look at how economic segregation and institutional racism in the United States promotes privileges within and outside of school systems whereby providing an avenue for school segregation to continue. We must be passionately committed to not allow history repeat itself. Thus ensuring all education related laws be overt in eliminating and mitigating school segregation.”
There have been some limited gains in integration, and increasingly a serious amount of backsliding, said Michael W. Apple, a John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The more conservative courts have removed some of the legal requirements and have given more space for districts to avoid or even dismantle policies that would increase integration, Apple said.
“The economic crisis has made many white parents fearful of sending their children to what they think are underperforming schools — usually a code word for schools that have a high percentage of students of color — thereby performing whiteness,” he said. “The growing emphasis on voucher plans and charter schools and the right’s ability to convince people that public school problems can only be solved by choice and marketization also strongly contributes to white flight. The growing power of [conservatives] has made the unsayable, sayable and the undoable, doable, by making it legitimate to act in ways that have clear racializing effects.
“Given all this and more, I am not optimistic that we will see a large move toward integration in the near future,” he said.