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Our Segregated Capital: An Increasingly Diverse City with Racially Polarized Schools

Authors: Gary Orfield, Jongyeon Ee
Date Published: February 09, 2017

This report, the last of a series on 13 states and districts, analyzes the magnitude and trend of racial segregation and its educational consequence among schools in the District of Columbia.
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Executive Summary

Washington was one of the first districts ordered to desegregate by the Supreme Court in l954 when segregation by law was ruled unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. The DC plan that was implemented was not busing or other mandatory desegregation but neighborhood schools, and the city had almost completely resegregated before the busing issue arose elsewhere in the l970s. For decades the city became more and more African American and the school system had only a handful of white students. Since 1980, however, the white population of Washington has climbed considerably, and the black population has dropped sharply because of the exodus of the black middle class, so there no longer is a black majority in DC. From 1980 to 2010 the city’s black population fell 31% while the white population grew 35% and the Latino population soared 210% from a small base. Shortly afterwards the city reached a non-black majority for the first time in more than a half century.

The highly diverse population has not been reflected substantially in school enrollment. The schools are much more segregated than the city or the metro area. Residential segregation remains high in the city but isolation in schools is substantially greater. In other words, many people who live in diverse communities are sending their children to segregated schools.

The District of Columbia enrolls only about one-twelfth of the students in its huge metropolitan area and it has two school systems: District of Columbia Public Schools (called public schools, in this report) and District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, which is not a system but a collection of widely varying publicly funded schools independently run by non-public bodies (called charter schools). During the 2013-2014 school year the public schools served 43,307 students and the charters 32,416 students. Both had large black majorities, but the public schools had more diversity with two-thirds (67% ) blacks, one sixth (17%) Latinos, 13% whites, and 2% Asians. In contrast, African American and Latino students comprised 93% of the total charter enrollment where the combined whites and Asian students were slightly more than 5%.

The District of Columbia’s total enrollment in public and charter schools dropped less than 3% from 1992 to 2013, but there was a major redistribution to the charter school sector. In 2013 total enrollment was close to 76,000. The African American share of the total school enrollment declined from 89% to 73% between 1992 and 2013. The percentage of white students doubled over the last two decades from 4% to 9%. The Latino proportion also increased by 8.7 percentage points, and one seventh of students in DC were Latino in 2013. The Asian share remained unchanged as Asian numbers soared in the suburbs.

Since the charter school movement started in DC in l996 the District’s private school enrollment has plummeted in spite of tuition vouchers, except for white students whose private enrollment is basically unchanged. Many students of color left private schools for charter schools, sometimes the same school converted to a charter. The city also has a small voucher program which helps pay the cost of participating private schools for a few thousand students from low income families.

The charter schools overall have a less diverse and more segregated enrollment than the public schools. Though they are much newer and developed in a period of rapidly increasing diversity in the city, they have attracted few whites and Asians.

Black students are by far the most segregated group in the city and the region by race and poverty. The historic extreme segregation of the public schools has modestly diminished while the much newer charters have an even higher level of racial separation.

There has been some gradual and modest progress in reducing segregation. The overall share of African American and Latino students who attended intensely segregated schools (90-100% nonwhite schools) and apartheid schools (99-100% nonwhite schools) decreased between 1992 and 2013 but remained very high. For African American students, nearly 90% of Washington black students went to apartheid schools in 1992, but the percentage dropped to 71% in 2013.

Schools segregated by race and class have, on average, clearly weaker educational outcomes.

In 2013, the combined share of whites and Asians was approximately 10% in the District of Columbia public schools, but these students, on average, attended schools where nearly half of their classmates were white and Asian. In contrast, the combined share of African American, Latino, and Native American students were 88% in 2013, but 93% of the classmates of these students came from the same groups. The region’s growing Latino enrollment is largely outside the District.

Latino students are a relatively small sector in the city and are significantly less segregated in the city than black students and far less segregated than Latinos are at a national level

The patterns of intense double segregation are by poverty as well as race. Racial segregation is strongly related to segregation by concentrated poverty, and this double segregation is strongly related to the highly unequal educational outcomes. There are very intense economic and educational gaps by race in DC.

Students from poor families comprise 67% and 57% of black and Latino students’ classmates, respectively, in 2013 while white students in DC had less than one-fourth poor classmates in their schools in the same year.

In Washington gentrification often involves predominantly white home buyers moving into what had been an historic African American area creating diverse neighborhoods at least for some time as the process unfolds. Gentrification as well as massive black suburbanization have played a major role in changing the share of black and white residents.

In comparing public and charter schools of the District of Columbia, double segregation – segregation by race and poverty -- was higher in the charter schools where nearly three- fourths of the students were low income, and black and Latino students had far more poor classmates than did their Asian and white counterparts. In public schools more than half of students were poor, and black and Latino students tended to attend schools with a far higher percentage of low-income classmates than white students. The percent of black students in a school was highly correlated with the proportion of students living in poverty. There was no significant relationship between the Latino share and the proportion of low-income students, a very different pattern than is found in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and many cities with larger shares of Latino students.

The report examines both the whole vast metropolitan area and the immediate metro regions comprising DC and the Montgomery, Prince George’s County, Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax districts. Except the Prince George’s district, the other districts differed remarkably from Washington DC in terms of student demographics with substantially more white and Asian students. In the Arlington and Fairfax districts, in particular, more than half of the total enrollments were from white and Asian groups. All districts, however, showed significant patterns of school segregation.

There is no evidence that these patterns are self-curing. They are extending into large sectors of suburbia, and the opportunities for diverse schools in the city are not being realized.

Washington is not the most segregated district in the metro region for black students. The segregation of the large suburban Prince George’s County is even more severe. Prince George’s was one of the nation’s first large suburban districts to experience massive resegregation. (Our previous statewide studies of Maryland and Virginia schools can be found at

The relatively small Alexandria district showed positive potential by enrolling a balanced number of each racial group: whites (27%), blacks (33%), and Latinos (32%). The segregation level in the district was the lowest among the six immediate metro districts.

This report analyzes the magnitude and trend of racial segregation and its education consequence among schools in the District of Columbia. The report draws on data sources from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). The principal data sources are the Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey Data of 1992, 2002, and 2012 (NCES), the Washington DC’s Comprehensive Assessment Results of 2013 (OSSE), and the Equity Report Data of 2013 (OSSE). These are all public data sets available for independent analysis by other groups or interested residents.

This report is organized as follows. The first section reviews the social and historical background and context of the District of Columbia. The second section analyzes NCES’s Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey Data to examine racial and ethnic changes in the nation, Border States, and Washington DC between 1992 and 2013. The third section, based on data sources from NCES as well as OSSE, explores Washington DC’s public schools and public charter schools that comprise the two systems of the District of Columbia in order to investigate overall racial and ethnic changes and relationships between racial segregation and academic achievement. The final data section concerns metropolitan areas that surround the District of Columbia to understand school segregation patterns in DC in a larger geographical and sociopolitical context.

The report ends with the conclusions we draw from the data and a set of recommendations for voluntary action about ways to begin to reverse these patterns based on research and experience in communities across the U.S.


In compliance with the UC Open Access Policy, this report has been made available on eScholarship:

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