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The Growth of Segregation in American Schools: Changing Patterns of Separation and Poverty Since 1968

Authors: Gary Orfield, Sara Schley, Diane Glass, Sean Reardon
Date Published: December 01, 1993

Southern segregation grew significantly from 1988 to 1991 and segregation of African-American students across the U.S. also increased. This study provides national data that shows the relationship of segregation to poverty and where segregation is either concentrated or remains highly integrated. This report also explores the way in which a state's pattern of school district organization relates to the segregation of its students after the Supreme Court's 1974 decision in the Detroit case, Milliken v. Bradley.
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Executive Summary

For the first time since the Supreme Court declared school segregation in the South unconstitutional in 1954, the public schools in that region have turned back toward greater segregation. Southern segregation grew significantly from 1988 to 1991 and segregation of African-American students across the U.S. also increased. Segregation of African-American students in the South declined dramatically from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, was stable until 1988, but then began to rise. This is particularly striking because the South has been the nation's most integrated region since 1970 and actually became slightly more integrated in the 1980-88 period.

Segregation of Latino students, who will soon be the largest minority group in U.S. public schools, continued to increase as it has consistently since data was first collected in the 1960s. The increase of Latino segregation was most rapid in the West. There are already more Latinos than African-Americans in the Pacific Coast region, the Mountain states, the Southwest, Texas, and three New England states.

This study provides national data moving beyond previous reports by showing the relationship of segregation to poverty. It shows that both African-American and Latino students are much more likely than white students to find themselves in schools of concentrated poverty. Segregation by race is strongly related to segregation by poverty.

Much of the educational damage of racial segregation probably grows out of this relationship. The first major longitudinal study of the federal government's largest compensatory education program, Chapter 1, found that the program was not producing gains in achievement test scores. It found that Chapter 1 students in high poverty schools were performing much worse than their counterparts in low poverty schools. The children in the high poverty schools read less, got lower grades and had lower attendance rates. (Education Week, Nov. 24, 1993: 15).

Minority students are much more likely to be in high poverty schools. They face not only discrimination and stereotypes about minority schools but schools struggling with the much greater concentration of health, social, and neighborhood problems that are found in high poverty schools.

This study shows where segregation is concentrated and where schools remain highly integrated. It offers the first national comparison of segregation by community size. It shows that segregation remains high in big cities and serious in mid-sized central cities. Many African-American and Latino students also attend segregated schools in the suburbs of the largest metropolitan areas. On the other hand, rural areas and small towns, small metropolitan areas, and the suburbs of the mid-size metro areas are far more integrated. When the civil rights movement began, intense rural segregation and racial domination in the South seemed to be one of the most immoveable racial problems in the nation. Now rural schools provide an example to the rest of the country.

This report was also able to explore the way in which a state's pattern of school district organization relates to the segregation of its students. Except where there were sweeping desegregation plans crossing district lines, states with more fragmented district structures tended to have higher levels of segregation. This was particularly true in states that had relatively small proportions of minority students who were concentrated in few districts.

The Supreme Court's 1974 decision in the Detroit case, Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974) limited desegregation to a single district unless the court found that suburban or state action had caused segregation in the city. Since the vast majority of large central city systems have a shrinking minority of white students (Orfield and Monfort, 1988), this greatly limited the possibility of desegregating those cities. Since the Court had earlier required rapid and complete desegregation within districts in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Ed., 402 U.S. 1 (1971), these decisions meant that states that happened to have a history of small districts would be allowed a much higher level of segregation than those with a history of county-wide systems. The decisions also meant that as segregation spread to include larger sections of central cities and new white suburbs spread into separate districts, segregation would increase. The fact that the school district serving Charlotte, N.C. happened to cover a county of 528 square miles while the Boston school district was only one twelfth as large in a much bigger metropolitan area explains a great deal about the kind of desegregation the two cities experienced. The Charlotte plan included the great majority of white middle class students in the metropolitan area and many of its centers of new growth; the Boston plan excluded both. Charlotte had extensive desegregation two decades later; Boston led the country in disruption and white enrollment decline. The Milliken decision is surely the basic reason why Illinois, New York, Boston, Michigan, and New Jersey, each of which has a much lower share of African-American students than many Southern states, have been the most segregated states for black students for more than a decade.

This report concludes that the country and its schools are going through vast changes without any strategy. The civil rights impulse from the 1960s is dead in the water and the ship is floating backward toward the shoals of racial segregation.

Since 1980, the debate over school reform has had virtually nothing to say about problems of racial and economic isolation. American schools need a new set of goals for successful multi-racial education reflecting the vast changes in American society and they need help in identifying and implementing the most effective ways to reach those goals. This report recommends policies to school districts, state governments, and federal civil rights and education officials to foster integrated education and to make interracial schools function more effectively. It calls for a resumption of civil rights enforcement by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, restoration of federal aid for successful integration strategies, basic research on the consequences of segregation by race, ethnicity and poverty, and an examination of the ways in which multi-racial education functions most effectively. It calls for rewarding, rather than punishing, successfully integrated school systems in the revision of Chapter 1—the largest federal compensatory education program. Recognizing that many of the problems of race and poverty segregation are the results of housing policies and housing discrimination, it recommends that housing officials end policies and practices that foster segregation and take steps to support integrated communities. It calls for focusing attention on the very rapidly growing suburban minority communities to prevent the development of severe segregation in parts of suburbia.


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