Discover more from American Inequality
School segregation thrives in America’s most liberal cities
Data shows that students perform best when classrooms are more diverse
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Stuyvesant High School is New York City’s most selective public school, but the incoming class of 752 freshmen will only have 7 Black students. NYC public schools are 22% Black, so how can it be that only 1% of Stuyvesant is black? That’s because Stuyvesant shows the disastrous state of school segregation, which has long been true of New York as home to America’s most segregated school districts. These numbers hardly make sense until we look more deeply at the choices that schools make to engender inequality.
According to a newly released report, only 10% of admissions offers to New York City’s most elite public high schools went to Black and Latino students this year. This does not come close to reflecting the overall population of the NYC public school system, which is 67% Black or Latino.
Diversity is good for student outcomes, yet schools continually choose the opposite. When Black children attend the same schools as White children. Black children perform significantly better on standardized math and reading tests. Diverse school settings also improve graduation rates for both White and Black students.
So why do schools continually choose segregation over education?
How did we get here?
After The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, America bussed students from segregated school districts to less-segregated districts to help bring Black and White students together. Data shows that these programs were incredibly effective at desegregating schools and as Nicole Hannah-Jones points out “It was a remarkable time… A series of rulings called for a fundamental destruction of caste schools in this country. Segregation had been forced, so integration would have to be forced as well.” However, many Black students still experienced the hardship of having to leave their communities.
Nevertheless, many communities refused to integrate. Prince Edward County in Virginia decided to close all of its public schools for 5 years rather than integrate them. White Southerners bombed schools and students were abused like Elizabeth Eckford, as they tried to enter schools that were often blocked by police.
In 1964, 10 years after the Brown decision, only 2% of Black students in the South attended schools with any White children. But progress was coming. 8 years later, more than 1 in 3 Black students in the South were attending predominantly White schools.
That progress slowed in 1974 when the Supreme Court, stacked with four Nixon appointees, dealt a lethal blow to desegregation in Milliken v. Bradley. The Court essentially ruled that in White communities, it was permissible to have White schools. This led to significant White-flight and a resurgence of school segregation over the next 50 years.
From 1970 to 2012, private school enrollment in the South more than doubled. This has led to growing inequality in enrollment. White students are over-represented in Southern private school by 20%. From 1990 to 2021, Black-White school segregation increased 35%. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle that the high school could not specifically call out race as a factor to help balance out a school’s population to match that of the overall population, dealing a major setback to desegregation efforts.
In the 1970s, civil rights leaders in the North fought tooth-and-nail to desegregate schools in the South. But when it came to their own territory, they started singing a different tune. As the Washington Post explains in 2019, “Northern liberals insisted that residential and school segregation in their cities was “natural,” not a result of specific policies. A contrived distinction between Southern “de jure” segregation (rooted in law) and Northern “de facto” segregation (rooted in nature) made it possible for politicians and citizens to deny legal responsibilities for the visible realities of racial segregation.”
Major issues in liberal cities and the North
The Northeast has the most segregated school districts. According to the Urban Institute, “intense school segregation” is based on the percentage of each state’s Black students in schools with a student body that is more than 90% minority. In New York for example, 65% of the Black students are in schools that are +90% minority.
Amy Piller decided she wanted to start an Urban Assembly Unison Middle School in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn in 2012 to bring together diverse communities and instill progressive values. She started off with a diverse student body. But things fell apart quickly for Urban Assembly as the school battled with the Department of Education, a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) that could not raise funds, and with rapidly falling grades. Soon the only White student left the school. The following year, parents in district 13 in Clinton Hill began advocating for a new middle school to open. As Amy explains it:
“The parents argued the district needed "more middle school seats." Unison is a middle school in District 13. Unison is under-enrolled. We have plenty of seats available. These parents are not advocating for new seats. They are using politically correct language to advocate for wealthy White seats.”
However, courts still continued to find that school boards in Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles, were guilty of racial discrimination and unconstitutional segregation. Parents and politicians insisted that their communities were not racist and that any court-ordered desegregation remedies were unjust.
In Boston, for example, only 17% of the population said that school segregation was a concern in their city (despite 55% saying it was a problem in the country overall). Meanwhile, the number of “intensely segregated” nonwhite schools in Massachusetts grew by more than a third, from 143 to 192. Many Massachusetts residents point to the influx of Asian students into the suburbs and school districts.
School districts receive nearly half of their funding through local property taxes. Wealth and housing prices therefore dramatically influence how well-resourced a school can be. This creates challenges for Black communities. As we’ve written about extensively, research shows that Black-owned homes are valued roughly 21% to 23% below what their valuations would be in non-Black neighborhoods.
With fewer funds from lower property taxes, schools in majority Black or Latino neighborhoods end up receiving $5,000 less per student than do schools in majority White neighborhoods.
School segregation occurs within the public school system but once we bring in data for private schools, the picture gets even worse. In NYC for example, non-religious private schools are 69% White. Students in NYC attend private schools at twice the rate they do in the rest of the state.
Private schools help us better see segregation in the south. For example, 51% of students in Mississippi are White, but they make up 87% of the private-school population, a gap of 36 percentage points. The average national gap that was about 15 percentage points.
In 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump championed the use of federal funding for private school vouchers. However, increasing budgets for vouchers often come at the cost of decreasing funds in public schools, where most minority and low-income students are already attending. There is also little evidence that voucher programs actually improve opportunity for low-income students. As TIME magazine recently explained, “Vouchers are largely tax subsidies for existing private school families, and a tax bailout for struggling private schools. They have harmful test score impacts that persist for years, and they’re a revolving door of school enrollment.”
Advocates of voucher “school choice” programs argue that those taxpayer dollars belong to taxpayers anyways. If you live in a school district but aren’t attending its public school, you should be able to get some of that taxpayer money that is set aside for education, perhaps for your private school education. However, these arguments fail to recognize the good that society receives from a more educated population. Given a limited pot of money, voucher advocates also failing to recognize that the way these programs are implemented often results in people getting vouchers who don’t need them.
The Path Forward
Schools like Stuyvesant can have more diverse student bodies. When school administrators select only 1% of Black students to attend their best public schools, that is an active choice that administrators are making. Three different choices would serve students far better by increasing funding, access, and structural change.
🤝 Fund schools beyond district borders: Funding public schools through property taxes is not inherently a bad thing. Property taxes are relatively stable and can bring in a lot of money for schools. However, the issue arises when those boundaries are tightly defined to keep some people in and others out. Rebecca Sibilia, founder of EdBuild, a nonprofit that investigates school funding inequities in America, has suggested a clever solution she calls “bussing dollars across districts.” Rather than sending students across school district borders to equalize, sending money instead can balance out huge funding gaps. EdBuild’s research has found that states which distribute funds more equitably - most notably in Georgia, Maryland, Florida and Louisiana - have lower racial funding gaps.
🏢 Increase mixed-income housing supply: Education and housing are deeply interconnected. Improving racial and socioeconomic diversity in neighborhoods will improve the diversity of the region’s schools. However, unaffordable housing keeps low-income and Black communities from being able to join those better public schools that get so much money from property taxes. If cities and developers can go beyond increasing the supply of low-income housing and create more mixed-income housing, then schools can help reflect the diversity of those same neighborhoods.
✍️ Redistrict for good: Gerrymandering is a fraught word, but on June 8th, 2023 the Supreme Court decided in favor of Black voters in Alabama and Louisiana that the state had drawn districts which diluted Black political power. Both states now have the opportunity to redraw maps that will have an impact “at every level of government from Congress down to local school boards,” as the NAACP put it. The entire history of redistricting has continually pitted Black and White communities against each other. But district leaders can make a choice about how they draw their districts (within some bounds) and they can do so in ways that promote equality over adversity. 39 states have integration policies that serve 185 districts and charters, and half of these districts (89) are majority-White.
There is no separate but equal, just American inequality. The close-minded decisions to keep Black students and White students separate not only threatens our values, it’s bad for students too. This time next year will be 70 years since Brown v. Board of Education. Let’s use this next year to make progress for students since we now have a better sense of where they are most in need.