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Is Opportunity Knocking or Slipping Away? Racial Diversity and Segregation in Pennsylvania

Authors: Stephen Kotok, Katherine Reed, John Kucsera, Gary Orfield
Date Published: June 05, 2014

The state’s students of color are experiencing high and rising levels of segregation. Given the trends presented in this report, it is likely that segregation will only continue to intensify if nothing is done to address it.
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Editor's Note: Seventh in a series on
School Segregation in the Eastern States.

Historically, Pennsylvania has struggled to integrate its public schools, especially with much of the racial diversity concentrated in urban regions. Starting in the 1960’s, the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission (PHRC) was the state’s enforcing body to combat school desegregation, but since the early 1980s, when it comes to education, the PHRC has shifted its focus away from segregation towards other forms of discrimination such as unequal discipline, lack of services for disabled students, and sexual harassment.

In the past, the Commission took on several cases in the largest urban areas of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and enforced the state rules in Pennsylvania run the gamut from state court mandates to locally devised voluntary plans and demonstrate that challenges remain to integrating Pennsylvania’s public schools. Evidence from the report shows that although segregation in Pennsylvania persists and is increasing according to some measures, there is little action aimed at creating more racially diverse schools. 

Pennsylvania, like much of the United States, has experienced increasing racial diversity in its public schools over the last two decades. The forthcoming report investigates trends in school segregation in Pennsylvania over the last two decades by examining concentration, exposure, and evenness measures by both race and class. After exploring the overall enrollment patterns and segregation trends at the state level, this report focuses on Pennsylvania’s major metro areas, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, to analyze similar measures of segregation for each metropolitan area. These two metropolitan areas differ greatly in their demographic composition with Pittsburgh being one of the whitest major metropolitan areas in the country with having virtually no Latino or Asian students, while Philadelphia reports a much more diverse population. However, we find that both metropolitan areas face similar challenges in terms of segregation between different school districts.

Major findings in the forthcoming report include:

  • The white share of the total public school enrollment decreased from 82.8% in 1989-1990 to 71.8% in 2010-2011, a decline of 13.3 percentage points. During the same time, the non-white share of public school enrollment increased, most notably due to the sizable increase in Latino share of public school enrollment. The state is far whiter than the U.S. as a whole.
  • The typical black student attends a school with 65.8% low-income students, and the typical Latino student attends a school with 62.6% low-income students, as compared to the typical white student, who attends a school that is 30.3% low- income, indicative of extreme racial disparities in exposure to poverty.
  • Of students who attended intensely segregated schools (90-100% minority) in 2010-2011, 85.1% were low-income, and among those who attended apartheid schools (i.e., 99-100% minority), 86.1% were low-income, both of which represent increases from 1999-2000. These figures suggest high and overlapping segregation by race and poverty.
  • Since 1989-1990, the share of majority minority and intensely segregated schools has more than doubled to 21% and 11% respectively, and the share of apartheid schools increased from 3.5% to 4.8%.
  • By 2010-2011, the percent of black students in majority minority (50-100% minority) schools had increased from 68.7% in 1989-90 to 71.7%, and a large share of Latinos (60.9%) attended such schools as well.
  • In 2010-2011, the typical black student in Pennsylvania attended a school that was 29.5% white, and the average Latino students attended a school that is 39.0% white, though whites make up 71.8% of total public school enrollment. On the other hand, the typical white student attended a school that was 85.1% white.
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