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Race in American Public Schools: Rapidly Resegregating School Districts

Authors: Erica Frankenberg, Chungmei Lee
Date Published: August 01, 2002

Patterns of segregation by race are strongly linked to segregation by poverty, and poverty concentrations are strongly linked to unequal opportunities and outcomes. Since public schools are the institution intended to create a common preparation for citizens in an increasingly multiracial society, this inequality can have serious consequences. Given that the largest school districts in this country (enrollment greater than 25,000) service one-third of all school-aged children, it is important to understand at a district level the ways in which school segregation, race, and poverty are intersecting and how they impact these students’ lives. In our analysis we focus on two important components, race and segregation.
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In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing state-mandated separate schools for black and white students. Since that decision, hundreds of American school districts, if not more, have attempted to implement desegregation plans.  In the early years of desegregation most of these plans focused on the South and resulted in the most integrated schools being located in the South by the early 1970s. From the late 1960s on, some districts in all parts of the country began implementing such plans although the courts made it much more difficult to win desegregation orders outside the South and the 1974 Supreme Court decision against city-suburban desegregation made real desegregation impossible in a growing number of overwhelming minority central cities. We are now almost 50 years from the initial Supreme Court ruling banning segregation and more than a decade into a period in which the U.S. Supreme Court has authorized termination of desegregation orders.  These plans are being dissolved by court orders even in some communities that want to maintain them; in addition, some federal courts are forbidding even voluntary desegregation plans. Given this context, it is crucial to continue to mark the progress of these policies and examine how their presence or absence affects the schooling experience for all students.
Nationally, segregation for blacks has declined substantially since the pre-Brown era and reached its lowest point in the late 1980s.  For Latinos, the story has been one of steadily rising segregation since the 1960s and no significant desegregation efforts outside of a handful of large districts. These changes in segregation patterns are happening in the context of an increasingly diverse public school enrollment.  In particular, the 2000 Census shows an extraordinary growth of Latino population in the past decade. This change in overall population is reflected in the school population as well. High birth rates, low levels of private school enrollment and increased immigration of Latinos have resulted in a rise of Latino public school enrollment, which is now more than million.  Nationwide, the Latino share of public school enrollment has almost tripled since 1968, compared to an increase of just 30% in black enrollment and a decrease of 17% in white enrollment during the same time period. A smaller percent of students attend private schools than a half-century ago and white private school enrollment is lowest in the South and West where whites are in school with higher proportions of minority students. Yet, little attention has been paid to the results of these two trends – rising segregation and increasing diversity – on the racial composition of our public schools.

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