School segregation exacerbates opportunity and achievement gaps

A May report from the U.S. Department of Education on school diversity cites a body of research that links achievement and opportunity gaps between student groups to how racially isolated a school is. The State of School Diversity in the United States examines the benefits of a well-integrated school environment and the challenges experienced by those in racially and economically isolated schools.

“Research suggests that the achievement gap is most pronounced when schools suffer from both racial and economic isolation of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds,” states the report. “Research also indicates that the lack of resources is the most significant driver of opportunity gaps. Further, some researchers have identified that the gap in test scores between Black and white students was largest in more racially isolated neighborhoods.”

On the other hand, research has found that school diversity is associated with increased social mobility, civic engagement, academic success, empathy and understanding.

The report examines the history of school integration, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which ruled that segregating students by race was unconstitutional, through the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and into the mid-1970s, when the federal government began restricting the use of education funds provided through the General Education Provisions Act (GEPA) “for transportation of students or teachers to overcome racial imbalance, or to carry out a plan of racial desegregation, in any school or school system.” This law remained in effect until it was appealed by the Consolidated Appropriations Acts of 2021.

“The repeal of the GEPA prohibition and the discontinuation of the annual appropriations riders have recently been noted by both House and Senate appropriations committees, which, through report language, have called on the department to provide technical assistance to the field on the use of school improvement funds under Title I, Part A to pay for transportation to support voluntary school diversity efforts,” according to the report.

Current status

According to federal data, nearly one-third of students attend public schools in which the vast majority of youth (75 percent or more) are students of color. Students of color disproportionately attend schools with a vast majority of students of color: three in five Black and Latino students and two in five American Indian/Alaska Native students attend schools where at least 75 percent of students are students of color. About half of white students (46 percent) attend schools in which students of color make up less than 25 percent of the student population.

“Racial isolation among students of color in schools is often paired with concentrated community poverty … More specifically, racially isolated schools with majority students of color are often schools with fewer resources than others to support student success.”

The report notes that desegregation efforts after the Brown decision improved outcomes for Black students. “At the height of school desegregation efforts in the 1980s, among 13-year-olds, the achievement gap for Black students had decreased by more than half in reading and nearly half in math, suggesting that these efforts may have been associated with improvements in educational outcomes,” the report states.

School segregation is more prominent between districts (67 percent) than between schools within districts (33 percent). “District boundaries can be drawn to exclude certain groups of students or protect the resources of other students. A 2022 Government Accountability Office report also found that district secession — where schools sever ties with an existing school district to form a new school district — has resulted in large shifts in the diversity of school districts. Compared to districts that remained after such secessions, new school districts on average had roughly three times the share of white students and double the share of Asian students, while these new districts had a decreased share of Black and Latino students,” according to the report. District secession rates have been increasing since 2000.

The report offers some recommendations to increase student diversity in schools, including expanding eligibility for transportation services, finding effective ways to attract and support diverse educators, providing quality early childhood education, rigorous coursework, and equitable and adequate funding.

To support some of the above activities, the Department of Education offers:

  • Magnet Schools Assistance Program: Provides grants to eligible local educational agencies or consortia of LEAs to establish and operate magnet schools under a required or voluntary
    desegregation plan. These grants assist in the desegregation of public schools by supporting the elimination, reduction and prevention of minority group isolation in elementary and secondary schools with substantial numbers of minority group students.
  • The Augustus F. Hawkins Centers of Excellence Grants: Research shows that teachers of color benefit all students and can have a significant impact on students of color. Yet, only one in five public school teachers are people of color, compared to more than half of K-12 public school students who are people of color. The Hawkins grant supports Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions, which collectively prepare half of all teachers of color teacher preparation programs, to increase the number of well-prepared teacher candidates including teacher candidates of color in the field.
  • Fostering Diverse Schools Demonstration Grants Program: Provides competitive grants to LEAs, consortia of LEAs, or one or more LEAs in partnership with a state educational agency (SEA) to develop or implement and make publicly available as a resource for other LEAs and SEAs, school diversity plans that improve school conditions for student learning by supporting voluntary efforts to increase school socioeconomic diversity in preschool through grade 12.

The report also explains the intricacies of using ESEA funding to enhance transportation options for students. Read the full report here: