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The Evolution of School Segregation: The North Carolina Story

Since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the nation has struggled to end racial segregation in public education. A recent study by Duke University researchers Charles Clotfelter, Helen Ladd, and Mavzuna Turaeva and UNC-Chapel Hill professor Steven Hemelt provides insights into the evolving story in North Carolina, a state at the epicenter of the desegregation struggle for decades. The research suggests that the racial landscape in education—and the challenges to achieving more integrated schools—have become increasingly complicated. FutureEd Editorial Director Phyllis Jordan spoke about the study recently with Clotfelter.

How do you measure segregation in your study?

When social scientists use the term segregation these days, they are usually talking about racial balance. So if all the schools in a district or a county have the same racial composition, we would say they're racially balanced. Segregated school districts are racially imbalanced; their schools’ enrollments don't align with racial groups' district-wide representation.

Beyond the lost value of different groups of students learning to live together and learning from one another, what are the practical consequences of racial segregation in education?

Segregated schools are nearly always unequal in their resources, in the quality of their teachers, in the newness of their facilities. Schools that lower-income or minority populations typically have less-experienced teachers, fewer teachers with credentials, and maybe older facilities. Anytime segregation occurs, it's a good bet there are going to be disparities.

You examined school segregation in North Carolina between 1998 and 2016. What did you find?

Segregation went up slightly in the state overall and it increased significantly in urban areas, where a third of North Carolina students attend school.

Mecklenburg County, the state's most populous county, saw among the most significant increase. The segregation rate between white and non-white students rose from .21 to .37 on a scale of 0 to 1, with 0 reflecting completed balanced racial enrollments across the county's schools and 1 representing a segregated educational experience for every student.

The statewide white/black segregation rate rose by 25 percent from .16 to .2, while the white/Latinx rate more than tripled from .06 to .2.  The increases were greater in urban areas: the black/white segregation rate increased from .18 to .26 while the Latinx/white rate jumped from .07 to .25.

In rural areas, the picture is mixed. Black/white segregation went down a little bit, from .14 to .12. But the Latinx/white rate went from .06 to .12.

Desegregation advocates argue that a retreat by federal courts from desegregation remedies is driving up segregation. Is that true in North Carolina?

Starting around 2000, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers North Carolina, started saying, "You districts are not under any obligation to balance your schools racially. In fact, if you use race as a criterion for moving students around, we're not going to let you do it."

Subsequently, a new school board in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, the largest in the fourth circuit, relaxed the district's previous desegregation plan and gave parents a lot more freedom to enroll their children in neighborhood schools. A lot of parents chose to do this, and the result was a quick uptick in segregation. The segregation rate for white and black students just about doubled from 1998 to 2006 in the county from .22 to .42, then remained fairly steady—at .44 in 2016. The segregation between white and Latinx students tripled in just those eight years from .12 to .36. By 2016, it was .46. These increased segregation levels mean students are far less likely to go to school with children of different races.

So the courts were a factor.  What about changing demographics?

A big part of our story is the marked change in the racial and ethnic makeup of North Carolina schools. The percentage of white students went down from 65 to 51 percent, which is a rather precipitous fall. The portion who are black decreased by about one percentage point from 30 to 29 percent. But the real eyeopener was the increase in the Latinx students in the state from 3 to 16 percent of all students. They're still not as numerous as black students statewide, but in some counties they actually are a larger share of the students.

In segregation measures everything is relative to jurisdictions' current racial composition. If 60 percent of students in a county were white in 1998, we’d look to see how close schools came to that mark. If the white share of the county’s student population fell to 50 percent in 2016, we’d look at how close schools were to that mark.

Is school choice a factor?

School choice really is three choices. One is private schools. Two is charter schools, and the third is choice given by school districts within the traditional public schools—to magnet schools or schools of choice. Even parents sending their kids to traditional public schools, without moving, can often have some choice about which school to attend. This is certainly the case in a big district like Mecklenburg. So does this have an effect on segregation? It does.

There also is the very important issue of residential segregation. The more segregated residential patterns are, the more difficult it is for school authorities to avoid having segregated schools. In the very long run, one might hope for school leaders and families to show increasing acceptance of interracial contact in the schools. This seems to be happening, but the process is not rapid.

You point out that segregation rates are lower in most rural areas. Why have they spiked in some rural communities, especially between whites and Latinx, such as in Chatham County?

It turns out that almost every county has its own story. Let me first tell you where Chatham County is. It's smack dab right in the middle of the state. It's bordered on the northeast side by Orange County and Chapel Hill. It's right on the doorstep of the university. And up in that corner, there's golf courses in very upscale retirement communities. Now, go all the way down to the west end of the county, and you find a place called Siler City.

Siler City has a large plant where chickens are dismembered and then packaged. And this is work that immigrants have taken. A great number of Latinx immigrants came into the county for the chicken plant and other industries. And they cluster very tightly around Siler City.

What the county fathers and mothers did in deciding where to send these children to school was to keep them clustered around Siler City and in fact, build a new school, rather than spread them out among existing schools. In general, the school district set up attendance zones so that the Latinx children were heavily and disproportionately concentrated in a few schools. The overall rate of white and non-white segregation in Siler City went from .11 to .25, which is more than double.

So, barring court action, there doesn't seem to be the political will to reduce segregation.

That's a fair assessment, not only in Chatham County but in the other 99 North Carolina counties. In every case, there is a political accommodation based on the citizens in that county, what their wishes are, how far it would be necessary to transport students to have more balanced schools, how much enthusiasm there is for charter schools and private schools.

What should the state be doing to deal with school segregation today?

The state has already done some things about it. It has been on a 50-year campaign to consolidate school districts in the state of North Carolina. At one time, I believe, the number was maybe 175 districts for 100 counties. Now we have 115 districts for 100 counties, so you can see that most counties have exactly one school district.

That's the best circumstance you can have to increase racial contact and integration.  The bigger the jurisdiction, the more it is likely and possible to have schools that are racially similar to each other. On the other hand, if districts are tiny, it is traditional and it's certainly legal to keep students of a single race clustered together. And that's why the great metropolitan areas of the Northeast and Midwest have such high rates of segregation, because they are balkanized into lots and lots of smaller school districts.

In North Carolina, there have been proposals to break up some of the larger districts. That could increase segregation.

Does more of the work needs to be done at the local level?

That's where the action is. School districts have to argue the value of diversity, and that's really the long and the short of it. As long as the school district is not discriminating on the basis of race, nobody from the federal courts is going to come knocking. The local school boards determine the attendance zones. They could draw those maps to decrease racial isolation. They could also establish magnet schools that would have an appeal across racial and ethnic lines. They have considerable influence over segregation rates.

Read the study

View Clotfelter's presentation at the 2019 Calder Center conference.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.