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Why, and How, We Need to Address School Segregation

Nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, many K-12 schools remain racially segregated. A recent GAO report found that nearly 8,000 predominantly same-race schools were within only five miles of a different same-race school, and more than 13,500 were within 10 miles of each other. The U.S. Supreme Court is ruling this term on landmark cases on racial diversity in higher education. FutureEd Policy Analyst Bella DiMarco spoke recently with Janel George, associate professor of law and founder and director of the Racial Equity in Education Law and Policy Clinic at Georgetown University, about school segregation, its negative impacts on children and schools, and solutions moving forward.

Why do we continue to have so many segregated schools?

Racial segregation in public education is a result of discriminatory laws and policies, including housing discrimination through racially restrictive covenants and other practices that confined Black and Brown students to certain neighborhoods and schools with low property values.

What's dangerous about segregation is not just the racial separation, which social science research shows has very negative effects not just for students of color, but for white students who attend racially isolated schools. It’s that the schools predominantly attended by students of color and students from low-income families also tend to be under-resourced. These schools tend to lack resources like qualified and experienced teachers and school administrators, rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement and college preparatory courses; extracurriculars, and other opportunities that make students competitive and prepare them for college and careers. Segregation also contributes to school discipline disparities largely because many educators in under-resourced schools are inexperienced, overcrowding, and low-quality facilities. All of these things profoundly impact students' experiences and outcomes.

At one point, school segregation was declining. What changed?

We were on track to powerfully diversify our schools. At the high point of school desegregation, in the late 1980s, Black students were attending college at the same rates as white students. There were programs supporting teachers of color and improving not only teacher compensation but teacher preparation. Had we continued on that trajectory of advancing diversity programs combined with other reforms, the so-called achievement gap could have been completely closed by the beginning of the 21st century.

But we saw a gradual federal retreat from support of school desegregation. President Nixon nominated Supreme Court justices who pushed back on school desegregation remedies. President Reagan eliminated the Emergency School Aid Act, which provided federal funding to school districts committed to desegregation. He eventually eliminated most federal funding for school diversity, leaving only the Magnet Schools Assistance Program intact, and undermining progress on diversity.

Can you talk a little bit more about magnet schools. How are they working today?

Magnet schools originated as remedies in school-desegregation lawsuits, using innovative curricula to draw together families from different demographic backgrounds.

But some magnet schools, unfortunately, haven’t always been implemented effectively. When you see competitive magnet programs within otherwise diverse schools, often students of color are underrepresented in the programs. Those are the kind of exclusionary practices that deepen segregation.

Sometimes, too, it’s the small decisions, like where will we build a school? Will we conduct outreach to families from all different demographic areas to inform them about the school's existence? Will we ensure that there are no obstacles to apply, like high admissions fees or sole reliance on admissions tests, which, again, if you're a child who's gone to an under-resourced school and you've never taken Algebra 2, you may not do well on, right? It will take a concerted and collaborative effort to eliminate these barriers.

What are some steps we can take?

I did a report on magnet schools and looked into the research on what promoted diversity and inclusion within magnet schools. And you know what one of the top findings was? Magnets that offered free transportation tended to be more diverse than those that did not. If you have a magnet school that's not near mass transportation, and you have a lot of children from different communities that live far away from the school, you're not going to have a diverse school. The U.S. Supreme Court has outlined the kinds of programs that have been found to be legally permissible and that can promote integration, including whole-school magnet programs.

[Read More: Common Lotteries and the Future of Urban Public Education]

What about admissions policies?

There is a lot of talk about race-conscious admissions, including the challenge on the higher education level to the policies at Harvard and UNC just heard by the Supreme Court.

At the K-12 level, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, has used several diversity strategies in admissions, including consideration of whether a student is low-income, has special needs, or comes from a family that does not speak English. The school eliminated its admissions test and students now demonstrate academic readiness through a minimum GPA, coursework, and essays. And the school abandoned its $100 application fee, money that may not seem like a lot to some folks, but that can be prohibitive to families that are facing economic challenges.

Not only did the school admit its most diverse class in the wake of the changes, the average GPA rose, challenging the notion that increasing diversity leads to lower standards. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year rejected a legal challenge to the school’s new admissions criteria.

Can ESSER money make a difference for the funding issue?

The Covid recovery money from the federal government represents the largest historic federal investment in public education. The strategic use of the money in evidence-based ways to promote equity—whether it's in attracting and retaining experienced educators, bringing quality curriculum to a school, improving school facilities and infrastructure, like HVAC systems—is really important.

I would also love to see long-term investments to promote resource equity in schools. One of those approaches could be the regionalization of school funding so that you don't have funding that is sourced primarily from property taxes. Lot of folks don't realize that education funds in many places are derived heavily from property taxes. So if you live in a community that historically has lower property values, even if you tax yourself at a higher rate you will not raise much school revenue. But if you spread funding sources across regions, it is possible to increase resource equity.