The Impact of NAACP Lawsuits on Racial Gaps in Teachers’ Pay

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Between 1890 and 1950, public school systems in states of the deep South were racially segregated by law. Disenfranchisement of Black voters enabled White-dominated state and local governments to funnel substantially fewer resources to schools for Black students than to those for Whites. One consequence of this relative underinvestment was the emergence of a large pay gap between Black teachers, who worked in schools attended by Black students, and White teachers, who taught only in schools for Whites.

In 1936, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched a series of lawsuits aimed at closing this race-based gap in teacher salaries. Many of the lawsuits were successful, and due to a combination of direct legal compulsion and the indirect threat of further legal action, several Southern states responded by reforming their teacher pay policies.

States that adopted universal minimum teacher salary schedules largely eliminated previously wide discrepancies in the compensation of White and Black teachers.

In Legal Activism, State Policy, and Racial Inequality in Teacher Salaries and Educational Attainment in the Mid-Century American South (NBER Working Paper 30631), Elizabeth Cascio and Ethan Lewis study the effects of these reforms on the teacher salary gap and the educational outcomes of Black children in affected school districts. They find that states that adopted objective minimum pay schedules for teachers largely eliminated racial gaps in salaries. On average, White teachers in these states were paid 60 percent more than Black teachers in the five years preceding the NAACP lawsuits. This gap narrowed to 2 percent in the decade after the suits. Moreover, the increase in Black teachers’ salaries induced by the reforms was associated with an increase in the likelihood of Black students continuing from middle school to high school. The high school graduation rate of Black students was unaffected.

The researchers study six states affected by the NAACP lawsuits: Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, and South Carolina. These states varied in their institutional responses to the lawsuits. The first four adopted top-down schedules of minimum teacher salaries, removing much of the pay-setting discretion of school districts and largely eliminating racial gaps in teacher salaries. Florida and South Carolina, in contrast, implemented policies linking teachers’ pay to their scores on the National Teacher Examination, a large-scale standardized test. While superficially race neutral, these policies had a different impact: Black teachers tended to score lower on the test, so these policies did not do as much to narrow racial salary gaps. The average Black-White pay gap, more than a decade after these reforms, was 8 percent.

This policy variation across states, as well as heterogeneity in the impacts of the reforms across counties within states, allows the researchers to estimate the causal effects of changes in Black teachers’ salaries on the educational outcomes of Black children. They draw on newly digitized data from school superintendents’ statistical reports as well as information in the 1940 and 1960 censuses.

The researchers focus on two outcomes: students’ continuation rates from middle school to high school, and high school completion rates. Their estimates suggest that a 10 percentage point reduction in the racial gap in teacher salaries reduced the racial gap in continuation from middle to high school by between 3.7 and 5 percentage points. In the four states adopting objective minimum pay schedules, the narrowing of the teacher salary gap can explain a third to half of the narrowing in the high school continuation gap between Black and White students, which fell to 5 percentage points by 1960. By contrast, in Florida and South Carolina, where pay gaps remained, the gap in high school continuation rates was 11 percentage points in 1960. The convergence between White and Black continuation rates over the 1940–60 period was due both to an increase in continuation rates for Blacks and to a decline for Whites.

— Shakked Noy