Is Segregation in Southern Schools Increasing?

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Segregation in schools might have declined had it not been for the actions of federal courts.

Are Southern public schools resegregating as judicial oversight wanes? Some people claim this is the case, pointing to the fact that the percentage of black students enrolled in schools with 90-100 percent nonwhite enrollment has been creeping upwards since 1990.

In Local Control and the Specter of "Resegregation" in Southern Schools (NBER Working Paper No. 11086), authors Charles Clotfelter, Helen Ladd, and Jacob Vigdor calculate several measures of racial isolation and imbalance using enrollment data from 1993/4 to 2003/4 for the largest 100 public school districts in the South. Together, these districts represent 15 percent of total K-12 enrollment in the eleven states of the former Confederacy, the six states bordering them, and the District of Columbia. Because the authors use data at the district level, they caution that their results do not consider disparities between schools in districts or disparities between districts, both of which can be quite important sources of segregation.

Understanding racial patterns in school enrollments requires understanding the effect that the post-1970 immigration surge has had on the racial composition of the U.S. population. Although the percentage of black students enrolled in schools with 90-100 percent nonwhite enrollment in the sampled districts did increase between 1993/94 and 2003/4, its increase appears to be attributable to the growth in the proportion of Hispanic and other non-white non-black students, rather than to any changes in enrollment patterns by black or white students.

All races, including whites, experienced a proportionate decline in the proportion of non-Hispanic white students in their school. The authors find that the reduction in the white student share was compensated for by an increase in the proportion of Hispanic and other nonwhite students. The average share of black students in a school attended by whites, Hispanics, and students of other races was about 25 percent in both 1993/94 and 2003/04. In contrast, the average share of white students in the typical white students' school, one measure of racial isolation, fell from about 60 percent in 1993/94 to about 53 percent in 2003/04. In short, the percentage of black students in nonwhite schools is increasing because immigration has increased the number of students who are considered nonwhite under current systems of racial categorization.

Overall, the school districts for which segregation measures increased were primarily those that had low levels of segregation to begin with. School districts with high levels of segregation were more likely to decrease racial imbalance than increase it. As a whole, the data support the conclusion that "the average level of segregation in large Southern school districts has not changed much over the last decade." The authors caution that there are a number of ways to measure segregation, that claims of a "systematic increase in the segregation of white students" are supported by only by one of them, and that "participants in these debates need to be wary of the evidence they cite."

A question of pressing importance is whether the accelerating tendency for federal courts to end court-ordered desegregation in Southern districts, combined with persistently high rates of residential segregation, might lead to increases in school segregation. In a statistical analysis of schools in the sample districts, the authors find an association between judicial declarations and racial imbalance. They conclude that there is some justification for the belief that "segregation in schools might have declined had it not been for the actions of federal courts."

-- Linda Gorman