Long-Term Effects of School Desegregation and School Quality

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Each additional year of exposure to desegregated schools increased black men's annual earnings by roughly 5 percent.

Court-ordered desegregation of U.S. schools began in the 1960s and continued through the 1980s. As a result, school segregation decreased dramatically from 1968 to 1972, particularly in the Southeastern states. In Long-run Impacts of School Desegregation and School Quality on Adult Attainments (NBER Working Paper No. 16664), author Rucker Johnson concludes that earlier studies substantially underestimated both the returns to education and the benefits of school desegregation. He finds that although court-ordered school desegregation did not affect outcomes for whites, it significantly improved the adult attainment of blacks born between 1950 and 1975.

Rucker analyzes data on over 4000 children born between 1950 and 1975. They were assigned to schools based on 1970 school district lines and on the census block in which they reportedly grew up. He also has data on the average per-pupil spending for school districts as a whole, as well as the dates of court rulings, school data, segregation indices, and measures of county characteristics that were provided to him by the Office of Civil Rights, the 1962-82 Census of Governments, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the American Communities Project at Brown University.

The average high school graduation rates for blacks and whites in Rucker's sample were 0.73 and 0.88, respectively. On average, children were in desegregated schools for five years, and each additional year that a black child was exposed to education in a desegregated school increased the probability of graduating by between 1.3 and 2.9 percent. For black men, spending time in desegregated schools as a child also reduced by 14.7 percent the probability of spending time in jail by age thirty.

Rucker estimates that each additional year of exposure to desegregated schools increased black men's annual earnings by roughly 5 percent, increased their wages by 2.9 percent, and led to an annual work effort that was 39 hours higher. At the same time, for these black male adults the probability of poverty decreased by between 1.6 and 1.9 percentage points. Overall, five years spent in desegregated schools yielded an estimated 25 percent increase in annual earnings and increased annual work effort of 195 hours. Desegregation also resulted in significant long-run improvements in blacks' adult health, as measured by self-assessed general health status; the effect of a five-year exposure to school desegregation is equivalent to being seven years younger.

By the fourth year after a desegregation order, average annual per-pupil spending in the affected districts had increased by an average of $1,000 from a 1967 baseline of $2,738. Rucker notes that "there was suggestive evidence that reductions in school segregation levels that were not accompanied by significant changes in school resources did not have appreciable long-run impacts on blacks' adult attainments."

--Linda Gorman