Racial disparities in schooling and in educational outcomes constrain opportunity for students of color. These disparities are driven largely by residential segregation that is shaped and perpetuated by government institutions. A large and growing body of evidence suggests that tools available to local education authorities can promote integration in public schools. Efforts that use these tools are key to addressing this uniquely American inequality.
The racial segregation of students in public schools is an enduring and pervasive feature of almost every US city. Decades of social science research has shown that segregation harms the socioeconomic outcomes of children of color, leading to a huge waste of talent that harms everyone. Although its impacts stem from several mechanisms linked to unequal resources and structural inequities, there is no doubt that school segregation is detrimental to equal education. If systems of public education are to level the playing field of opportunity and close racial gaps in student achievement, the evidence shows that it is imperative to facilitate and encourage the integration of public schools.
Developing a sustainable solution to school segregation has proved difficult. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled school segregation unconstitutional, multiple school authorities were sued for maintaining dual education systems for white and Black students. Numerous integration plans arose from these litigations, many of which involved transporting students (almost always Black students) to schools located in distant (almost always white) neighborhoods, a practice known as desegregation . During this era, school segregation fell markedly around the country.
Evidence shows that the share of Black students attending majority-Black schools decreased from nearly 80 percent in the late 1960s to roughly one-third in the early 1980s. However, a shift in federal and state governments’ stance in the 1980s prompted a retreat from integration efforts that has led to a partial resegregation of schools, especially in districts released from court desegregation orders. The evidence on recent trends in national segregation is mixed, but experts think that over the past 30 years patterns of student sorting have been relatively stable, increasing slightly in recent years.
Desegregation busing makes sense as a solution because in most cities, residential segregation is so stark that neighborhood-based student assignment systems would result in segregated schools. Nonetheless, the success of busing was only temporary, partly because it was seen as highly disruptive. School authorities have to take neighborhood segregation as fixed when devising approaches to school integration, but busing is not the only way to make progress. Multiple tools can be used to tilt the scale toward integrated schools, some of which constitute “low-hanging fruit.”
Equitable School Attendance Boundaries
Almost every US school district operates a school attendance boundary system, whereby students are assigned a default school based on their residential address. School boundaries vary from district to district in how binding they are. In some districts they are essentially “fate” and determine where each student ends up getting her education. In others the school boundary map is part of a complex system of school choice, influencing the likelihood that a student will attend the default school in a nondeterministic fashion. The public school match of almost every student in the United States was influenced by a school attendance boundary map to some degree.
School districts have the administrative authority to set school attendance boundaries as they see fit. That means that districts have the power to use school boundaries to encourage integration. In addition, the ubiquity of school attendance boundaries across the country means that districts would not need to introduce a complicated desegregation program; rather, they could simply redraw administrative lines that are already in place.
It is often quite obvious that redrawing a school attendance boundary line—say, from north to south as opposed to east to west—could lead to large gains in integration. Thousands of school boundaries around the country are in effect “racial borders” that separate different racial and ethnic groups. Racialized school boundaries are not there by accident; they are a vestige of racist policymaking of earlier decades that has been reinforced by economically empowered families choosing to move to neighborhoods linked to desirable schools. But these dividing lines also offer an opportunity. Making small, equity-minded changes to racial borders in school boundaries can have massive impacts on school integration without increasing commuting burdens and without overhauling the entire student assignment system. Indeed, from the perspective of a district policymaker seeking to encourage integration, it would seem extremely inefficient to maintain school boundaries that separate racial groups in this way. Getting rid of racial borders in school attendance boundaries is the low-hanging fruit of school integration efforts.
More impactful reforms to school boundaries would not simply undo racial borders in the student assignment map; they would also ensure that every student’s default school assignment was determined equitably. One could imagine a student assignment map that is “gerrymandered” in an integrationist way to ensure that underserved student populations living in deeply segregated neighborhoods have access to public schools that are racially and socioeconomically diverse. Districts have successfully implemented maps that are intentionally drawn to make default school assignments racially diverse, even when neighborhood segregation is severe.
Because the school attendance boundary system figures prominently in the organization of local school districts, reforms of school boundaries are frequently met with community resistance, especially from groups that have enjoyed unfairly exclusive access to the best public schools. However, once boundary changes are enacted, communities tend to accept them. Moreover, if all public schools had the same funding, the same quality of instruction and facilities, and teaching staffs with equal experience, it would lessen any misgivings a parent may have about being matched to one school rather than another. Equitable reforms to school attendance boundaries are therefore most likely to succeed if accompanied by serious commitments to equalizing the quality of education across public schools.
The Wake County Public School System in North Carolina is an example of a school district that has taken this approach. It has a long history of desegregation efforts stemming from the era of court-ordered desegregation. The latest iteration of its integration plan has been to reassign students away from homogenous schools by sending white students to schools where the majority of students are not white, and likewise for Black and Hispanic students. However, the plan includes a prominent opt-out option, allowing families to choose schools other than those they are assigned to. Recent work has documented that white families opt out of their initial assignment at higher rates than any other group. Wake County could limit this behavior by making efforts to make all schools (i.e., their facilities, teaching staffs, and resources) equally attractive to parents. It cannot make families more open to racial diversity, but it can make sure that opting out of an assignment to an integrated school is not driven by differences in school quality.
Despite potential limitations, reforming school attendance boundaries remains a key tool for district officials to achieve integration. It is indefensible to maintain racial borders in student assignment maps, many of which stem from the racist era of redlining. School districts are social planners charged with providing equal education to their communities. To do so, they must ensure that default school assignments are racially diverse and integrated given the community’s demographics. There is precedent for this: districts around the country have implemented school boundaries to break down the vestiges of racist policy. Racial integration in schools and neighborhoods cannot be achieved without ensuring that racist school boundaries become a thing of the past.
Controlled School Choice
School choice mechanisms are another set of tools available to education leaders. School choice has been touted as a way of opening access to quality public schools for underserved student populations, although critics claim unfettered choice is likely to increase inequality. Regardless, increased choice is the direction that most districts are taking, and it is important to ensure that the design of school choice improves racial equity in public education.
School choice approaches can be divided into two broad categories: those developing special schools and/or programs to attract specific populations, and those designing centralized school “lottery” mechanisms to prioritize school diversity. Charter schools and magnet schools belong to the former, as do other specialized schools and dual language programs. For decades, districts have turned traditional district schools into specialized schools of choice to promote integration. When sited strategically, magnet schools can achieve integration by attracting better-resourced groups to facilities that have historically educated lower-income populations. Charter and other specialized schools could have similar impacts when designed, located, and marketed to be diverse.
Moreover, centralized school lotteries (or “common application” systems) are increasingly popular in many large urban districts (including Boston, Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC). These systems pool information from families’ ranked lists of preferred schools, schools’ enrollment priorities for different student types, and random lottery numbers. These inputs are put through an algorithm that attempts to match students to their highest-ranked school given constraints. Centralized lottery systems provide constrained choice to parents while enabling administrators to control the matching algorithm or provide “guardrails” to promote integration. Because the algorithm applies to all schools, controlled choice can impact segregation across entire districts. With controlled choice it is possible to set quotas to ensure all schools have seats reserved for students from lower-income families. It is also possible to prioritize underserved student populations so they receive seat offers at sought-after schools before other groups. These tools have a lot of potential to increase integration, especially when administrators are willing to foreground diversity in the choice system.
Fervent and politically motivated advocates of school choice frequently tout that giving free reign to market forces in public education can integrate schools and improve school quality. But the evidence we have on the school choice movement does not support this. For instance, charter schools have in certain contexts been shown to generate better student achievement than district schools, but the evidence shows that the charter movement has led to a modest increase in public school segregation. Moreover, parents’ choices in New York City’s centralized choice system indicate that preferences regarding a school’s student composition outweigh preferences regarding instructional quality, providing support for the notion that unfettered choice may increase segregation and inequality, and highlighting the need for controlled choice to promote school integration.
Initial implementation of centralized lotteries was not designed to advance racial equity in public school access. It is therefore not surprising that initial implementation of such programs has had disappointing results as regards school integration. But hopeful initiatives seeking to find solutions have resulted from such mistakes. More districts are showing interest in using priorities and quotas in their matching algorithms to encourage school diversity. For example, San Francisco Unified School District first implemented a centralized school lottery in 2010 and consequently saw increases in school segregation beyond what one could expect given residential patterns. The school district is rightly concerned about this, and it is on the verge of enacting a state-of-the-art student matching algorithm intended to counteract segregation. If successful, controlled choice will likely become one of the key approaches used by large urban school systems to promote integration.
In sum, education leaders have multiple tools at their disposal for addressing the social ill of public school segregation. Tools are varyingly complex and carry particular pros and cons. Regardless of the tools they choose, school districts will always need their communities to buy in to these initiatives. Local stakeholders are best positioned to understand how to bring families from all backgrounds on board with school integration efforts. School district leaders should note the key barriers preventing parents from buying in to integration and address them. For this reason, it is imperative to couple attempts to integrate public schools with broad, equitable investments in public schools. Anything leaders can do to make educational quality across schools more equal will encourage communities to support integration programs.
A More Ambitious Agenda
A sobering fact is that although local school district authorities have the most power to implement reforms that could impact school enrollment patterns, it is demographic differences between jurisdictions that drive total school segregation at the metropolitan-area level. The issue is that there are few policy levers to use to encourage integration across school district lines. This is no accident; rather, it results from another government-instituted structural barrier to limit desegregation efforts. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in Milliken v. Bradley that the Brown v. Board of Education decision only applied to inequality within school districts, and thus that desegregation plans did not need to regard inequities between districts. This infamous ruling launched an era of white flight to the suburbs: any family sufficiently bothered by the notion of a desegregated public school system could pick up and move to a demographically homogenous suburban school district nearby.
A more ambitious agenda to end school segregation needs to take on inequality between school districts. Given disparities between districts explain two-thirds of total public school segregation in the United States, tackling segregation across school district lines could prompt enormous progress in integrating schools. One stark example is the street that divides the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Grosse Pointe Public School System in Michigan. Segregation between these two adjacent districts is glaring: on one side of the street more than 80 percent of students are Black, whereas on the other side less than 10 percent are. Student outcomes are extremely different in these districts, likely reflecting the large gap in their funding. In principle, states have the authority to consider the creation, closing, or merging of school district jurisdictions. One could envision a state initiative to review the equitability of such jurisdictions. Finding that certain district boundaries are de facto racial borders in public education could spur that state’s education authorities to develop a solution (by merging districts, or by simply enforcing interdistrict enrollment plans). Evidence suggests that these initiatives can be effective when residents support them.
Another promising idea is for city governments to foster a collaboration between education authorities and city planning authorities to end school and neighborhood segregation. Because school and neighborhood segregation naturally reinforce each other, joint policy reforms that incentivize integration in residential and education markets are best poised to produce lasting change. A district could reform its school boundaries and implement sophisticated choice algorithms that prioritize equity, while its planning agency dismantles inequitable land use zoning laws and encourages the construction of cheaper housing in historically wealthy communities. Such a tandem of policies would leverage evidence to support racially and socioeconomically integrated school systems and neighborhoods that reflect the wide diversity of our vibrant cities.
Chang, Alvin. “We can draw school zones to make classrooms less segregated. This is how well your district goes.” Vox. Updated August 27, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/1/8/16822374/school-segregation-gerrymander-map.
- Explains the extent to which school boundaries perpetuate segregation in schools (data are based on Monarrez’s research on this topic).
Clotfelter, Charles T. After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
- Discusses the overall impact of the rise (in the 1960s and 1970s) and retreat (from the 1980s to today) of court-ordered desegregation on school segregation patterns.
Haberle, Megan, and Philip Tegeler. “Coordinated Action on School and Housing Integration: The Role of State Government.” Washington, DC: Poverty & Race Research Action Council, 2019.
- Provides a legal argument for why state governments are best positioned to address the problem of school segregation,and discusses the authority of states over school districts.
Johnson, Rucker C. Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works. New York: Basic Books, 2019
- Provides an evidence-based case that court-ordered improved student outcomes, and argues that benefits to students would be greater if integration and early childhood education were both prioritized in efforts to end racial inequality in schools.
Monarrez, Tomás, Brian Kisida, and Matthew Chingos. Charter School Effects on School Segregation. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
- Analyzes the causal impact of the rise of charter schools on segregation andestablishes that charter schools have led to slightly more school segregation.
Monarrez, Tomás, David Schonholzer, Carina Chien, and Macy Rainer. Education Borders in Atlanta. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2021.
- Provides ranked lists of the most unequal school boundaries in the Atlanta metro area,and discusses how to identify boundaries that perpetuate segregation and what can be done to redress dividing lines.
Reardon, Sean F., and Ann Owens. “60 Years After Brown: Trends and Consequences of School Segregation.” Annual Review of Sociology 40 (July 2014): 199–218. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-071913-043152.
- Explains long-term trends in national levels of school segregation from 1954 to today, and provides a conceptual framework for why segregation impacts racial gaps in student outcomes.
Stasz, Cathy, and Christian Van Stolk. “The Use of School Lottery Systems in School Admisssions.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007.
- Provides a concise overview of centralized choice systems (g., common applications, school lottery systems) and how they work.