Over 63 years after Brown v. Board of Education made state-sanctioned school segregation illegal and set off a wave of controversial efforts to diversify districts, many schools have settled back into old patterns. Although the law no longer endorses it, schools are still divided along fault lines of race and class.
And a majority of Americans today want this to change, at least in theory.
A new study from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress analyzes the extent to which poor students are isolated in high-poverty schools, and whether parents think anything should be done about it. As it turns out, 70 percent of Americans support the economic integration of schools, even as the Trump administration just ended one of the federal government’s few programs promoting such efforts.
The group conducted a nationally representative poll of Americans on the topic of school integration, specifically focusing on socioeconomic integration instead of race. After a 2007 Supreme Court case questioned the constitutionality of using race as the single factor to integrate schools, a growing ― albeit still tiny ― number of districts have been working to integrate along economic lines. About 100 districts across the country are making concerted efforts to diversify schools economically, a number that is up from 40 districts in 2007.
This poll, according to CAP researchers, is one of the first to look at how Americans feel about these efforts.
At a moment in history when the current president of the United States was elected after running an acrimonious campaign built around marginalizing certain minority groups, the stakes for creating a more harmoniously integrated society are high, according to CAP researchers. But the stakes are also high on a more granular level. Decades of research show that the American public school system in many ways reflects a two-tiered system, where poor and wealthy students occupy separate and vastly unequal spheres.
Nearly half of the country’s low-income students ― 40 percent ― attend schools characterized by high rates of concentrated poverty. These schools typically employ less experienced teachers and receive less funding. Students who attend poor schools graduate from high school at a rate of 68 percent, compared to students who attend more affluent schools and graduate at a rate of 91 percent. However, when low-income students attend more socioeconomically diverse schools, they show higher rates of college attendance, says the report.
Integration efforts are key to improving academic achievement for all students, and also creating a more just and equal society, according to study author and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Ulrich Boser.
“What are ways we as a nation are going to come together? The schools are the way to do that. They allow us to create better citizens and think about how we can come together as a society around a set of shared values,” Boser said.
Seventy percent of survey respondents said they think more efforts should be made to integrate low- and high-poverty schools, and over 60 percent of respondents said the issue of school segregation is at least somewhat important to them, even across all major racial subgroups. But responses still varied by race. Black respondents were most enthusiastic about the need to integrate schools. On the other hand, low-income and high-income respondents showed nearly identical interest in the issue.
“They allow us to create better citizens and think about how we can come together as a society around a set of shared values”
While respondents typically agreed that school integration could boost the quality of education provided to poor students, they were less sure how it would affect richer students. However, research shows integration efforts can benefit all students, even the more affluent ones. Attending diverse schools makes students less likely to believe harmful stereotypes, and it also improves students’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
“In a globalized economy where workplaces are increasingly diverse, being able to work productively with people from all walks of life is an invaluable skill,” the study notes.
Researchers also met with focus groups of parents to better understand how these issues affect families’ lives, and what could be done about it. They found little consensus on how policymakers should go about making integrated schools a reality, although many agreed that high-quality, theme-based schools or programs could attract a range of families. Parents scoffed at the prospect of students being driven to faraway schools in buses in the name of desegregation, a practice of districts in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Some low-income respondents were concerned about how it feels to be a poor kid in the classroom while surrounded by wealthier peers. Affluent parents of color who attended racially diverse schools as children were particularly excited about the opportunities provided by integrated settings.
“What we found was at an abstract level parents could agree diversity was a strong value and made sense, it could improve education of their children, but when it came to specific policy mechanisms, it was more of a problem getting shared consensus on what could boost diversity in schools,” said Perpetual Baffour, a research associate at CAP.
But despite the general public’s enthusiasm for socioeconomic integration, it is unlikely the federal government will take steps to capitalize on this interest. In March, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos discontinued a grant program that put funding behind schools’ efforts to deliberately diversify by income.
Instead, it may be up to individual districts to chart their own path in economic integration. Indeed, from Denver, Colorado, to Stamford, Connecticut, districts already started employing creative, and instructive methods of deliberately diversifying their student bodies. An interactive map included with the CAP report allows readers to see the extent to which 1,700 school districts are economically segregated.
Boser is hard-pressed to think of a school reform technique that would have more of a positive effect on students’ learning, while also having the potential to challenge students’ assumptions about the world and other people.
“This has been shown in many studies. If you’re always spending time in gated communities, then you think gated communities are the norm. If you’re spending time with people who share your political beliefs, you think that’s the norm. It’s been really incumbent on policymakers, thought leaders and advocates to make sure we engage as a community, as a nation, with people who are different than us,” Boser said.