White Flight May Not Be The Only Thing Keeping Schools Separate And Unequal

Are U.S. schools growing more segregated? It depends on who you ask.
Members of the 101st Airborne Division take up positions outside Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1
Members of the 101st Airborne Division take up positions outside Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. The troopers were on duty to enforce integration at the school.

White flight -- the phenomenon of white families fleeing their neighborhoods to avoid racially integrated schools -- is part of the reason why black and white students rarely learn together in the same classrooms. But it may not be the main reason, according to new research published this week.

The paper, which appeared Tuesday in the education policy reform journal Education Next, asserts that natural demographic changes are partly to blame for the country's ongoing school segregation. The paper recognizes that while black and white students are still largely segregated from each other, this problem is not necessarily getting worse.

There are two major ways to measure school segregation. One of them is called the exposure index, and by this yardstick, black and white students are still rarely learning together, though it's been over six decades since Brown v. Board of Education made segregated schools illegal.

Going by the exposure index, for the average black student in a U.S. public school in 2012, only 27 percent of his or her schoolmates were white -- a figure that has been on the decline in recent decades, says Dr. Steven Rivkin, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Tuesday's paper. In the 1980s, that figure was around 36 percent. Because today's figures are so far below those of 30 years ago, some academics believe the country's schools are gradually resegregating. 

Another measure of school segregation, known as the racial dissimilarity index, paints a different picture. According to this metric -- which compares the racial makeup of individual schools in a district to the racial makeup of that district overall -- school segregation has in fact been on the decline.

How do these two measures tell such different stories?

Rivkin theorizes that natural population changes shed light on the issue. With Hispanic and Asian making up a greater share of the student population, whites simply have a smaller enrollment share in public schools than they used to. Thus, says Rivkin, "a pronounced increase in Hispanic and Asian public-school enrollment and consequent decline in the white enrollment share, not a pattern of resegregation, has driven the fall in the exposure of black students to white schoolmates." He points to the racial dissimilarity numbers as proof of this. 

A civil rights demonstration in 1964 commemorates Brown v. Board of Education. 
A civil rights demonstration in 1964 commemorates Brown v. Board of Education. 

"I think what people observe and talk about a lot is black children now have far fewer white schoolmates than they did around 1980, and that’s often referred to [as] resegregation. On average, I think that’s misleading," Rivkin told The Huffington Post. "There has been some resegregation in some districts that no longer undertake desegregation efforts, but in the country as a whole, children I think are more mixed than they’ve ever been in this country."

Of course, white flight and the relaxing of court orders that mandated school integration have played a part in low rates of racial exposure in school, says Rivkin. But he argues that such factors don't reveal the whole picture.

"I think this focus on the notion that desegregation was made untenable by white flight is not true," said Rivkin. "There was some white flight, but it's not the case that districts were not able to succeed in desegregating schools because all white children left." 

On the other hand, Gary Orfield, a professor and research for the UCLA Civil Rights Project who has spent his career studying segregation issues, maintains that the exposure measure is a significantly better indicator of school segregation. Using the dissimilarity index as a tool, he says, can be misleading. 

"The whole theory of the educational effect of desegregation comes from exposure, not randomness of distribution," Orfield told HuffPost -- although he acknowledged that because of demographic changes, "everything else being equal, there will be less exposure." 

The dissolution of court-ordered school desegregation plans in the 1980s and 1990s played a key role in the decline of school integration, according to Orfield. 

"I do believe that the demographics are the primary driver of re-segregation for Latinos, who were never really desegregated. For blacks, the dissolution of desegregation plans is obviously a major factor," he said. "The reason we concentrate on exposure is because the benefits of desegregation come from actual [racial] contact under particular conditions."

The Education Next paper comes amid growing speculation that new acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King will make school integration a priority. In his previous role as the New York state education commissioner, King initiated a grant program to encourage socioeconomic integration. 

Schools that are integrated better reflect our values as a country,” King said in a September speech. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Dr. Rivkin is affiliated with the University of Chicago. In fact, he is at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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