Researcher Details Changing Patterns in US Student Body Composition


Black students are exposed to fewer white students in schools, a new study has found, because of significant changes to the demographics of US students. The percentage of white students has severely declined over the past 50 years while the percentage of black students has remained nearly the same, and the percentage of Hispanic and Asian students has increased dramatically.

US News and World Report’s Lauren Camera writes that Steven Rivkin, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, reviewed enrollment information from the Department of Education for the years 1968, 1980, 2000, and 2012 to understand how school enrollment patterns have changed.

Rivkin found that the likelihood of black students being exposed to white students in 2012 was 27% compared to 36% in the 1980s when earnest desegregation efforts had begun. The efforts to integrate have diminished, but the researchers say the reason for this is not what has been called “resegregation.”

Rivkin attributes the change to the shifting demographic makeup of schools. Figures from the analyzed data show black students’ enrollment has been essentially fixed since 1968 at between 15% and 17%. White students’ enrollment numbers declined from 80% in 1968 to 51% in 2012.

Over that same time, other populations, including Asian and Hispanic students, have increased. Through the measuring of how different schools’ enrollment patterns are compared to the student population across the country, the study was able to establish that segregation is not growing. Rivkin calls this the “dissimilarity index.”

A study published in 1966, the Coleman Report, was the first major accounting on the state of public education which focused on the status of education for black students. Rivkin’s study is just one in a series developed by Education Next, a non-partisan journal focused on education reform. The reports included in the series examined the changes in equity and equality since the Coleman Report.

The Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 determined that legally segregated schools were unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked the beginning of actual progress toward desegregation in the South.

The black-white exposure index grew quickly between 1968 and 1980, rising from 22% to 36%. The study led by Rivkin calls this growth “a change in the extent of racial interaction that has not been matched since.”

Rivkin’s paper was published in the journal Education Next, according to Rebecca Klein, reporting for The Huffington Post.

White flight, the exodus of white families from their neighborhoods to prevent their children from attending racially integrated schools, is an often-cited reason for why black and white children are together in the same classrooms less often. This avoidance and the relaxing of court orders that dictate school integration have had an impact on racial exposure opportunities.

Rivkin agrees there was some white flight, but it did not prevent districts from successful desegregation because white children were leaving schools in droves.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit in Minnesota brought by Alex Cruz-Guzman, a Mexican immigrant, accuses the state of allowing schools with large numbers of poor and minority students to continue and increase, says Rachel M. Cohen, reporting for The American Prospect.

Daniel and John Shulman, the attorneys in the case, say the Twin Cities have more racially segregated schools than they have had in a generation, according to a 2015 Minneapolis Star Tribune analysis. And, say the Shulmans, children who attend these schools achieve much less than their cohorts in integrated schools.

Of course, there are some who do not agree with this plan, particularly minority parents, who have been known to send their children to charters to remove them from “hostile traditional schools.” John Cairns, a charter school attorney, said if the court makes any changes, they will be working against parental choice.

Minnesota is not the first state to struggle with the problem of school choice and desegregation, and it will most certainly not be the last. Cairns, who is a member of the litigation panel for the Alliance of Public Charter School Attorneys, said this case’s outcome will be “hugely important to provide direction” to the rest of the US.

And in North Carolina, a recent study performed by Duke University showed that many of the state’s schools are overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly minority. Reema Khrais of WUNC Public Radio reports that Central Park Charter School for Children in Durham, according to principal John Heffernan, is not as white or middle class as it once was.

This shift occurred because of a weighted lottery the school began to help kids from low-income families have a better chance of gaining admission to the school.

Before the lottery, 6% of Central Park students were eligible for free or reduced meals. The number now is 18%. The school’s goal is 40%.

Helen Ladd, a professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, explained:

“We’ve got white charter schools – disproportionately white charter schools – and disproportionately minority charter schools. It’s what we’ve worked hard to avoid. It’s a pattern worth worrying about.”

Charter schools do not have to offer free and reduced meals or transportation. Because of this, they may not be viable options for students who need these services. But Central Park School offers both of these services which, along with the weighted lottery, means the school is fulfilling one of the goals charter schools strive to reach: serving children who are disadvantaged.