As Public School Integration Lags, School Choice May Be Best Hope


By Ben Scafidi

In 1954, there was probably a great young man named Michael sitting in his public school classroom somewhere in the United States. Michael was 6-years-old, smart, kind, precocious, and his parents dreamed that he would succeed in postwar America. In fact, Michael’s father likely served his country by fighting in combat against evil far from our shores.

Young Michael was an American with many of the rights and privileges given to all young Americans. However, one right denied to Michael was the ability to attend the public school in his neighborhood—the school his parents paid for through taxation. Michael had to attend a public school that served only children with black skin.

Fortunately, that came to an end with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case.  Sixty-one years of court decisions and federal interventions ended government-enforced apartheid in American public schools.  Yet new research shows that while American neighborhoods are becoming more integrated, our public schools are not.

Since the turn of the Century, progress made in the integration of neighborhoods has outpaced integration in public schools, according to research found in The Integration Anomaly: Comparing the Effects of K—12 Delivery Models on Segregation in Schools, a new report published by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

My report finds that between 2000 and 2010, 18.4 percent of public school students lived in metro areas where segregation actually increased moderately or significantly. In fact, there were 69 metro areas where public schools became more racially segregated at that time while only 15 metro areas had neighborhoods that became more segregated.

So Michael would likely have had children who went to public schools in the 1980s – one of the more integrated periods in public school history. From the late 1960s to early 1980s, there were large increases in racial integration across public schools.

Although there was “white flight” from urban school districts to suburban public schools, white flight to private schools was actually relatively small potatoes.

From the early 1980s to 2000, there was a re-segregation—which meant that Michael’s grandkids likely attended public schools that were more racially homogenous and segregated than their parents.

What is strange about this trend toward more racial sorting among public schools is that American neighborhoods have become significantly more integrated since 1970.

Even if the public schools within a district that served Michael’s grandkids had some racial balance, there was significant racial sorting across classrooms within individual public schools.

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century there was an integration anomaly in America:

— 15 percent of all marriages were interracial

— 40 percent of all adoptions were interracial

— Neighborhoods were more integrated by race

— Whites were significantly more willing to vote for an African American for President

But American public schools had become more segregated by race since 1980.  To boot, sorting by income has increased significantly across American neighborhoods since 1970.

If neighborhoods are becoming more integrated yet public schools are not, then public education is no longer promoting the idea of America as a melting pot.. Americans are freely choosing to integrate their neighborhoods, their families and even their vote for President. Perhaps it is time to let them freely choose to integrate educational settings.

Based on trends in segregation and on experiences in America and abroad, school choice may be the last best hope for promoting integration in American K-12 education. With a little care in policy design, school choice opportunities can promote integration and excellence—for all American children.


Ben Scafidi is the director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta.

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