“There are layers of reasons,” she says. “They paint a rather grim picture of schooling conditions for a segment of the school-age population that the federal laws were designed to protect.”
School desegregation occurs across the country
Segregation is historically associated with Jim Crow laws in the South. But the report found that, in the 2020-21 school year, the highest percentage of schools with predominantly single-race/ethnic student populations — that are mostly white, mostly Hispanic or mostly black, etc. — were in the Northeast and Midwest.
House Education and Labor Committee Chairman U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. Says school desegregation is “always a nation-wide problem”. He commissioned both the 2016 and 2022 reports. “The details of the tactics may vary, but in the ’60s and ’70s, when segregation cases were at their height, the cases were all over the country.”
The GAO analysis found school segregation across all types of schools, including traditional public schools, charter schools and magnet schools. Across all charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, more than a third were predominantly same-race/ethnicity, serving mostly black and Hispanic students.
There is history behind the findings of the report
Nowicki and his team at the GAO said they were not surprised by any of the report’s findings. They point to historical practices, such as redlining, that created racially segregated neighborhoods.
And since 70% of U.S. students attend public schools in their neighborhoods, Nowaki says, racially segregated neighborhoods have historically made for racially segregated schools.
“There are historical reasons why neighborhoods look the way they do,” she explains. “And part of that is the way our country has chosen to encourage or restrict where people can live.”
Although the 1968 Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based on race, the GAO says that in some states, current laws reinforce racially segregated communities.
“Our analysis found that predominantly same-race/ethnicity schools of different races/ethnicities are located close to each other within districts, but generally exist within neighboring districts,” the report said.
School district segregation made segregation worse
One reason for the lack of significant improvement, according to the GAO, is a practice known as district secession, in which schools break away from an existing district — often citing a need for more local control — and form their own new district. The result, the report found, is that segregation deepens.
“In the 10 years that we looked at district segregation, we found that, by and large, those new districts were generally whiter, wealthier than the rest of the districts,” Nowaki said.
Six of the 36 district secessions identified in the report occurred in Memphis, Tenn., which underwent a historic district consolidation several years ago. Memphis City Schools, which served a majority non-white student body, disbanded in 2011 due to financial instability. It then merged with a neighboring district, Shelby County Schools, which served an affluent, predominantly white population.
Joris Ray was a Memphis City Schools administrator at the time of the merger. He recalled that Shelby County residents were not pleased with the newly incorporated district. They are successfully divided into six separate districts.
As a result, the GAO report says, racial and socioeconomic segregation has increased in and around Memphis. All of the newly formed districts were whiter and wealthier than the districts they left, now called Memphis-Shelby County Schools.
“It has a negative impact on our students overall,” said Ray, who has led Memphis-Shelby County Schools since 2019. “Research has shown that students from more diverse schools have fewer prejudices and stereotypes and are more prepared for top employers. Recruit an increasingly diverse workforce.”
The GAO report found that this pattern – municipalities pulling themselves out of a larger district and forming their own, smaller school districts – almost always creates more racial and socioeconomic segregation. Overall, the new districts tend to have larger shares of white and Asian American students and lower shares of black and Hispanic students, the report found. The new districts also have significantly fewer students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty.