Much of the current American educational policy focuses on individual-level reforms that are intended to encourage teachers to work harder so that students will learn more and achieve higher levels on standardized tests. However, this approach fails to recognize the importance of structural features in supporting or limiting students’ academic success. The organization of school districts and the extent to which they segregate students has major implications for the educational opportunities of students and their corresponding outcomes.
Decades of social science research have found that segregated schools are linked to unequal educational opportunities and outcomes. Students who attend segregated schools have access to fewer and lower quality resources and therefore have lower academic success and a higher likelihood of dropping out. Conversely, students who attend desegregated schools are more academically successful and experience a number of short-term and long-term non-academic benefits.
In our analysis of public schools in four states — New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia — we found that states and metropolitan areas with highly fragmented school districts have higher levels of segregation than states and metropolitan areas that were less fragmented. By “fragmentation,” we mean the degree to which metropolitan areas are split into many separate school districts. In New Jersey and New York, metropolitan areas are highly fragmented — there are many small, separate school districts that serve individual suburban or urban communities. However, in North Carolina and Virginia, metropolitan areas have larger, more consolidated school districts that enroll two to five times as many students as those in New Jersey and New York and often cover entire counties, including both urban and suburban areas. We selected these states because the racial makeup of the student enrollment is similar—between 46% and 50% nonwhite—in all four states, which allows for an informative comparison of the relationship between fragmentation and segregation in states with similar racial compositions.
School districts were created many generations ago when the United States was predominantly a rural society; therefore, each separate municipality created its own school district. As metropolitan areas developed, communities adopted regional approaches in many sectors, such as transportation, water, and sewer systems, but not in education. Separate school districts continued to operate in each community; today, this often results in predominantly low-income minority schools in urban districts and more middle-class white schools in suburban districts (although these patterns have begun changing more recently as suburban schools are becoming more diverse). For example, in Connecticut, the state Supreme Court identified the school districting system that separated city and suburban school districts in Hartford as the fundamental problem that created segregation in the metropolitan area and ordered the development of regional approaches, which have made progress in reducing segregation.
A different pattern occurs in states that have organized their schools at the county level rather than at the municipal level. In these cases, the school district is county-wide and all major institutions in the county share a common interest in making the school system work well. Hence, it is more likely that county-wide school districts would create stably desegregated schools. This type of school district structure is more common in the South where urbanization occurred later and the county government was of central importance. The potential for creating comprehensive and enduring desegregation is even greater when desegregation policies are in place, as was the case in many districts in the South from the 1970s through the 1990s but is no longer the case today.
Given these two different types of school districts — more fragmented in New Jersey and New York, and less fragmented in North Carolina and Virginia — we explored segregation trends in the four states by considering what portion of schools are intensely segregated, which we define as schools that enroll 90-100% non-white students. As Figure 1 shows, in 2010, 1 in 10 schools in North Carolina and 1 in 20 schools in Virginia were intensely segregated. While this is cause for concern, the portion of intensely segregated schools was even higher and more concerning in the states with more fragmented school district structures. 1 out of 5 schools in New Jersey and 1 out of 3 schools in New York were intensely segregated.
Figure 1: Share of Intensely Segregated Schools that Enroll 90-100% Non-White Students
Next we considered how evenly students of different races are distributed to schools in the four states. We found that students were less evenly distributed by race in the highly fragmented states of New York and New Jersey than in North Carolina and Virginia. The average school in New Jersey is 35% less racially diverse than the state’s student enrollment and the average school in New York is 42% less racially diverse than the state’s enrollment. New Jersey’s level of unevenness is considered “high” and New York’s is considered “extreme.” In the less fragmented states of North Carolina and Virginia, students are also distributed unevenly but it is to a lesser extent and is considered “moderate” in both states. In North Carolina, the average school is 22% less diverse than the state’s enrollment; in Virginia, the average school is 25% less diverse.
What’s more, when we looked a little closer at whether students were distributed unevenly between school districts or between schools within the same school district, we found that the majority of segregation in all four states occurs between school districts. At the most extreme, in the highly fragmented state of New Jersey, segregation between school districts accounts for almost all (91%) of the unevenness in the state. This distinction is important because it shows the role of school district boundary lines in separating students into districts with racial compositions that are quite dissimilar from one another.
Our analysis shows that school district fragmentation is one structural feature related to school segregation. There are likely other mechanisms related to segregation in these four states and the rest of the nation as well; for example, residential segregation, student assignment policies, and legal constraints could also impact segregation patterns. However, given the relationship between fragmentation and segregation, it is essential for school districts in highly fragmented metropolitan areas to begin working together and adopting more regional, cooperative approaches to education so that students are no longer segregated into separate worlds of educational opportunity and disadvantage based on school district boundary lines.
This post has been jointly written by Jennifer Ayscue and Gary Orfield, Distinguished Research Professor of education, law, political science, and urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles.
Ayscue, J. B., & Orfield, G. (2014). School district lines stratify educational opportunity by race and poverty. Race and Social Problems, 7(1), 5-20.