New Study Finds Many U.S. Schools Remain Divided Along Racial, Ethnic, and Economic Lines

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If you thought segregation was yesterday’s issue, think again.

A report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 1 in 3 U.S. students attended a racially segregated public school in 2020-21.

The report titled “K-12 Education: Student Population Has Significantly Diversified, but Many Schools Remain Divided Along Racial, Ethnic, and Economic Lines” found that, although the K-12 public school student population is significantly increasing in diversity, schools remain divided along racial, ethnic, and economic lines across the United States.

More than one-third of students (about 18.5 million) attended a school predominantly of the same race/ethnicity — where 75 percent or more of the student population is of a single race/ethnicity – according to GAO’s analysis of Department of Education data for the 2020-21 school year. GAO also found that 14 percent of students attended schools where 90 percent or more of the students were of a single race/ethnicity.

“Ensuring equal access to educational opportunity — a key component of the Department of Education’s mission — remains a persistent challenge,” Jackie Nowicki, lead author and the director of K-12 education at the GAO, said in the report.

The report explains that because diversity within a school is generally linked to the racial/ethnic composition of the district, school district boundaries can contribute to continuing divisions along racial/ethnic lines.

For example, about 13,500 predominantly same-race/ethnic schools (about 14 percent of all K-12 public schools) are located within 10 miles of a predominantly same-race/ethnic school of a different race/ethnicity; of these schools, 90 percent have a same-race/ethnic peer in a different school district.

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Image courtesy of the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

GAO’s analysis of 10 years of Education data shows that district secession-a process by which schools sever governance ties from an existing district to form a new district-generally resulted in changes in racial/ethnic composition and wealth. Compared to the remaining districts, the new districts had, on average, approximately three times as many white students, twice as many Asian students, two-thirds as many Hispanic students, and one-fifth as many black students.

The new districts were also generally wealthier than the remaining districts. In particular, the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches — an indicator of poverty — was half that of the remaining districts.

The report was delivered to U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, on June 16, according to NBC.

In a press release, Scott said that although the report’s results “will likely not be surprising to most, every American should be alarmed.” 

“We know that school segregation doesn’t just isolate low-income students and students of color; it also deprives them of equal access to educational opportunities and resources,” Scott said.

GAO has provided the report to the Department of Education and Department of Justice for review. 

“We simply cannot allow our progress toward educational equality in America to be further eroded,” Scott said in the release.

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