RESEARCH October 15, 2019

U.S. school segregation in the 21st century

Causes, consequences, and solutions


The United States experienced a sharp decline in black-white school segregation from the 1960s through the late 1980s following court cases and enforcement measures. Since then, school desegregation has stagnated and resegregation has returned. This report examines trends in racial and socioeconomic school segregation since 1954, discusses the key legal and economic drivers of these trends in school segregation through to the present day, and breaks down the empirical effects of school segregation on economic inequality, mobility, and growth. Building on this historical and social scientific context, the report concludes with evidence-backed recommendations for policymakers interested in once again desegregating schools to create a fairer and stronger economy for all students and their families across the country.

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U.S. school segregation in the 21st century: Causes, consequences, and solutions

Key Takeaways

  • Black students today face levels of segregation comparable to the 1960s and 1970s. Overall, Hispanic students are not as segregated as their black peers, but they have become increasingly segregated in recent decades and currently face high levels of segregation. Of particular concern is the recent spike in intense segregation, where greater than 90 percent of the students in a school are black or Hispanic.
  • A large body of economic evidence confirms that desegregation boosts the educational and economic outcomes of low-income and minority students without negatively affecting those of more economically advantaged students.
  • An array of research shows that desegregation can help reduce intergroup stereotypes and distrust for both white and minority students.
  • Empirical studies demonstrate that desegregation is a powerful lever for providing pathways to economic opportunity for disadvantaged children and thereby increasing economic mobility.
  • School integration powers economic growth by boosting human capital, innovation, and productivity, while strengthening the social trust and interpersonal relationships necessary for smoothly functioning markets.
  • Policy reforms for jumpstarting integration include affordable housing and zoning changes to integrate neighborhoods, consolidated or redrawn school districts that include more diverse populations, open enrollment systems, “controlled choice” provisions that balance family preferences and equitable access, civil rights enforcement, and expansion of gifted education to all students.
  • The most effective results will be achieved if school desegregation is implemented with reforms closing the massive inequities in funding across schools, upping the aggregate financial investment in our public school system, and expanding early childhood education to funnel public funds to the most critical stage of child development.



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