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Income Segregation in Schools Found to Rise by 40 Percent Since 1990

By guest blogger Carmen Constantinescu

Segregation among students in public schools based on race has been a persistent and growing concern and new statistics show that income segregation may be growing as well.

After analyzing two national data sources—the School District Demographics System (SDDS) and the Common Core of Data (CCD)—researchers found that income segregation between and within public school districts has been on the rise since 1990.

"In the 100 largest districts, segregation between schools increased in both the 1990s and 2000s, and segregation in 2012 is about 40 percent higher than in 1990," wrote the researchers in a study published in the American Education Research Journal this month. However, this new level of segregation is not caused primarily by the historical separation between poor families and all others, as some might suspect. Rather, the middle class has been slipping further behind the upper middle and affluent classes.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Southern California, used data on student eligibility for the federal free and reduced lunch program to investigate the income segregation between schools within the same district as well as between school districts. The researchers trace the sharp growth in income segregation in schools to 2008 (possibly due to the economic recession). The gap reflects growing residential income segregation and income inequality that occurred as affluent families increasingly moved to new schools and students from low-income families became more concentrated in lower-income districts or schools. 

The growing trends in income-based segregation in schools were also likely due to school-choice policies which give parents the option to enroll their students in schools other than the neighborhood schools, the study says. That movement was propelled in part by the increasing availability of public information on school performance, which some parents have used to decide whether to send their children to local schools that don't match their incomes and residential preferences. And some research suggest this appears to particularly be the case for higher-income families.

"Rising income inequality provides high-income families with the resources to realize this preference, resulting in increased sorting by income across districts, schools, and neighborhoods," the researchers further explain.

Looking ahead, income and residential segregation can impact school funding as well, the study says.  As communities become increasingly more divided based on income, advocacy and support for public education could decline in some areas. "High-income families generally have more political influence than low-income families, and high-income families in highly segregated metropolitan areas have little incentive to advocate for increases in metropolitan- or statewide funding if their own high-income district has substantial resources," concludes the report. 

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