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Economic Inequality Grows in N.C. Schools Since Mid-1990s, Study Says

Over the past two decades, economic imbalances among North Carolina's public schools has grown, even as school segregation by race has remained flat for the past half-dozen years, a study from Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy published Jan. 16 concludes.

In addition, the study, "Racial and Economic Diversity in North Carolina's Schools: An Update," states that the Tarheel State's charter schools, for the most part, do "serve a racially balanced student body" and that 60 percent of charter school students attend a "racially unbalanced" school.

The report was written by Charles Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd, and Jacob L. Vigdor, and examines enrollment trends and other data gathered since a similar report they authored after the 2005-06 school year. Here's a quote that sums up their findings well: "Even as racial imbalance has held steady, imbalances by income have continued to increase. Segregation by income has become a more salient phenomenon than segregation by race in North Carolina's elementary and middle schools."

Why does this matter? According to an examination of teacher credentials, the three authors say that the more students on free- and reduced-price meals at a school, the more likely it was that the teachers at that school would have weaker credentials. And even though they say racial segregation is less of an issue than it was several years ago, the report states that the higher share of non-white students at a school, the more likely it was that teachers at that school would have weaker credentials. The report defined "teacher credentials" using the average of several data points, including the years' of experience for teachers, whether they were National Board certified, and the share of teachers with "non-regular" teacher licenses.

(It's worth noting that experience and credentials do seem to bear a relationship with student achievement, but those relationships seem to be somewhat weak or inconsistent across studies.)

Since the 1994-95 school year, economic imbalance has increased in schools in each of the five largest counties in North Carolina. The level of economic imbalance in the state's largest school system by enrollment, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, as shown on page 27 of the report, has reached nearly three times the level of that in the state's second-largest school district, Wake County schools (the higher the number, the greater the level of economic imbalance). Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, the report notes, replaced its prior racial integration policy with a community schools model in 2002, while Wake County had a busing policy in place until 2010, although the policy was still in place for the most recent data the Sanford study used.

As for charters, about 62 percent of charters had non-white enrollment rates of 30 percent or less, per page 23 of the report, compared to only 30 percent of traditional public schools that had such a non-white enrollment rate. Although the historical issue in North Carolina schools has been black-white segregation, the three scholars point out that Hispanic enrollment in public schools has mushroomed from 1.5 percent in the 1994-95 school year to 13.3 percent in the 2011-12 school year.

This is one of the broadest and most controversial issues that education researchers deal with. As The New York Times detailed last February, achievement gaps between affluent and low-income students had grown by 40 percent since the 1960s, according to a Stanford University study.

In a Feb. 15, 2012 blog post at Anthony Cody's "Living in Dialogue" blog, education researcher Gerald Coles criticized the way such studies were presented by media outlets like the Times, arguing that solutions to such disparities tended to touch on everything except parents' poverty and lack of economic security.

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