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Schools Became Less Segregated in 21st Century, Study Finds

As the specter of overt, legalized segregation fades into history and court rulings have permitted or required school districts to move away from active race-based integration plans, many have raised concerns that the nation's school are becoming resegregated. New research offers a nuanced but slightly more positive picture of the status of racial integration in the nation's schools.

While the nation's schools did become gradually less integrated over the course of the 1990s, that trend has slowed and even reversed in the new millennium. Schools in 2009 were less segregated overall than schools in 1993.

The new research, from Kori J. Stroub at the University of Texas at Austin and Meredith P. Richards at the University of Pennsylvania, examines racial segregation in 350 metropolitan school districts using information from the National Center for Education Statistics' Common Core of Data Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey between 1993 and 2009. Their "sample" includes every school district in a metropolitan area that consistently reported racial/ethnic data throughout that time period.

Most previous scholarship raising concerns about the resegregation of schools focuses on trends during the 1990s, the authors write. And the new analysis backs up previous indications that schools became increasingly segregated between 1993 and 1998.

But between 1998 and 2009, white students became increasingly likely to share classrooms with nonwhite students, and minority students were also increasingly likely to share classrooms with minorities from other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Segregation between black students and white students has decreased particularly quickly—though black students were still the minority group least likely to share a classroom with white students.

So, should we unsound the alarms? Stroub said that while the results are positive, it's important to keep in mind "first that there's still a lot of segregation in schools—and second, that these trends aren't necessarily going to continue." And, he said, there's a lot of nuance. The promising big picture hides a few unsettling trends.

About two-thirds of metropolitan areas saw decreases in segregation, but a third saw increases. (The research does not include a city-by-city breakdown, which this reporter, at least, would find intriguing.) Cities that grew substantially or saw large increases in diversity were more likely to become more segregated over time.

Also troubling: Racial segregation between blacks and whites in Southern states, which had actually been less extreme than in the North due to federally enforced desegregation plans in some districts, decreased less than in other areas. So while black students in the South had previously been more likely to be in integrated schools than their peers in the North, the North is gaining ground. The paper suggests that this may be due at least partly to several large districts in the South achieving unitary status and being removed from their federal desegregation orders.

Another interesting trend is that segregation between districts in a metropolitan area was more pronounced that segregation within school districts. That trend seems to have escalated during the 1990s but has since leveled out. Nonwhite students of various ethnic backgrounds, however, seem to be increasingly segregated from one another across district lines, which could be evidence of growing ethnic enclaves. The authors call for further research, and for cross-district integration plans (while acknowledging that court rulings like Milliken v. Bradley make such plans uncommon).

The nation's changing demographics obviously have an impact on how segregated schools are—the share of nonwhite students in metropolitan school districts jumped to 49.5 percent in 2009 from 37.2 percent in 1993. But, Stroub said, it's clear that policy changes have also impacted segregation, as that increased diversity has not been reflected evenly in schools.

The impact of policy changes and court rulings can be slow-moving, so this decade's school choice bonanza, for instance, could make its mark in the statistics of the next decade, and court decisions from the 1990s or even the 1970s are likely still reverberating in this data. But non-education policy factors like trends in residential segregation could also be driving many of the changes. A closer look at just what caused these shifts is the topic of the pair's next research project, Stroub said.

The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California Los Angeles also looked at segregation trends recently. That research found that overall segregation in schools has continued to increase. So, which is right? I'll take a look at why the reports come to different conclusions in an upcoming post.

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