This Map Lets You See How School Segregation Has Changed in Your Hometown

The new interactive tool accompanies a study of school enrollment data, which shows that segregation has worsened in recent decades

Map of the United States
The interactive map, called Segregation Explorer, tracks demographic trends across the country. The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that marked the beginning of the end of school segregation. On May 17, 1954, the nine justices unanimously agreed that separating children on the basis of race in public schools was unconstitutional. Their decision ended the “separate but equal” doctrine that had applied since the mid-1890s.

But while American public schools are more integrated now than they were prior to 1954, they’ve become increasingly racially and economically segregated in recent years, according to a new analysis: In the country’s 100 largest school districts, segregation between white and Black students has increased by 64 percent since 1988. Meanwhile, segregation by economic status has increased by roughly 50 percent since 1991.

The two co-authors, who presented their findings at a May 6 conference, also created an interactive map that displays changes in racial and economic school segregation across the country between 1991 and 2022. 

The tool, called Segregation Explorer, breaks down demographic trends by state, county, metro area and school district. It also allows users to search for the names of specific schools, which then pop up alongside graphs and tables tracking the composition of the student body over time.

“School segregation levels are not at pre-Brown levels, but they are high and have been rising steadily since the late 1980s,” says co-author Sean Reardon, the faculty director of Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project, in a statement.

In many large school districts, segregation has gotten worse while housing segregation and racial disparities in income have improved. According to the researchers, these trends suggest that educational and legal policy changes are to blame, rather than demographic changes.

“School systems became more segregated, but that increase in segregation isn’t because neighborhoods got more segregated,” Reardon tells Education Week’s Sarah D. Sparks. “It’s because school systems stopped trying to create schools that were more integrated than neighborhoods, and let them kind of revert to their neighborhood patterns.”

More specifically, the researchers point to two main factors: expanding school choice and declining court oversight.

Beginning in the 1960s, many school districts were placed under court orders that mandated integration. However, since the early 1990s, roughly two-thirds of those districts have been released from court oversight. The researchers estimate that school segregation would have increased by about 20 percent less if those court orders had remained in place, per the Washington Post’s Laura Meckler.

“Some districts have voluntary programs [that promote integration],” co-author Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, tells Education Week. However, the “real carrots and sticks” that accompany pressure from the courts “just aren’t available to districts anymore.”

In addition, school choice programs have allowed more parents to enroll their children in alternatives like charter schools, “whose numbers began to increase rapidly in the late 1990s,” writes Hechinger Report’s Jill Barshay. “​​In many cases, either white or Black families flocked to different charter schools, leaving behind a less diverse student body in traditional public schools.” The researchers estimate that school segregation would have grown by roughly 14 percent less if not for the charter school boom.

Reardon and Owens suggest several measures that school districts could use to counteract these changes, such as voluntary integration programs and socioeconomic-based student assignment policies. These interventions could help reduce the opportunity and test score gaps that exist among predominantly Black and Hispanic schools, which tend to have higher poverty rates than predominantly white schools.

“It’s not that sitting next to a student of a certain race makes the school good or bad,” Owens tells Chalkbeat’s Erica Meltzer. “But we’ve never done ‘separate but equal.’ Until we eliminate broader systemic underlying inequalities in our society, we haven’t shown an ability to actually serve kids equitably.”

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