Diversity Study Finds Economic Disparities Rising in NC Schools

study groupSegregation in schools appears to be increasing in the South, and in North Carolina. This is the most pressing civil rights issues of our time.

DURHAM, NC – A comprehensive new report, “Racial and Economic Diversity in North Carolina’s Schools: An Update, highlights the important role played by public policies in shaping the diversity of school populations. The report defines several measures of imbalance and interracial exposure and uses those measures to describe the changes in the state’s schools. It also compares teacher characteristics across schools with varying proportions of low-income students and racial minorities.

The report by three Duke University public policy professors analyzed whether schools in each of the state’s 100 counties mirror the racial and economic composition of that county as a whole. “Although state-enforced school segregation is now a distant memory, significant disparities remain between schools, both racial and economic,” said study co-author Charles Clotfelter. “These disparities are among the most pressing civil rights issues of our time.”

Clotfelter and his colleagues, Sanford School of Public Policy Professors Helen Ladd and Jacob Vigdor, updated their earlier research on the topic with data from the 2011-12 school year.

Long-term trends

The Supreme Court struck down the South’s practice of operating racially segregated public school systems almost 60 years ago. But while the Court declared segregation unconstitutional in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, it was not until the late 1960s that schools in the South saw a dramatic decline in school segregation.

Since that time, public schools in North Carolina, and across the South, have been among the least segregated in the nation, where “segregation” refers to the imbalance in the racial composition of schools rather than the formal policy of separating students by race.

The racial balance in North Carolina’s public schools has remained steady since 2005-06, ending a trend of growing disparity from the previous decade, but students are increasingly separated by income. But since the early 1990s, in the wake of court cases and an apparent weakening of political support for active desegregation policies, segregation in schools appears to be increasing across the South including NC. Two background factors that affect imbalance in the state are the judicial history of racial segregation and the growth in the state’s Hispanic population, which has changed the racial/ethnic composition of the state’s public school students.

Professor Ladd noted that across some North Carolina counties, racial and economic imbalances in schools are large. “These disparities are important because research shows they can have negative educational consequences for students,” she said.

What next?

Schools serving a disproportionately black, Hispanic or low-income student body tend to have teachers with weaker credentials than schools serving more advantaged students, according to the report. Teachers in these schools tend to have fewer years of teaching experience, degrees from less competitive colleges, fewer regular teaching licenses or National Board certification and lower scores on tests taken by teachers.

Local districts can reduce disparities by merging city and county school districts and adopting student assignment plans that minimize economic disparities between schools, while state policymakers can take steps to limit the number of charter schools, or ensure they have diverse student bodies, the report states.

“With the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr., we wanted to re-examine progress toward one of King’s goals — equal access to a high-quality education for all students,” said Clotfelter, author of the 2004 book After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation.

Other Report Findings:

Imbalance by economic status has increased steadily since 1994-95. This index measures disparities in the percentage of students eligible for free lunch across schools within each of the state’s 100 counties. Vance, Mecklenburg, Hyde, Forsyth and Bertie counties have the highest rates of economic imbalance, meaning school populations do not mirror the counties’ populations.

13.3percentEnrollment of Hispanic students in N.C. public schools grew from 1.5 percent in 1994-95 to 13.3 percent in 2011-12. Largely as a result of this growth, the proportion of students attending predominantly white schools (those at least 90 percent white) decreased from 9 percent of all students in 2005-06 to 4 percent in 2011-12.

After increasing between 1994-95 and 2005-06, average white-nonwhite imbalance in the state’s public schools has remained stable. The study’s racial imbalance index assesses whether the racial makeup of schools mirrors the county’s population.

Racial imbalance is highest in Halifax County, followed by Davidson County. Both counties are served by three racially disparate school districts, a county-level district and two citywide districts. Mecklenburg, Alamance and Forsyth round out the top five most racially imbalanced counties. Each of these counties has one school district.

Public charter schools are much more likely than regular public schools to be racially unbalanced. Whereas 30 percent of regular public school students attended a racially unbalanced school (one with less than 20 percent or more than 80 percent minority enrollment), more than 60 percent of charter school students attended a racially unbalanced school. This measure considers the racial makeup within a particular school, rather than comparing the school to the county as a whole.

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