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Brown at 67: Segregation, Resegregation, and the Promise of Federal Policy

Education and the Path to Equity blog series, featuring Janel George and Linda Darling-Hammond

This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity.

This year marks the 67th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down legal segregation in public schools. Although characterized by many as a problem of the distant past and confined to Southern schools, school segregation continues to persist across the country. Schools have been quietly resegregating at rates that rival those that preceded the landmark school desegregation case in 1954—at times, with little attention from the public, policymakers, and the media.

Progress and Reversals

Following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and due, in part, to strong federal enforcement, integration began to take hold across the country. Whereas only 1% of Black children in the South attended schools with White children in 1963, approximately 90% of Black children attended desegregated schools in the early 1970s. This number peaked in the late 1980s—not only did most Black students attend desegregated schools, but 44% attended majority-White schools. Due, however, to a variety of factors—ongoing resistance to integrated schools through policies and practices, legal challenges that have limited school diversity approaches, and decreased federal support—schools have resegregated.

While resistance to integration is no longer as overt as it was in the years following Brown, contemporary policies and practices persist that undermine desegregation efforts, including the drawing of district boundary lines in ways that isolate students by race. At the same time, a series of legal challenges—including the 2007 case of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, in which the U.S. Supreme Court limited the consideration of student race in voluntary school desegregation programs—have impacted voluntary desegregation efforts. Many districts abandoned their desegregation programs following that case, unclear about whether their efforts would pass legal muster. The federal government has also decreased support for federal programs and for state and district desegregation efforts. For example, the 1972 Emergency School Aid Act, which provided grant support for district desegregation programs, was eliminated, and funding for the Magnet Schools Assistance Program remains significantly lower than that of many other education programs.

These and other factors have contributed to the current state of school resegregation. Since the high point of school integration in the late 1980s, the share of intensely segregated non-White schools (those schools with only 0–10% White students) more than tripled in the United States. White and Latinx students are the most segregated subgroups of students, with White students attending, on average, schools in which 69% of the students are White, and Latinx students attending schools in which an average of 55% of students are Latinx. Often, racial segregation is accompanied by socioeconomic segregation; many students of color attend schools with high numbers of students from low-income families. Racially and socioeconomically isolated schools often lack resources, such as access to advanced placement coursework or updated technology, that impact student outcomes.

Segregated schools deprive all students of the well-documented benefits of integrated education, including:

  • higher academic achievement in subjects like math and science;
  • improved cross-cultural understanding and empathy;
  • enhanced classroom discussion;
  • reduced prejudice and diminished likelihood of stereotyping;
  • improved critical thinking and problem-solving skills;
  • increased likelihood of living and working in integrated settings; and
  • promotion of civic participation in a diverse global economy.

School Resegregation and the Potential of Federal Policy to Help Remedy It

School resegregation is not a natural, inevitable occurrence—it has endured due to a combination of reinforcing public policies and a widespread failure to maintain integration efforts. Factors that have fueled school resegregation include the lifting of court desegregation orders, discriminatory housing practices that have fostered racially segregated neighborhoods, disinvestment of federal resources that supported school desegregation efforts, and court decisions that limited the strategies that districts could use to foster integrated schools.

Just as a variety of policies and practices have contributed to resegregation, a combination of thoughtful, evidence-based policies can help to foster integrated schools. In particular, the federal government can play an impactful role in supporting state and district school diversity efforts, as it did following resistance to Brown. Evidence-based considerations for the federal government include the following:

  • Establish and expand federal support of school integration programs: Over the past few decades, the federal government has decreased its investment in school integration programs. The federal government could once again use grant funding to provide targeted support for local school desegregation programs. For example, the federal government could reprise the 1972 Emergency School Aid Act. Grants could support programs, including the creation of magnet schools and funding of professional development to build the capacity of teachers to teach in diverse schools and to develop more diverse and inclusive curricular materials. Funding through this program could also support a variety of strategies, including implementing or sustaining voluntary integration programs, independently or as a multidistrict collaboration; establishing public school choice zones; revising school boundaries; or expanding access to transportation for students. A recent letter circulated by the National Coalition on School Diversity outlined federal funding priorities for supporting school integration. Some of these policies are included in the Strength in Diversity Act, which was recently reintroduced in Congress.
  • Strengthen the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP): Magnet schools have been found to foster integration. In the Hartford, CT, region, for example, magnet schools seek to integrate through two-way transfers, enabling students from the region to travel into and out of the Hartford school district. Through such programs, families can select from a variety of options, including applying to attend one of the region’s 44 magnet schools or schools in another district (through the Open Choice Program), to further desegregation. Data released in 2013 show that students attending racially and economically integrated regional magnet schools and suburban schools through the program are outperforming Hartford students attending traditional public schools. The data show that more than 44% of the region’s participating Black and Latinx k–12 students attended schools in settings more diverse than their neighborhood public schools.

    However, funding of the MSAP has not kept pace with other federal investments in education and represents a relatively small amount of federal support, given the important role magnet schools play in creating more integrated education settings. It was funded at just $107 million in 2020 and is unable to respond to demand from the field.

    In addition to increased funding, the MSAP could be modified to prioritize applicants that plan to include evidence-based elements and strategies that advance school integration. These could include centering school integration in the school mission and design; undertaking family outreach and engagement; providing transportation; and using inclusive enrollment practices, such as lotteries.
  • Update and reissue federal guidance on integration for states and districts: In 2018, the Trump administration rescinded federal guidance issued by the Obama administration outlining evidence-based approaches to school diversity. By elevating examples of effective school desegregation programs that meet court-imposed criteria, guidance can serve as a valuable resource for states and districts. Such guidance—particularly if produced through interagency collaboration among the departments of education, housing, and transportation—can help states and districts craft strategies that address their unique housing, transportation, and education contexts. Particularly in light of ongoing legal challenges that create uncertainty about legally permissible approaches, such guidance—including current research—would be valuable for states and districts.
  • Highlight the availability of federal funds for transportation to foster school integration: One of the primary acts of resistance to school integration was the imposition of a ban on use of federal funds for transportation for school integration. As a result of ongoing efforts, that ban was finally lifted in 2021. The removal of this prohibition provides states and districts with access to an additional resource for transportation to support integration programs. Particularly because segregation is prevalent among and between districts—due to housing segregation—programs that span multiple districts have been found to be effective in fostering diversity. A study of leaders of magnet schools, including magnet school project directors, district superintendents, and assistant superintendents, found that magnet schools that provided free transportation were less likely to be racially isolated than those that did not.
Just as a variety of policies and practices have contributed to resegregation, a combination of thoughtful, evidence-based policies can help to foster integrated schools.

Reflecting and Recommitting

As we reflect upon the meaning of Brown, we recognize the role of policy in helping to reduce—and later to deepen—school segregation. The federal policies outlined above can help to dismantle segregated education and move toward fulfillment of Brown’s promise to expand access to quality educational opportunities to all students, regardless of race. With the aid of historic federal investment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, states and districts can also play a role by investing these new funds in ways that promote equity and integration, such as creating magnet schools or supporting the retention and training of diverse educators.

At a time when the country is grappling with the consequences of racial inequality, we know the policies and approaches—including those mentioned here—that can help us to move toward a more racially just public education system.