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The Best Way to Reduce School Segregation? Giving Families Choices.

Wealthier families have always had options for educating their children. States have ways to provide options to everyone.

Parents peeking into the windows of a Chicago school
Parents peek in the classroom windows after dropping their children off at Locke Elementary School in Chicago as the city’s schools returned to classrooms on Aug. 22, 2022. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Last Friday marked the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that purposefully segregating schools on the basis of race was a violation of the 14th Amendment. “Purposefully” is an important distinction because today many schools are still segregated.

In 2024, school segregation is not the result of discriminatory government policy but a byproduct of outdated school zoning policies that give families little or no choice about where to send their children for their education. The creation of school choice programs in the states is the most promising way to move beyond address-based schooling and make real progress toward desegregating our schools.

The unanimous Brown decision was effective immediately when it was handed down in 1954, but it took decades of work, and several additional Supreme Court cases, to create integrated schools. By one metric, integration peaked in 1988, with 45 percent of Black children attending majority-white schools. A new report from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles shows that from 1988 onward, the number of Black children attending public schools that were 90 to 100 percent non-white — described as “intensely segregated” — nearly tripled to approximately 20 percent.

In the mid-20th century, government-approved school segregation was only one of many policies and programs that pushed racial minorities into separate communities. Redlining — the federal and state lending policies that restricted access to credit to people living in minority neighborhoods — played a significant role in segregating communities. Although redlining was formally outlawed in 1968, the effects continue today.

Access to other opportunities, such as business loans, education and social networks, were formally restricted by government, impacting the overall level of wealth non-white Americans could accumulate. These practices further contributed to the segregation of white and non-white communities.

Our nation has made a massive amount of progress on integrating society and providing equal rights to all Americans since Brown v. Board of Education started dismantling an unjust system. But the legacy of this segregation remains, most acutely obvious in the racial segregation of neighborhoods, which research suggests is increasing.

With neighborhood segregation systemically lingering in our communities and increasing, the findings of the UCLA report that schools are becoming less integrated is hardly surprising. Which begs the question: Why do we continue to assign children to schools based on neighborhoods we know have patterns of discrimination baked in?

The effects of racially segmented communities are clear. There is a large body of research showing that integrated school environments lead to academic, social and economic benefits. And yet many public-school proponents radically oppose the idea of students being able to choose a school outside of the one assigned by virtue of their home address, one that might provide them with a more racially, ethnically and/or culturally diverse school and all the benefits it provides.

Students from wealthier families can always choose to move to a neighborhood that feeds into a different public school or opt for private or alternative schooling options. But families without discretionary income to choose differently become stuck in neighborhoods lacking resources — perpetuating a cycle that restricts opportunity.

States have options to break this cycle. The most universal policies provide state-set, per-pupil funding amounts that students can use at any school — including public, private, charter, online and microschool. This immediately opens a vast array of options well beyond a given neighborhood that may have traditionally been closed off to opportunity.

Other plans — for states unsure about the crossover between public funds and private institutions — authorize public charter schools that create customized curriculums, often in a specific field such as art, math or science, which draw a variety of students from many neighborhoods and districts. Another public system option is open enrollment, which lets students transfer to any public school in the district, or sometimes state, if there is availability, sharing access to the best schools regardless of a student’s home neighborhood.

However states choose to expand educational choice and opportunity, it is clear that they must. Integration in neighborhoods and schools is on the decline. This is an issue not only of unfairness and lack of agency for the students who are denied a high-quality school, but also has larger societal implications. America will continue to become increasingly segregated if a system is not put in place to give families the ability to choose the school that’s best for their children.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at the State Policy Network.
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