White Communities, Black Students: Counties With the Biggest School Race Gap

White enrollment in private schools creates stark disparities in many districts.
by | July 2019
Students watching something on the projector.
(David Kidd)

In Rockland County, an affluent patch of suburbia north of New York City, 64 percent of the children are non-Hispanic whites. But a solid majority of the public school pupils are non-white. There’s a simple reason for that: Nearly half of the kids are in private school. Many of them are from Orthodox Jewish families who sent their children to yeshivas. As in much of the country, public student enrollment doesn’t closely reflect the population of children living in the community.

To show where this kind of mismatch exists, Governing compiled aggregate K-12 enrollment data for all larger U.S. counties reported to the Department of Education. Census estimates covering the under-18 population for 2013-2017 were then compared with average public-school enrollment over the same period. 

Nationally, public schools are less white than their communities, with blacks and Hispanics generally over-represented in those schools. The discrepancy isn’t very large in most places at the county level, typically a few percentage points. But the gap is far larger in some jurisdictions, and it’s in these areas where there can be a serious disconnect between taxpayers and support for public schools. Under- or over-representation is often much more apparent in smaller areas within counties, such as individual towns and districts. 

One major factor is the size of private school enrollment, which strongly correlates with demographic discrepancies. White students are vastly overrepresented in private schools because their families can afford them. Even with financial assistance, less affluent families often can’t provide transportation or pay fees for afterschool programs. 

Besides Rockland County, other jurisdictions where white students are least likely to enroll in public schools include the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn; the city of San Francisco; Jefferson Parish, La., outside New Orleans; and Montgomery County, Ala. In general, it’s in urban counties and in the South where public schools are least reflective of local demographics.

In Manhattan and Brooklyn, whites are underrepresented in public schools by about 19 percentage points. White students are most underrepresented in the South, such as in East Baton Rouge Parish, La. Disparities in private school enrollment are much less noticeable in most of the Midwest.

As might be expected, wealthy jurisdictions show particularly large discrepancies. In San Francisco, 29 percent of children are white, but they account for only 14 percent of public K-12 enrollment and 9 percent of high school enrollment. Similar discrepancies exist in the District of Columbia. But it’s not just a matter of affluence. Lori Bezahler, president of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, which advocates for disadvantaged students, notes that many minority families aren’t familiar with private-school enrollment lotteries or can’t take time off from work for school visits. “There are a lot of barriers, some intentional and some unintentional,” she says. 

Charter schools also have greater racial discrepancies than traditional public schools, with a disproportionately high black enrollment compared to neighborhood population, according to Brookings Institution research. Homeschooling is a factor that pulls in the opposite direction, with white students being overrepresented. The most recent federal estimates suggest more than 3 percent of all U.S. students are homeschooled.

Many states offer private school tax credits or vouchers. The effects of these programs on school population vary, depending in part on how they’re structured. After Milwaukee established the country’s first major school choice program in 1990, its private schools saw a big shift, becoming more black and Hispanic. Today, Milwaukee County’s public schools are an outlier, in that their demographics are nearly identical to those of the school-age population as a whole. Other places where schools closely reflect the overall population despite high private enrollment include Norfolk County, Mass.; Waukesha County, Wis., which borders Milwaukee; and Westchester County, N.Y., although larger differences may exist in individual districts or neighborhoods. 

Stark demographic disparities can have negative financial ramifications. Declines in white enrollment in New York City public schools decades ago coincided with reduced funding. In Rockland County, the Jewish yeshivas have long been a source of tension. In 2014, a state-appointed monitor for one troubled school district in Rockland went so far as to conclude that the school board “appeared to favor the interest of private schools over public schools.”

“The big risk of all of this is that taxpayers, particularly more affluent taxpayers, will see no real reason to further invest in public school systems,” says William Berry of the Southern Education Foundation. “It leads to a continuous downward spiral for students in these schools.”

 

SOURCE: Governing calculations of National Center for Education Statistics annual enrollment data for 2013-2017 school years, 2013-2017 Census American Community Survey estimates

 

Select a county to view more detailed school and population data for all areas with at least 50,000 children.

 

About the data: Enrollment data reflect aggregate K-12 enrollment totals for all public schools (including charters) geographically located within a county, regardless of their district. Percentages represent average annual shares for the 2013-2017 school years calculated from data reported by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Population data reflect estimates of the under age-18 population from the Census Bureau's 2013-2017 American Community Survey. Figures for African American and Asian children include those of Hispanic ethnicity.