Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Prioritize Stopping School Segregation Over Slander

By Nicole SochaczevskiPublished February 17, 2019

Comic of a teacher presenting a math lesson: 1 White kid in a well funded white school + 1 black kid in an under-funded ghetto school = 1 well education American child equipped for the future
As the debate rises over Biden’s previous opinions about school segregation, I challenge the public to focus on reversing school segregation, which still exists today, instead of spending time slandering the former Vice President.

As Joe Biden contemplates running for president in 2020, conservatives are highlighting comments he made in the 1970s opposing desegregation efforts in the United States. Several sources claim that while Biden vocally supported school integration, he consistently voted against busing-policies to appease his white constituents. As the debate rises over Biden’s previous opinions about school segregation, I challenge the public to focus on reversing school segregation, which still exists today, instead of spending time slandering the former Vice President.

Current research indicates that racial segregation levels in American schools today resemble those during the 1960s. According to data from the National Center on Education Statistics, the number of segregated schools - defined as schools in which less than 40% of the student body is white - doubled between 1996 and 2016. While these numbers may be shocking to some, what is more important are the underlying trends maintaining and reinforcing the resegregation of racial groups and economic classes.

The common narrative about the resegregation of schools in America has to do with the rollback of many progressive, anti-segregation policies implemented in the early 1970s. For example, since the 1990s, the Supreme Court has ended several district level desegregations plans and the federal government has stopped incentivizing schools to comply with non-discrimination laws, instead focusing on accountability tied to school outcome measures. Additionally, with the expansion of school choice, sociologists observe that many families are opting to send their children to magnet or charter schools, which further increases the level of racial isolation.

Another component that must be considered when looking into the reasons why the American school system has regressed to these levels of racial segregation has to do with the relationship between school segregation and neighborhood segregation. As most school districts assign students to specific schools based on the neighborhoods they live in, school and neighborhood segregation are highly intertwined. A study conducted by Reardon et al. in 2015 found that the racial composition of a neighbourhood depends much more on race than on income level. In other words, regardless of income level, individuals of a particular race are more likely to like in a neighborhood with a higher percentage of people of that same particular race. For instance, white people, whether poor or rich, typically live in neighborhoods that are 80% white. The authors also reported that the average white household lives in a neighborhood with a similar income distribution to the average black household earning five times as much annually. This emphasizes the economic segregation as well as the racial segregation that is driving school racial imbalances in America.

Finally, as a nation, we have yet to escape the grasp of social closure: the way in which certain groups engage in opportunity hoarding, through distributive processes of segregation, to restrict access for other groups and create racial imbalance. In other words, much of the racial imbalance that is observed in school composition is driven by the desire of certain groups, typically the white and affluent people, to isolate themselves from others and hoard resources such as the best educated teachers, state and local funding, and other amenities. While this could be an issue of homophily, it is more likely an issue driven by “white flight” - the concept of white populations choosing to leave neighborhoods with low performing schools and a high number of nonwhite students for neighborhoods with better performing schools. This theory can be substantiated by examining statistics of racial segregation across and within school districts. Ann Owens reports, in a 2016 study, that 60% of neighborhood segregation occurs within school districts, pointing to increasing fragmentation of school districts along racial lines. Owens also finds, in a 2018 study, that, “white families can better afford to live in affluent districts than can black families, on average.” She cites Reardon et al. in mentioning that even when families have the same income, black families typically live in poorer neighborhoods, with fewer resources, due to racialized housing policies and indirect forms of discrimination.

Overall, maybe we should be less concerned about Biden’s previous misguided comments and more concerned with the issue that school segregation still exists today.