Convenience plus a conscience: Lessons for school integration

Students arrive for class at Mahnomen Elementary School in Mahnomen, Minnesota.

The controversial appointment of Betsy DeVos, an advocate for expanding school vouchers, reanimated long-standing arguments over school assignment, funding, and segregation. There is a great deal of political heat here: racial divisions in U.S. schooling echo and amplify the nation’s racist history. Education is a vital ingredient for success in adulthood.

In this paper, we argue that:

  1. Schools remain highly segregated by race and income, and this segregation hinders progress towards greater educational opportunity;
  2. school segregation is not only a byproduct of residential segregation, but also a reflection of policy choices; and
  3. daily factors such as school schedules and bus times may be as important to the success or failure of integration efforts as ideological persuasion, as a case study of Wake County suggests. Desegregation is a practical matter, as well as a political one.

1. America’s schools: Still segregated, hurting equal opportunity

Sixty-two years ago, Chief Justice Earl Warren affirmed what any American who stepped foot in a black public school knew: separate was unequal. Black schools had fewer textbooks, decrepit facilities, and underpaid teachers. And the separateness itself implied that black and white students were inherently unequal.

Since then, some progress has been made towards integrating all students into better resourced, more diverse schools. But some of that progress has stalled. School segregation fell dramatically between the 70s and the 80s, but has trended relatively flat since, according to research by John Logan, Weiwei Zhang, and Deirdre Oakely, shown in the graph below.

This measure of segregation is called the “dissimilarity index.” It’s a measure of how closely schools reflect their community that ranges between 0 and 100, where lower numbers denote less segregation. It also has an intuitive interpretation: the proportion of students who would have to move schools in order for the schools to perfectly match the district’s overall demographics.

The black-white dissimilarity index between schools within metro areas (overall metro segregation) is shaded dark blue. Segregation between schools within each district (within-district segregation) is shown in orange. Segregation between districts within each metro is shown in light blue.


If the average American public school reflected the demographic composition of the general population, about half of black students’ peers would be white. Instead, according to research by the Urban Institute, 28 percent of all black students attend schools in which minority children represent more than 90 percent of enrollment and more than 75 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. Racial and economic segregation amplify each other. The highly segregated schools that many black and Latino students attend also isolate them among disproportionately low-income peers.

Schools with lots of poor students are also those with lots of black and Latino students:


Why does segregation matter? For many, the answer is obvious: we live in a diverse society, and so to educate our children in classrooms full of others just like them would be a poor preparation for citizenship. More concretely, segregation often means poor students and students of color receive fewer resources relative to the challenges they face. Low-income schools offer fewer extracurricular opportunities and suffer from 50 percent higher teacher turnover relative to wealthier schools. Many states and local governments spend less on their poorest school districts than on their richest districts. Federal spending helps address this imbalance, but as Arne Duncan told the Washington Post, “federal spending was never intended to equalize funding for poor children…it was meant to add more money for students who need more services.”

How far segregation directly impacts student achievement is a difficult research question; for a longer discussion, see our paper with Russ Whitehurst, “Segregation, race, and charter schools: What do we know?” In particular, it is difficult to separate race, poverty, and other background factors, especially when assessing outcomes at a school level. For example: the best quantitative studies find that black students’ lower average academic achievement is statistically related to their higher poverty rates more than factors related “directly” to race. Of course, that raises the question, “Why are black students disproportionately poor?” Much of the answer—and culpability—lies outside the education system. But it’s important to remember the historic and ongoing interplay between race and income when thinking about the effects school segregation.

So although the two usually go together, some studies try to estimate the effect of racial school segregation as distinct from the effect of economic segregation. Segregated schools seemed to reduce African American first grader’s reading gains by more than 25 percent of a standard deviation, according to a study by Kirsten Kainz and Yi Pan at the University of North Carolina, drawing on data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. The repeal of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s integration policy was associated with decreased educational attainment for white students and increased crime rates for minority students, according to an analysis by Steven Billings, Jonah Rockoff, and David Deming. Segregation is particularly troubling because there are often stark funding gaps between school districts. In effect, many American metros have two school systems, one for well-off suburban students and another for poor students.

And, of course, we should care about both racial segregation and economic segregation—especially because economic school segregation has risen in recent decades.

All this suggests that moving to a more integrated system would help to narrow achievement gaps. In a study by Heather Schwartz of 850 students in Montgomery County, Maryland, low-income children living in public housing who were randomly placed into lower-poverty schools through a lottery made up half of their initial disadvantage in math and one-third in reading relative to their non-poor peers. Black students who attended integrated schools following desegregation orders graduated from high school and college in greater numbers; they enjoyed higher earnings in more prestigious jobs and had better health as adults, according to work by Rucker Johnson. (Meanwhile, white students’ outcomes along all these dimensions were measurably the same before and after desegregation.) Finally, the black-white SAT score gap is more severe in segregated cities—such that moving from a fully segregated to an integrated city would close a quarter of the gap, according to research by David Card and Jesse Rothstein.

2. Residential segregation does not necessarily equal school segregation

Segregated schools do not result from laws of nature. They result from a combination of factors, including where parents choose to live (or where they can afford to live) and school assignment  policies, like where administrators draw attendance boundaries.

School segregation reflects residential segregation to the extent that schools tend to draw students from nearby neighborhoods. But this relationship is not fixed. In some cities, schools are less segregated than neighborhoods; in others, the opposite is true. The right bars show residential segregation between white and non-white residents in each county; the left bars show school segregation at the high school level:


More residentially segregated cities typically have more segregated schools. But there is variation in this relationship: in the four counties on the left, the schools are less segregated than neighborhoods; in the other four counties, they are more segregated.

There are a cluster of counties with similar levels of residential segregation (from 45 in Jefferson to 48 in Charlotte), but different levels of school segregation. So school segregation is not an automatic byproduct of residential segregation. It reflects specific decisions about policy.

Wake County, North Carolina, which includes the city of Raleigh, had a relatively robust integration policy until 2010. Partly for that reason, it had low school and residential segregation. As the dissimilarity index score shows, fewer than a third of white or non-white Wake County students would have to move schools to completely integrate the school system. One result of this integration effort has been to loosen the association between the racial composition of schools and the economic background of its students. (See the appendix below for charts showing each county.)

Many places have some form of integration policy: a 2016 Century Foundation report found that at least 100 school districts and charter networks in 32 states use students’ socioeconomic background in their school assignment policies. Those policies covered roughly 8 percent of public school students. At the district level, integration policies usually mean modifying school assignment algorithms to give extra weight to each student’s neighborhood or economic background, with the goal of creating more mixed schools.

A similar story of policy decisionmaking explains the results in Jefferson County, Kentucky, which encompasses Louisville—although that district’s integration plan is under threat from state lawmakers.

The graphs below show the correlation between the share of white students and the poverty rate of each school’s census tract. The school data come from the 2011-2012 year, just after Wake County rolled back its integration efforts. The bubbles are proportional to the school’s grade 9-12 enrollment. Notice that Raleigh has a fairly strong, significant correlation, while Louisville shows a weaker, non-significant correlation.CCF_20170323_Reeves_4


3. The nuts and bolts of integration: Lessons from Wake County

The rise and fall of integration policy

In 1976, a coalition of Wake County school and business leaders created a unified school district incorporating Raleigh and 11 outlying cities. This is a vital first step toward integration, since it allows the district to open up access to more schools, especially for poorer inner-city students. In places like Henrico County, VA, by contrast, suburban communities kept their school districts separate from the center city, which functioned, in effect, as a wall preventing poorer kids from attending their schools. Until 2000, Wake also had a race-based integration policy. It was fairly effective; only 21 percent of Wake’s minority students attended majority-minority schools in 1999, compared to 70 percent nationally.

Then court rulings forced the district to change its policy, from an explicitly race-based integration policy to one focused on economic factors. From 2000 to 2010, administrators tried to ensure that each public school had “no more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch,” and no more than 25 percent performing below grade level.

The new approach slowed but did not halt progress towards more integrated schools. After 2000, minority students still closed some of the achievement gap with white students, and both groups increased their scores on standardized tests. In a 2012 paper, Jonathan Rothwell found that Wake had one of the smallest black-white test score gaps in the nation relative to expectations based on area demographics. Meanwhile, districts with less robust integration policies fared less well. Mecklenburg, Cumberland, Guilford, and Forsyth counties saw their black students’ scores fall and their race gaps widen.

But in 2009, a small political earthquake hit Wake County. Somewhere between 6 and 8 percent of Wake residents (an unusually high turnout) voted a Republican majority onto the School Board, which then voted in March 2010 to replace the diversity assignment system with one that focused on “neighborhood schools” close to students’ homes. By shrinking school attendance zones, this new focus effectively reversed the direction of the previous integration program. The Board dropped the “40 percent” benchmark and removed 1,000 low-income students from the schools they were attending and sent them back to schools in their own, lower-income neighborhoods. Since 2008, the number of schools where at least 70 percent of the students receive subsidized lunch has jumped from zero to 12, and the number of schools where minority students make up more than 70 percent of enrollment has doubled, even though total minority enrollment only increased 3 percentage points.

It is easy to assume that the 2009 reversal was the result of political backlash against the integration policies pursued, largely successfully, over the previous couple of decades. And there was certainly an ideological dimension at work.

But the rejection of the old policy by many parents was practical as well as political. The frustration parents felt with existing policies stemmed in many cases from other concerns about inconvenient schedules and commutes, which were only partly related to the integration policy. Issues surrounding funding, school schedules, and bus routes were all hotly debated. With time and resources scarce, the integration policy became a target for parents’ general frustration.

Four key ingredients for school integration: money, stability, transport, competence

Wake County is then both a model and a cautionary tale. What lessons can be learned from its storied history of school integration?

1. Money matters

Wake’s problems began with a seemingly innocuous trend: population growth. Public school enrollment in the county increased more than 50 percent in the 1990s, from 64,000 to just over 100,000, then another 50 percent between 2000 and 2013, to 150,000 students, making it one of the largest districts in the country.

As Wake’s student population boomed, placing new demands on the system, state legislators and, in particular, Wake County Commissioners kept a tight grip on education dollars, as NC State professors Toby Parcel and Andrew Taylor write in their book, The End of Consensus. In 2010, the district had to make up a $20 million shortfall. Despite voter-approved school bonds and levies, inadequate funding led the School Board to cut corners in the years leading up to 2009, sometimes out of necessity, to deal with its growing population. This slowly eroded the school district’s ability to keep the integration policy operating smoothly.

School schedules are one example where the resource-constrained district inconvenienced parents. In the mid-2000s, the school board started to assign students to year-round schools. This saved money, because it allowed the district to delay new school construction. But for some parents, year-round school wasn’t optional. In 2005, for example, administrators believed they were roughly 9,600 seats short for the 2007-2008 school year, so they imposed year-round schedules on almost two dozen schools. Parents could face the inconvenience of having one child in a year-round school and another in a traditional calendar school. This policy was not directly related to the integration policy, but it did cause frustration among parents, creating a political climate in which repeal became a possibility.

2. Stability matters

The school board reassigned 9,300 students to different schools in 2006, and almost 10,800 the next year; after that, the school board reassigned almost 5 percent of the student population on average each year. Some of the reassignment was driven by the economic diversity quotas, but much of it was made necessary by the geographic distribution of county-wide growth, with more new students in suburban areas where schools were overcrowded. The School Board couldn’t afford to build more schools because the state legislature and county commissioners wouldn’t provide the funds. So it had to reassign kids to less-overcrowded facilities elsewhere in the county.

Against this backdrop of varying schedules and significant reassignment, the integration policy became a point of friction. As Board member Horace Tart told the local ABC station in 2008, “When you look at some schools you have an overcrowding problem and others you have a diversity problem and sometimes when you address one problem, you create another, it’s just difficult to look at all the angles and come up with a solution.” In the context of limited capital resources, some parents and administrators started, for the first time, to see the integration policy as a hurdle to improving school operations.

3. Transport matters

There is a quiet national crisis in attracting bus drivers. Drivers have to clear stringent requirements; they must be amenable to limited hours, early-morning and late-afternoon work; and cope with long stretches of unpaid vacation. School districts compete for drivers with the trucking industry, which pays better. Nationally, only 6 percent of school bus contracting companies have enough drivers; 30 percent of respondents in a survey by School Bus Fleet Magazine said they had a “severe or desperate shortage.”

In Wake, the challenges of getting students to school efficiently may have been even steeper because the resources available for transport were too limited given its complex assignment plans. In 2012, School Board president Kevin Hill told the local ABC station, “In an attempt to find funding for those programs, maybe we pinched transportation a little too much…My guess is that we’re going to bring back most [of the buses] if not all of them. The biggest issue we have right now is the lack of bus drivers.”

Lengthening bus rides and earlier departure times are a problem that has continued up until the present day: in 2015, Wake put 10 percent fewer buses on the road than two years earlier and revised or eliminated hundreds of routes. In fact, the impact of the integration policy itself on bus rides was relatively small in the years leading up the 2009 election. According to one former school board member, roughly 2.5 percent of district students took long-distance rides from the inner city to the suburbs, and only 0.5 percent were bused from suburban areas to central city schools. But as the transportation issue grew in importance for many parents, it become a lightning rod that directed parent frustration towards the integration policy.

4. Competence matters

The integration policy fell along with the previously Democratically-controlled school board. But it was not a single-issue election. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the running of the county’s schools, in part for the reasons described above. Attempting to maintain the diversity policy in such a resource-constrained environment would always have been challenging. But additional mistakes, like the inconvenience caused by competing schools schedules, made matters worse.

Resistance to integration policies is typically assumed to be greatest among more affluent and white parents. But survey evidence collected by Toby Parcel and Andrew Taylor finds that  unhappiness with the status quo for Wake County schools cut, to some extent, across race and income lines. Low-income African American respondents were actually less likely than higher-income African Americans to support the diversity policy. This may be because they find it harder to handle odd or competing schedules, or inconvenient bus routes and timings.


Wake County’s integration policy, even after its modification in 2000, was in many ways a model for other school districts, and the county’s schools remain significantly less segregated than in similar areas.

For decades, the diversity policy hummed along without widespread parent protest. Many parents seemed satisfied as long as their children had predictable schedules and got to school in a timely manner. They appreciated that their children attended some of the highest-achieving, most diverse schools in the county.

The fall of the policy was as much about practical failures as political persuasion. Many parents want their children in diverse schools; few of them want their children riding a school bus for an hour each day. Conversely, if integration is relatively convenient for families because the district offers manageable school schedules and reliable bus service, they’ll be more likely to embrace it.

So, while moves towards integration typically focus on grappling with race and class anxiety,  many parents are worried less about integration per se and more about logistics. “How close will my child’s school be to home?” “Can I get them school and get to work on time?”

Without solving these basic, daily issues for students and parents, integration will never stand a chance. But well-run school districts aren’t free; people have to pay to maintain them. If communities want integrated schools, they need competent district management and be willing to front the required resources for enough schools, teachers, buses, and drivers.

In some ways, Wake faced unique challenges among districts with strong integration policies. Louisville, Kentucky didn’t have the same student population growth. Montgomery County, Maryland has a long-running inclusionary zoning policy and a robust tax base to fund new school construction. Both ease the tradeoff between convenience and integration.

When school boards and administrators manage the resources they’re dealt with transparency and skill, they can minimize the diversity-convenience tradeoff. This makes it easier for parents to choose integration. At the very least, it is vital to avoid having parents and other stakeholders blame integration policies for unrelated management failings.

The segregation of schools is not a product of natural forces, but of policy. More integration is both desirable and practicable. It is also intertwined with resource allocation, managerial skill, and basic issues such as an adequate team of people driving buses to and from school every day. Resources, leadership, communication: the ingredients of successful integration turn out to be very similar to those for success in running education systems in general.

Amid the heat of partisan political debates over segregation and integration, it is important not to lose sight of the practical, everyday factors that influence how parents feel about their school district. Integration policies may require, on the part of many voters and parents, a broader sense of responsibility for their community. But convenience matters, too.

The authors would like to thank Toby Parcel for her comments on an earlier draft.




  • Footnotes
    1. Such factors could include teacher discrimination against students of color, self-stereotyping around tests, or academic peer effects related to students’ racial identities, for example.
    2. The unit as which residential segregation is measured within each county is the Census tract.
    3. The dissimilarity index has some limitations. The version we use allows for only two groups, so nuances about Asian or Hispanic student enrollments are grouped into the cringe-inducing “non-white” category in our accounting. The dissimilarity index is also sensitive to the size of the geographic area in question. Smaller, more homogeneous school districts can have relatively low index values if they’ve segregated themselves from nearby districts with different types of students. John Logan calculated a 2010 black-white dissimilarity index of 64.8 for Henrico County, for example. But Henrico is about 64 percent white, while adjacent Richmond City is less than half white. So if the Richmond area had a more regional school district that included both Richmond City and Henrico, it’s dissimilarity index value would likely be higher.
    4. The correlation between the proportion of white students and proportion of students eligible for FRPL is 0.58 in Jefferson County KY, compared to 0.92 in Mecklenburg County, NC and 0.97 in Henrico County VA. The correlation in Wake County is 0.73.
    5. The Supreme Court decided integration policies based explicitly on individual student’s race were impermissible in 2007.
    6. School race and enrollment data comes from the Department of Education’s Common Core of Data for school year 2011-2012. Tract poverty data comes from Social Explorer, which curates Census Bureau data: Census tract population age 18 and younger by poverty status, 2011-2015. Social Explorer, based on data from ACS 5-year estimates, 2011-2015. New York City, NY: Social Explorer 2017
    7. Todd Silberman, “Schools Facing Diversity Dilemma,” Raleigh News & Observer, Dec. 26, 1999, at 1A.
    8. It’s important to remember, however, that not all Wake residents who voted have children in Wake Public Schools. Conversely, many parents with children in the school system didn’t vote in the School Board election.
    9. Art Pope, founder of a conservative North Carolina think tank, poured money into the local GOP, which mailed flyers in support of the new conservative Board candidates.“If we end up with a concentration of students underperforming academically, it may be easier to reach out to them. Hypothetically, we should consider that as well,” Pope told the Washington Post in 2011. Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ political organization, helped organize voter education and volunteer efforts. The very idea that School Board candidates would run partisan campaigns was somewhat new, according to NC State researchers Toby Parcel and Andrew Taylor, whose 2015 book, The End of Consensus, tells the story of Wake schools during this period through interviews, focus groups, historical research, and a survey of Wake County adults.
    10. In 2006, voters narrowly approved a property tax increase of roughly $70 on $150,000 of assessed value. State and federal funds represent roughly two-thirds of Wake’s budget, but local money must cover most construction costs. Population growth and reduced funds from the Commissioners had long led the district to look elsewhere for cash, as Parcel and Taylor write. The school board had asked voters to approve multiple bonds in excess of $500 million since the early 1990s, to build and expand schools for Wake’s burgeoning student population.
    11. In 2015 the County commissioners approved an additional tax increase, partly due to widespread recognition that growth had outstripped funding.
    12. The Board’s sometimes-sudden actions exacerbated parents’ unease. A few schools employed “Wacky Wednesdays:” letting kids out an hour early to give teachers additional class prep time. In those schools, the practice was popular, so the Board abruptly imposed it on all schools just before 2009-2010 school year. Unhappy parents were left to adapt their schedules.
    13. Between 2011 and 2014, the average student ride time increased from 16 to 19 minutes; the average distance to the nearest stop increased by 75 feet, to 722 feet; and the earliest pickup time moved from 5:30 AM to 4:49 AM.
    14. We calculated the dissimilarity index for Wake County high schools during the 2014-15 school year, and found a similar value. The correlation between FRPL eligibility and the share of white students in the schools increased slightly, from 0.73 to 0.86.