Nonwhite students are projected to outnumber white students in the public schools for the first time this year. This chart from the Pew Research Center shows the dramatic shift in demographics since the late 1990s:
pew school enrollment by race
(Pew Research Center)
But that doesn't mean schools everywhere are rapidly becoming more diverse, or that the typical white student is likely to be a minority in his or her classroom. A more diverse group of public school students isn't making individual public schools much more diverse. Instead, it's intensifying patterns of racial isolation.
The rapidly changing demographics have collided with the end of federal desegregation orders and longstanding patterns of housing segregation. The result: Students nationally are more diverse than ever. But while white students are seeing slightly more diverse schools than in the past, most students are still going to public schools overwhelmingly with students of their own race. And black and Latino students attend less integrated schools than before.
"From the white perspective, it looks like integration is increasing," says Gary Orfield, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and a cofounder of the Civil Rights Project, a research center at the university. "But from the perspective of blacks and Latinos, who are going to be the majority in the future, it looks like segregation is increasing. And it's double segregation — by both race and poverty."
More diverse students don't always mean more diverse schools
The typical white public school student still attends a school where almost three-quarters of students are white. The typical black or Latino student still attends a school where most students are black and Latino, according to the Project for Civil Rights' report on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education:
school segregation data
Predominantly white schools have diversified — but not much. In 1991, when white students were two-thirds of all public school students nationally, they attended schools that were on average 83 percent white. Most white students today still attend schools that are predominantly white and middle class.
Black and Latino students, on the other hand, are more likely to attend schools where the student body is at least 90 percent black and Latino today than they were in 1980. The intersection between race and poverty means that they are also much more likely than white students to attend schools where most students are poor.
For some schools, this is a step backward. The enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 court decision striking down legally mandated segregation, led to dramatic change in the South. In the Northeast, there's been almost no change in more than 40 years.
segregated schools by year
Desegregation orders in the South made a clear difference between 1968 and 1988. But as courts have lifted those mandates, segregation has inched back up, Orfield says. Segregation in the Northeast is more likely to be driven by school district boundaries and housing segregation, and was never fully addressed.
How do you measure integration in an increasingly diverse school system?
Integration used to be measured by looking at the proportion of black and Latino students in majority-white schools. The proportion of black students in majority-white schools in the South peaked in 1988 at 44 percent and has been falling since then.
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But since a majority-white school no longer mirrors the reality of public school enrollment, the future will need a new benchmark for integration, Orfield says.
"Ideally, schools should serve as a good entryway into the mainstream of society," he says. What that mainstream looks like depends on where students live; an integrated school in California, where Latino students are in the majority, will look much different than a school in New Hampshire or Vermont, where nonwhite students are much less common.
"Our notion of what desegregation is should change," he says. "The best way to think about it is the extent to which really disadvantaged isolated groups get access to the schools of the more advantaged populations, and the schools that prepare you for college and so forth, and that those schools remain relatively stable."