Same as It Ever Was: Why Desegregation Still Matters in the South

It’s no secret: the quality of a child’s education is one of the most important factors in her future success. It’s also no secret that educational quality varies widely between schools and between districts, and that inequitable residential segregation and school funding formulas often concentrate students from low-wealth families in lower quality schools. The rate of poverty for public school students, like the overall poverty rate, differs across regions, states, and school districts, but it is generally higher in the South. EdBuild recently mapped the poverty rates in school districts nationally. In the map below, those areas in light blue are the ones where the student poverty rate is less than 10 percent and dark blue areas are more than 40 percent:

South school poverty

Source: EdBuild

School poverty varies widely district to district, and in many areas districts with high levels of poverty are located right next to ones with lower levels. In places where countywide school districts were never formed, like Birmingham, Ala., you see that intense contrast:

Birmingham school poverty

Source: EdBuild

The EdBuild map doesn’t tell us about the concentration of poverty at schools within districts, but other research does. In the South especially, school quality follows patterns of residential segregation by economic status and race. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools. In Durham County, N.C., where 61 percent of students are from low-income families, 36 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, while only 6 percent of white students do. In Jefferson County, Ala., where Birmingham is located, 65 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, while only 2 percent of white students do.

While the South was less segregated than the rest of the nation during the 1980s and early 1990s, by 2009, Southern levels of segregation had risen quickly enough to catch up with the nation:

Segregation chart

Source: Southern Slippage report from UCLA

The problem is not really about the concentration of low-wealth students—it’s the concentration of wealth. In a new episode of This American Life that you absolutely need to listen to, Nikole Hannah-Jones notes that school desegregation cut the national achievement gap between black and white students in half in less than two decades (it has widened again since 1988, when segregation began to increase). She explains:

It’s important to point out that it is not that something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids. It’s not that suddenly a switch turns on and they get intelligence or wanting, you know, the desire to learn when they’re with white kids. What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids, and therefore, it gets them access to the same things that white kids get: quality teachers and quality instruction.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the importance of where a person lives to educational and economic success, but that point requires context: where you live is often not about choice. Intentional policies and practices actively created residential segregation by race. Sean Reardon of the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that middle-class black families tend to live in lower-wealth neighborhoods than low-income white families:

NYT neighborhood inc

Source: NYT

While the economic resources of families matter tremendously to educational success (there’s a linear relationship between income and who goes to college: with each increase in the family income distribution, the rate of college attendance increases the same amount), low-wealth young people in some areas are much more successful than low-wealth young people in others. The place a young person lives in and the resources available there determine the type of opportunities and the quality of the person’s preparation for them. That’s why, as Peter Edelman points out (h/t Dylan Matthews), reforms to improve and equalize school quality are a necessary complement to antipoverty efforts:

There is a bogus debate going on that pits school reform against antipoverty advocates. School reformers, wanting to squelch teachers and others who have said over the years that they cannot teach children who come to school with multiple problems that stem from poverty, say (correctly) that there are no valid excuses for failing to teach low-income children. They point (as they could not until quite recently) to multiple examples of schools that excel in teaching low-income children. But to the extent they say or imply that reducing poverty now is somehow less important than school reform, they overstate their point. Antipoverty advocates, for their part, in some instances downplay the independent efficacy of school reform.


The real answer, quite obviously, is that both school reform and serious antipoverty policies are vital. Better schools in inner cities, both charters and traditional public schools, are crucial to children’s possibilities of having a better life. But far more inner-city children will succeed in school if their parents have better jobs and higher incomes and if the communities in which they are growing up are healthy. There is no either-or here. Good schools are a must for inner-city children, but they cannot achieve maximum effect unless the schools strategy is part of a larger antipoverty approach.

It may seem like an obvious point that both are important, but in an era of scarce public investment, we often overlook it. Poverty is not an intractable problem, and students from low-wealth families are not doomed, but we talk as though they are. School desegregation both narrowed the achievement gap and dramatically improved the intergenerational mobility of black students in the South. We know that mobility is higher in places with quality schools and lower levels of residential segregation. In those places, both low-wealth and affluent students have better outcomes. Despite all this, there is very little acknowledgement of the importance of desegregating schools. “We have this thing that we know works, that the data shows works, that we know is best for kids, and we won’t talk about it,” says Nikole Hannah-Jones. “It’s not even on the table.”