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The Hill: Social Science Explains Why K-12 Integration Efforts Should Continue

Originally published by The Hill on 07/10/23.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling to overturn affirmative action in higher education comes at a time when racial inequality in K-12 schools is deep and growing. The court’s decision immediately curtails what was an already limited but still essential race-conscious policy, one that a clear majority of respondents supported in a recent public opinion poll.

Not only does this decision go against decades of social science evidence, but it also means that addressing segregation and inequality in K-12 schools is even more pivotal to mitigate the harm of the ruling.

As researchers who have been studying segregation and integration in K-12 schools for years, we know that the consensus of research is clearer than ever about the range of academic and lifelong social benefits of integrated educational settings. Research across a range of sectors, including education, suggests that racial diversity and desegregation is connected to many positive outcomes. These include enhanced critical thinking, more complex and creative problem-solving, reduced prejudice and inequality, and increased civic participation.

Despite the court’s prior acknowledgement of the fundamental importance of school integration, our research has found white students have the least exposure to students of other races. Black and Latinx students attend increasingly segregated schools in districts that receive billions of dollars less in funding. While segregation was once considered an urban issue, it has now spread to suburban districts and rural areas. Thus, students in all communities are affected by the Court’s decision and persisting inequality.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts noted, “The conclusion reached by the Brown Court was thus unmistakably clear: the right to a public education ‘must be made available to all on equal terms.’” But research shows that race remains tightly connected to unequal educational opportunity, independent of socioeconomic status. Growing racial and socioeconomic segregation in elementary and secondary schools is driven in part by gaping and stagnant wealth gaps, opportunity hoarding across school district and attendance lines, and the expansion of school choice without civil rights protections. Classroom segregation within diverse schools also cordons off opportunities for higher level learning. 

These drivers of segregation render equitable access to advanced K-12 coursework more difficult for historically marginalized students. And it’s precisely these classes that are seen as necessary for admission to elite postsecondary institutions.

Without affirmative action in higher education admissions, rectifying these inequalities is needed more than ever to create a pipeline of diverse students for our colleges and universities to admit. Unfortunately, studies of federal and local politics around K-12 integration efforts document how prior legal decisions can have a chilling effect beyond the actual holding of the courts.

The 2007 Parents Involved decision, for instance, identified compelling governmental interests in voluntary integration of K-12 schools and outlined how districts could permissibly pursue it, including through race-conscious means. Local responses varied, but following the decision, a number of districts changed their voluntary integration policies and no longer used race in any way. Some dropped integration as a policy goal altogether. While this decision focuses on affirmative action in higher education, officials, particularly in deep red states, will likely interpret its implications for race-conscious policies more broadly across the entire pk-16 continuum. Indeed, there are already signs that conservative groups are successfully pushing in this direction.

Competitive admissions K-12 magnet schools are also facing a similar — but perhaps even more concerning — set of legal challenges attacking diversity as a compelling interest. The court reaffirmed that diversity principle as recently as 2016 for higher education and in 2007 for K-12 school districts. Moving to overturn it so quickly signals further barriers to addressing segregation and inequality across the nation’s public schools.

Regardless of the ruling, however, reducing racial isolation and promoting diversity remain compelling K-12 interests. Social science evidence justifies both race-conscious remediation and affirmative steps to create diverse learning environments. School districts should resist attacks on targeted efforts to prepare or recruit historically disadvantaged students for selective admissions schools or on student assignment policies that consider the racial and socioeconomic makeup of schools or neighborhoods.

To build and secure a healthy, multiracial democracy during a time of judicial retrenchment on racial equality in education, we must focus on creating less segregated and more equitable and opportunity-rich K-12 schools. Efforts to voluntarily integrate districts, schools and classrooms should be accompanied by efforts to secure strong, equitable funding for public K-12 education. Funding should target students with unmet needs, bolstering exposure to strong and diverse teachers, challenging curricula and other appropriate supports. 

We should also use existing federal civil rights laws and policies to ensure that school segregation is not made worse by changes to attendance lines or new school choices. Enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act can address racial disparities in students’ experiences in schools. And the federal government can incentivize state and local voluntary integration plans through grant-making and technical assistance, though additional federal funding for these efforts is needed.

At all levels of government and across sectors, we urgently need strong leadership ready to innovate and implement nuanced policies to combat entrenched poverty and inequality. To collaboratively further justice, their work must be supported by advocates and social scientists. The federal work of protecting civil rights in education remains “democracy-saving” in the words of the current assistant secretary of Education. 


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Genevieve Siegel-Hawley

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research examines the scope...

Erica Frankenberg

Erica Frankenberg is an associate professor of education and demography at the Pennsylvania State University, and co-director of the Center for Education and Civi...