62 years after 'Brown vs. Board of Education' ruling, U.S. schools becoming more segregated

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., flanked by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., left, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., speaks during a news conference Tuesday about the report, requested by Scott in 2014.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., flanked by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., left, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., speaks during a news conference Tuesday about the report, requested by Scott in 2014.
Published May 18, 2016

Sixty-two years after the Supreme Court ruled that America's schools must be integrated, campuses across the country are becoming increasingly segregated by race and income.

A report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office shows that the number of schools segregated along racial and financial lines more than doubled over a 13-year period ending in the 2013-14 school year.

In the 2000-01 school year, 7,009 public schools were both poor and racially segregated. That number climbed to 15,089 by 2013-14 — meaning that 16 percent of the nation's schools had become segregated.

The report also found that 61 percent of schools with high concentrations of poor students were racially segregated, meaning their enrollment was at least three-quarters black or Hispanic.

Hispanic students, the report found, were often "triple segregated" — isolated by race, income and language.

Students in segregated schools had less access to college classes, were disproportionately held back in ninth grade and faced higher discipline rates than the average public school student, the report shows. Less than half of segregated schools offered Advanced Placement classes. The GAO conclusions were based on federal data.

The report echoes many of the key findings in the Tampa Bay Times series "Failure Factories," which showed that a 2007 decision by the Pinellas County School Board to abandon integration, followed by the board's failure to provide resources to the most affected schools, led to disastrous consequences for black students and families. As a new system of neighborhood schools took hold in recent years, five schools in the south end of the county became more segregated and their test scores became some of the worst in the state. In addition, teacher turnover and reports of violence increased.

The Times investigation found that Pinellas black students are more likely to be disciplined than in other large Florida school districts, and 84 percent of black students in Pinellas elementary schools are failing state math or reading exams.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, requested the GAO report in 2014. He released the findings Tuesday, the 62nd anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

Along with the release of the report, Scott and other House Democrats are introducing legislation they say will "empower parents and communities to address — through robust enforcement — racial inequities in public education," according to a fact sheet from his office.

The Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act would restore parents' rights to sue segregated school districts using claims of disparate impact under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill would create "Title VI monitors," who would investigate discrimination complaints under the law, and an assistant secretary of education to oversee them.

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. has prioritized the issue, recently telling a gathering of education journalists in Boston that there was a "new urgency" around issues of race and class in school.

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"The new GAO study confirms what we all suspected — schools are more segregated now than in 2000," Nancy Zirkind, executive president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement.

"These schools and districts are educating a larger share of low-income students and students of color, but compared to their more affluent peers, have minimal access to the educational resources needed to support student success," Zirkind said.

To combat the problem, the GAO recommended that the U.S. Department of Education step up its efforts to monitor the disparities between schools. The Department of Justice, the report recommended, could "track key information on open federal school desegregation cases to which it is a party to better inform monitoring." There are currently 178 open desegregation cases based on court orders from 30 or 40 years ago intended to integrate schools.

In a response to the report, Catherine Lhamon, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote that King was trying to promote integration through grant programs.

"We are committed to using every tool at our disposal to ensure that all students have access to an excellent education," she wrote. President Barack Obama's latest budget includes a $120 million proposal that encourages socioeconomic diversity.

In response, the Justice Department said the GAO has an "erroneous" understanding of its role in the desegregation cases, and that the department already monitors each case.

"Segregation (is) getting worse, and getting worse quickly, with more than 20 million students of color now attending racially and socioeconomically isolated public schools," Scott said in a statement. "This report is a national call to action, and I intend to ensure Congress is part of the solution."