Solving the Failure of Education Desegregation

By Benita M. Dodd



Education desegregation started out with such lofty promise in America. So why have decades of massive government efforts to mandate integration in schools and encourage racial diversity produced such dismal results?

In his latest study, Dr. Ben Scafidi, Senior Fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, set out to examine why schools continue to be segregated and how to overcome this.

He found that neighborhoods and schools both moved toward racial integration in the 1960s and ‘70s, but in the 1980s segregation began returning to public schools even as neighborhood integration continued.

Public school integration reversed at the same time neighborhood segregation by income increased, according to Scafidi’s study, “The Integration Anomaly.” Between 1970 and 2009, the percentage of families living in either an “affluent” or in a “low income” neighborhood more than doubled, growing from 15 percent to 33 percent. That trend has been accelerating since 2001.

“As long as neighborhoods are segregated by race – regardless of the reason – the claim is that public schools will be segregated by race. This same reasoning applies to income segregation as well,” says Scafidi, who is a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University.

That creates problems. “Whether we like it or not, studies show a significant relationship between families’ access to peer resources and their children’s academic achievement.” Scafidi points out, noting, “children achieve more when surrounded by higher-achieving peers.”

Another tragedy of school segregation is the resulting lack of contact among groups, leading to lack of understanding. In light of recent events across the nation, it would be fair to suggest that racial segregation has helped fuel both perception and reality of disparate racial treatment today – at colleges, with law enforcement, in courtrooms and in the workplace.

Over the years, government mandates to desegregate schools have included busing students, pairing and clustering formerly black and white schools, and redrawing attendance zones for a more balanced racial distribution. But mandates also prompted “white flight.” White enrollment in central city districts decreased 6-12 percent as white families moved to new school districts, probably hastening suburbanization. 

New government mandates are hardly practical. School district consolidation produced fewer, larger districts so the time, money and quality-of-life costs in forcing reintegration would be prohibitive. Further, after court mandates in affected school districts ended, segregation between school districts increased far more than within districts.

Most importantly, Scafidi points out that the growing integration, whether in communities, marriages, adoptions or elections, “is occurring via the free choices of Americans and without government compulsion.”

Choice should provide the solution in education, too, Scafidi proposes. He argues persuasively that school choice programs can “uncouple” the decisions of where to live and where to send a child to school. For many low-income parents trapped in neighborhoods with low-performing schools and teachers, this option to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is a godsend.

Education choice should also go further than “controlled school choice” targeting only the location or racial makeup of schools, Scafidi insists:

“Under a system of greater parental choice, individual schools would have a powerful financial incentive to serve specific niches of students, such as children with special needs or children with strong aptitude or interest in math and science, the arts, bilingual education, Montessori education, Waldorf education, religious education, vocational education, etc. Under a public education system funded by school choice mechanisms, even if some parents have school diversity preferences, it is more likely parents would sort their children into schools to meet the specific interests and needs of their children.”

He maintains that all families, regardless of income, should be offered scholarships, promoting support for scholarships and maximizing school competition, thereby enhancing competition. Larger scholarships and vouchers for disadvantaged and special-needs students will enhance their opportunities. Online platforms such as can help parents choose; accreditation will prevent scam schools.

“My read of the logic and evidence suggests that giving parents greater school choice is the last best hope to reversing at least some of the negative segregation trends that have been occurring in American public schools,” Scafidi concludes.

Judging from the masses of low-income, minority Americans who have opted out of low-performing schools in their district to enhance their children’s achievement and economic opportunity, Scafidi is not alone in his conclusion.

Read the Foundation’s recent commentary on here.

Read Ben Scafidi’s study, “The Integration Anomaly: Comparing the Effects of K-12 Education Delivery Models on Segregation in Schools.”

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature. 

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (December 11, 2015). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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