Public schools are re-segregating, and low-income black students are suffering for it. In North Carolina, the five largest school districts all became more racially segregated between 2001 and 2009. In Wake County alone, the number of high-poverty racially isolated schools has doubled.

Racial segregation is necessarily tied to income segregation, and that overlap has damning consequences. In North Carolina, high-poverty schools make up the vast majority of the schools that receive a D or F from the state in 2015. Students from high-poverty neighborhoods are effectively concentrated into underfunded high-poverty schools, and have few other resources. And a recent study found that school segregation doesn’t just reflect the neighborhood segregation at work here – it magnifies it.

Concentrating students with social and economic disadvantages in racially and economically segregated schools can depress student performance overall. For example, disadvantaged children are more likely to move frequently due to their families’ limited access to adequate housing. This has obvious effects on education at the individual level – the more a child moves, the harder it is for her to keep on a consistent academic schedule. But it also has group- and school-level effects. “In schools with high rates of student mobility, teachers spend more time repeating lessons for newcomers and have fewer opportunities to adapt instruction”[1] to students’ needs and strengths.

“When a school’s proportion of students at risk of failure grows, the consequences of disadvantage are exacerbated.”[2]

For the most part, these students are already coming to school at a disadvantage. Parents’ environment during their own childhood may be more important for their child’s cognitive development than their child’s own environment.[3] This has significant implications for low-income black children – nearly half of black families have lived in poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, compared with less than 10 percent of white families.[4] Poverty, and therefore depressed educational attainment, traps black families in a multigenerational cycle.   

This trend doesn’t have to be inevitable. North Carolina researchers found that, of those five school districts whose racial segregation has grown since 2001, four saw their black-white achievement gap grow as well.[5] The only one that didn’t was Wake County’s, where the school board had adopted a plan in 2000 to keep schools economically diverse. The Duke study found that Wake County’s unique outcome could be due in part to the income-based assignment plan. In 2010, the Wake County school board voted to end this policy, though income remains a small component of their current assignment system.

New Jersey took a different approach to address its growing re-segregation problem. In 1983, the New Jersey Supreme Court mandated that all suburban areas in the state rewrite their zoning laws to accommodate a “fair share” of affordable housing. Despite strong initial pushback from wealthy residents, the outcome has been strongly positive. Low-income residents who moved to affordable housing in the town of Mount Laurel have gained higher employment rates and earnings than their counterparts who stayed in low-income neighborhoods.[6] Their children are seeing positive education outcomes – “they study twice as many hours and spend more time reading. That extra effort is paying off – even though their schools are more academically rigorous, they earn slightly better grades.”[7]

North Carolina can choose to address re-segregation in schools or in neighborhoods. But choosing to address neither only keeps generations of low-income black children trapped in worsening poverty.



[1] Rothstein, Richard. (2015). The racial achievement gap, segregated schools, and segregated neighborhoods: A constitutional insult. Race and Social Problems, 7(1), 21–30. Springer New York.

[2] See note 1

[3] Sharkey, Patrick. (2013). Stuck in place: Urban neighborhoods and the end of progress toward racial equality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Cited in “The Urban Poor Shall Inherit Poverty,” The American Prospect.

[4] See note 3

[5] McMillian, M. Monique; Fuller, Sarah; Hill, Zoelene; Duch, Kate; and Darity, William A. (2015). Can Class-Based Substitute for Race-Based Student Assignment Plans? Evidence from Wake County, North Carolina. Available at http://uex.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/11/26/0042085915613554.abstract

[6] Massey, Douglas; Albright, Len; Casciano, Rebecca; Derickson, Elizabeth; and Kinsey, David. (2013). Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle for Affordable Housing and Social Mobility in an American Suburb. Princeton University Press.

[7] Kirp, David L. (October 19 2013). “Here Comes the Neighborhood.” The New York Times. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/opinion/sunday/here-comes-the-neighborhood.html?_r=0