Rucker Johnson, a Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy in the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, is a member of three Haas Institute faculty research clusters: Diversity and Health Disparities; Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy; and Economic Disparities. Johnson recently published a highly acclaimed book on school desegregation and resegregation in the US today. Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works argues for three main policies to tackle ongoing racial achievement gaps: robust funding for early education, active school desegregation, and educational finance reform. Editor Sara Grossman spoke with him about his research and new book. 

You’ve found that the US reached peak levels of school integration in the late 1980s. Why did things turn around, both in terms of public opinion towards desegregation efforts and public policy to maintain integration? Where are we today?

Rucker Johnson posing for a photo outside Sather Gate
The argument that school desegregation was a failed social experiment is simply not borne out by the facts. Where we failed is not sustaining those efforts to integrate our schools, to invest in them equitably, and to begin in the pre-K years.

Segregation is not inevitable, but is a direct product of our policy choices in both housing and education. There are five primary factors that led to the resegregation of our nation’s public schools. First, the 1974 Supreme Court ruling Milliken effectively confined school desegregation efforts to within school district boundaries by banning inter-district desegregation plans. This largely allowed more affluent suburban areas to not share in the responsibility of integration. In a powerful dissent, Thurgood Marshall called the ruling a “giant step backwards.” 

Relatedly, we have witnessed significant increases in residential segregation along socioeconomic lines, particularly with families where the search for school quality (and racialized perceptions of it) are a major impetus (as long as parents have sufficient wealth to exercise such choice). Although previously the majority of segregation occurred within districts, today roughly two-thirds of school segregation occurs between districts. While district lines may appear invisible, it does not make them any less a powerful segregation tool. The historical heavy reliance on local property taxes to fund schools is another form of segregation that leads to substantial school resource disparities. 

Third, a series of conservative Supreme Court rulings in the early 1990s made it easier for districts to be released from desegregation court orders and federal oversight. This led to a return to greater concentrations of poverty among schools minority students disproportionately attend, due to residential segregation. This culminated with the 2007 Parent’s Involved case that ruled race cannot be used as the sole factor in school assignments. The decision rendered all race-based admissions policies the same, equating racism (segregation) with attempts to end racism (integration).

Fourth, gerrymandered school boundaries that further segregation are rampant nationally. Examples abound in which affluent parents use their political power to redraw school district boundaries and secede from existing districts to form their own. The use of charter schools has become a way to effectively secede from traditional public schools while being exempt from desegregation and other equity guidelines. A recent example can be found nearby in a school district outside of San Francisco. 

Finally, the hands-off federal approach regarding school integration efforts over the past 25 years has further reinforced segregation, which is reflected in the relatively little federal funding allocated to desegregation. There is still a federal provision on the books that bans federally-funded transportation support for desegregation plans—a provision first instituted in the early 1970s as part of white resistance to desegregation. In these ways, segregation has long been policy engineered, and if we are to address these issues, it will require similarly intentional policy designs.

Were there different ways that integration was “done” across school districts? What made some integration plans more successful than others?

Children of the Dream Book cover
Holistic integration is not only about assignments of children to schools by race but centrally about equitable school resources: funding, teacher quality and diversity, curricular quality. The substantial geographic variations in when and how desegregation was implemented across districts is revealing, as these differences led to differences in the degree of racial integration and resource equalization achieved through a district’s desegregation court order. In some districts, there were large increases in Black-white student exposure, but limited increases in school resources; in others, there were modest decreases in racial segregation, but larger increases in school spending on minority children. In Louisiana, court-ordered desegregation brought more state funding to integrated schools, while in Los Angeles, more segregated schools received more compensatory funding.

Findings: improved school resources explained a significant amount of the beneficial effects of desegregation. Among Blacks, in districts in which desegregation court orders led to greater increases in school spending, the more years children were exposed to desegregated schools, the greater their gains in educational attainments and adult socioeconomic status. In court-ordered desegregated districts in which school spending for Black children did not appreciably change, the children experienced greater classroom exposure to their white peers, but did not make a comparable improvement in their educational and socioeconomic trajectories. 

This finding means, first and foremost, that in some cases, synergy has the power to take two policies (e.g., school funding and desegregation) that, in isolation, seem flat, and transform them into one package of policies with profound promise.

After many court-ordered desegregation mandates were lifted in the 1990s, what were the different ways that educational structures and policies, intentionally or not, led to school re-segregation? 

Nationwide, 42 percent of Latino students and 40 percent of Black students attended schools where less than 10 percent of their peers were white in 2016. It is important not to confuse a symptom—achievement gaps—with the underlying disease: gaping educational opportunity gaps along race and class lines that preceded them, beginning in pre-K.

The patterns of resegregation affect not only school resources but influence school practices. In addition to the five policy factors I outlined already that have influenced the amount of resegregation that occurs between neighboring districts, there has also been an increased pattern segregated classrooms within desegregated schools, due to racialized academic tracking beginning in earlier grades. As a result, in many districts that appear diverse on the surface, we see a preponderance of segregated classrooms with racially disparate placement in gifted programs, college-prep tracks on the one hand and (inappropriate) special education placement on the other. This reflects upon teachers’ low expectations of achievement for minority students that may result from implicit biases. For example, studies have shown that among Black and white third graders with the same high test scores, Black children are one-third less likely to be selected for placement into gifted and talented programs. Furthermore, it was found that one of the key factors that closed this racial disparity in student placement in these programs was the presence of Black teachers.

Can you give an example of a school district where segregation is now a dominant characteristic where it wasn’t before?

Charlotte is a prime example that we highlight in the book, where the Swann decision first ruled busing could be used as an effective tool to desegregate. Our research was informed by our in-depth interview with James E. Ferguson II, the lead co-litigant of Swann. It must be remembered that busing was required because of generations of discriminatory housing policy that forced Black people to live in segregated neighborhoods. Despite an ugly and contentious battle to desegregate schools in the 60s, Charlotte became one of the national models of successful integration in the 1980s, and they were able to sustain these efforts longer than many other communities.

Unfortunately, Charlotte abandoned their comprehensive desegregation plan following a 1999 litigation case brought forth by a white parent. This began the unraveling process of Charlotte being an exemplary model to a model of resegregation. Today, Charlotte’s schools are as segregated as they were before 1971, when integration began in earnest. It is a factor explaining why the city had the lowest economic mobility rates from poverty among large cities. To truly understand how integration can blossom, and how resegregation can uproot even vaunted progress, we sought to excavate the lessons the history of Charlotte taught us.

With today’s schools already so segregated, why not instead invest more money into schools with students of color? 

Teacher quality is often the missing ingredient of debates surrounding school resource disparities. Teacher quality is connected to curricular quality—e.g., only one-third of public high schools with high Black/Latino enrollment offer calculus. This also draws our attention to the importance of teacher diversity.

Currently, about 20 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years— and even higher rates of teacher turnover are found in concentrated poverty schools, disproportionately negatively affecting minority students. Concentrated poverty schools experience greater difficulty recruiting, retaining, and developing high-quality diverse teaching workforce. 

The high teacher turnover results in students taught largely by inexperienced teachers and less-highly credentialed teachers in subjects in which instruction is rendered. For example, schools with high levels of Black and Latino students have almost two times as many first-year teachers as schools with low minority enrollment; and, minority students are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers than experienced ones in 33 states. Today, while the majority of public school children are racial/ethnic minorities, only 20 percent of public school teachers are minorities (7 percent are Black). 

You also argue desegregation policies alone are not enough—the blueprint to true educational equity would have to include school finance reform and high quality preschool.  

People often ask me, “But haven’t all these things been tried?” Yes, but not as the kind of holistic cure we prescribe. In most places and times, these policies were advanced one at a time, unevenly and inconsistently, with each policy often framed initially as a panacea. Yet the substantial variation in their timing and implementation across districts is exactly what offered us a rare testing ground for what we call the “first-generation suite” of equal education opportunity policy initiatives.

Specifically, I examined the success of our three most significant equal-opportunity initiatives: 1) court-mandated integration efforts; 2) school finance reform; and 3) expansions of public pre-K investments. Using nationally-representative data sets of children followed from birth to adulthood across multiple generations, matched with their access to quality schools, we show how these three policies had lasting benefits.

 The above policies have never been tried in concert for extended periods of time. Extant efforts at solving our educational woes detach health from education and early education from K-12 schooling. We must shift the paradigm from a singular approach chasing after illusory silver bullets to an integrated solution. The slow and uneven pace of integration, school funding reforms, and increases in public pre-K spending, respectively, were used as natural experiments to evaluate whether these reforms work. We find the longer students are treated for the symptoms of segregated, poorly funded education, and the higher the doses of integration and school funding reform they are administered, the better their outcomes. 

Integration alone is insufficient to fulfill the promise of equal educational opportunity. There could be no cure without it, but it is not the full cure itself. It must be combined with school funding reforms, and expansions of access to high quality pre-K. This three-dimensional synergy—school integration, school funding reforms, and quality pre-K—is precisely the policy prescription I believe the nation needs to implement in order to overcome the legacy of segregation.

When there are so many restrictions on using race in admissions, how could desegregation efforts look today? 

The growing developments of between-district segregation have rendered the traditional tools of integration impotent as remedies in the contemporary policy landscape. But perhaps most concerning is the fact that the quest to employ tools—or development new ones—to combat resegregation has largely dissipated from contemporary public policy debates.

Access to high-quality schools is rationed through the housing market and exclusionary zoning. “School choice” is conditioned by parental wealth, zip code, high test scores, and race. The role of parental wealth is highlighted in the fact that housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much near a high-performing public school than near a low-performing one. Parents know which are the good schools and are willing to pay for them. But this is also connected to racialized perceptions of what constitutes a high-quality school and notions of who belongs. In many ways, housing prices have come to represent as much about the price of buying higher chances of upward mobility for one’s children as the square footage of the house itself. These are inseparably linked due to heavy reliance on local property taxes to fund public schools, alongside extant policy designs that provide economic incentives to segregate.

Opportunity-rich communities where children thrive in well-funded, highly-resourced schools are geographically close, but socioeconomically worlds apart, from the concentrated poverty schools within the same metropolitan area. It has become far too common to find a school-to-prison pipeline near a school-to-life success one in a neighboring district. 

Policymakers’ talk of the benefits of “diversity” while avoiding the policy instruments required to achieve integration is counterproductive. Promising avenues that create new opportunities to further integration aims and improve access to high-quality schools include implementing inclusionary zoning reforms, expanding affordable housing in neighborhoods with great schools, more vigorous enforcement of fair housing, and anti-discrimination laws. The time to act is now.