Risks Seen in Resegregation of Schools
By Caitlin Perrone and Bryce Bencivengo
For InvestigaTexas and The Dallas Morning News
Thousands of Texas public schools are nearly as segregated as they were almost 60 years ago when a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision sought to end racial divisions in education.
An extraordinary spike in the number of Hispanic students and white flight are now the driving forces that have reshaped the racial makeup of schools.
The split continues to widen as school districts and the Legislature battle over funding to keep up with a diverse and growing population.
And if demographic trends continue, the districts may be filled mostly with low-income Hispanic and black students.
An analysis by InvestigaTexas, a project coordinated by the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and The Dallas Morning News, found that almost half of the public school students attend a campus that’s at least 80 percent minority or 80 percent white. That’s 2.4 million students, more than the populations of Dallas and Fort Worth combined.
That trend — along with disparities in resources among school districts — puts minority students at greater risk of being mired in poverty, or dropping out and entering what has been dubbed a “school-to-prison pipeline,” some experts say.
They also worry that the state’s economic foundations could crumble if large numbers of Texans, especially low-income Hispanics and blacks, don’t get the education they need. It’s a potential crisis that could hit every taxpayer, regardless of color, said Lloyd Potter, the state demographer and director of the Texas State Data Center.
“It is something that we don’t have a lot of time on,” he said. “Every year there is another class graduating.”
The Legislature, with less than a month left in its session, is looking to restore some of the billions in funding cut two years ago from local schools. Meanwhile, some school districts are pressing ahead with a suit against the state to overhaul how it pays for public education.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry has argued that funding is on the right track — enough to get the job done but also within the state’s economic means.
Other state officials say educators must do what they can to help students reach their potential, especially Hispanic and black students who, on average, have higher dropout rates and lower test scores than white students.
Schools that have a large number of poor and minority students, especially in Dallas and other urban areas, have struggled to improve their state academic ratings.
Closing the “racial achievement gap,” said Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams, “is our challenge.”
“If we don’t … then those people who believe demographics is destiny will be right,” he said. “But we’re not going to allow them to be right. We can still be a state that is going to be more Hispanic, more African-American and still outperform every other state in the country.”
He said “great teachers” and technology to accelerate learning will be the keys to success.
Despite Brown vs. Board of Education, the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared unconstitutional separate public schools for students of different races, some districts moved slowly on integration. Also, a pattern among white families to “self-segregate” has lingered over the years.
The trend now is a form of “resegregation”: Minority children increasingly make up the bulk of public school populations, while many white children end up outside the system, in private schools and other alternatives.
Those are highlights of the InvestigaTexas analysis of data from the Texas Education Agency and local school districts. Among other findings:
Fifteen years ago, about 1 in 5 Texas public schools had a student population that was 90 percent or more minority. Now it’s 1 in 3.
Less than 5 percent of students in the Dallas Independent School District are white. When civil rights advocates sued the DISD in 1970 over allegations that it had failed to desegregate, its enrollment was about 60 percent white.
On more than a third of its campuses, whites are mostly absent, accounting for 1 percent or less of the students. Overall, since the 1997 school year, the number of white students has gone from 16,019 to 7,417.
In all but two of the school districts contiguous to DISD — Highland Park and Crandall — the number of white students has dropped as minority enrollment climbed.
In many districts in the outlying suburbs, white enrollment continues to rise. In fast-growing Frisco ISD, for example, the number of white students has soared from 2,873 to 22,973. But the overall percentage of white students, now at 58 percent, has dropped over that period because of more minority students.
Dallas school board President Lew Blackburn said he’s concerned that students face a multiracial world they don’t experience in classrooms. It’s better for them, he said, to “interact with each other and learn how to live with each other.”
As for the dwindling number of white students, he said that may be rooted in “some racial overtones” and to some extent “a perception that Dallas ISD is not doing as great a job with educating all of our students.”
Overall, the number of white Texans ages 5 to 18 has dropped by 7.3 percent in the past 15 years, according to federal estimates.
But the number of white students in public schools has declined by more than 13 percent over roughly the same time period.
Suburbs not immune
The Dallas suburbs, where many white families first moved after court-ordered desegregation, have seen their minority populations continue to grow. As that has happened, the percentage of white students has plummeted.
In the 1997-98 school year, for example, more than 68 percent of the students in Mesquite ISD were white. They accounted for 20.8 percent of the students most recently. In DeSoto, the percentage of white students went from 47 percent to just under 4 percent over that same period.
Richardson has flipped from mostly white to a majority-minority district. The percentage of white students in Richardson ISD has dropped from 55.2 percent to 28.4 percent in the past 15 years, according to TEA data.
In some Dallas-Fort Worth suburban school districts — DeSoto, Cedar Hill, Crowley, Mansfield and Lancaster — the number of black students has increased more than any other race or ethnicity over the past 15 years. In DeSoto, as the number of white students plummeted, the number of blacks more than doubled as they became the largest ethnic or racial group.
Meanwhile, Hispanics have passed whites as the largest ethnic group in Texas public schools. They account for almost 51 percent, up from almost 38 percent 15 years ago. White students make up 30.5 percent, down from 45 percent over that time.
Almost 70 percent of the Dallas district’s student population is now Hispanic.
Williams, the state education commissioner, said the self-segregation from white flight is distinctly different from the court-mandated segregation of the past.
“Obviously, that was the government saying, ‘Thou cannot come to this school.’ … That’s very, very different than when people are making choices about, individual choices about where they want their family to reside,” he said.
And reversing the demographic trends in public schools may be very difficult.
“It’s hard to legislate, and it’s hard to dictate desegregation,” Blackburn said.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a special report on resegregation and disparity in Texas public schools. The report also includes articles on charter schools, magnet schools, Hispanic students, state funding and crime in schools. The report is also available at The Dallas Morning News.