Seventy years after Brown v. Board ruling, school segregation persists in Fort Worth

Seventy years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended legal school segregation in America, researchers say school segregation has increased over the past three decades in major cities across the country.

In both the Fort Worth and Dallas independent school districts, segregation between Black and white students has remained relatively flat since 1991, according to the analysis. But both districts’ segregation rates are among the highest in Texas, according to the report.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been enshrined in constitutional law since 1896. Although the ruling meant that districts and states could no longer deliberately separate students by race, a study released this month suggests American schools are becoming more segregated, even as segregation in housing has declined.

“Those increases appear to be the direct result of educational policy and legal decisions,” the study’s authors wrote. “They are not the inevitable result of demographic changes — and can be changed by alternative policy choices.”

Segregation grows in biggest U.S. school districts

Before Brown v. Board, Texas schools were segregated by race. Even after the “separate but equal” doctrine was struck down, Fort Worth ISD continued building segregated schools, according to a history on the district’s website. The district didn’t begin integrating its campuses until a federal court ordered it to do so in 1962, eight years after the Supreme Court ruling. The court lifted oversight of the district in 1994.

During the study, researchers Sean Reardon at Stanford University and Ann Owens at the University of Southern California analyzed 55 years’ worth of student enrollment data from school districts across the country. Although segregation rates remain lower than they were in the 1960s, the researchers found that progress on integrating schools stalled in the 1980s, and both racial and economic segregation have grown in the decades since then. That uptick was especially pronounced in the 100 largest districts in the country, where segregation between white and Black students grew by 69% between 1988 and 2019.

In conjunction with the release of the report, Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Project launched the Segregation Explorer, an interactive map that allows users to see school segregation trends in their states, cities and school districts.

Although the question of where most students go to school is dictated by where they live, the researchers found that housing patterns don’t explain the re-segregation that took place over the past 30 years. Both residential segregation and economic inequality among the races declined in most big urban districts between 1990 and 2020, according to the report. If nothing else had changed during that period, those two trends would have led to a decline in school segregation, Reardon and Owens wrote.

Instead, the authors point to two major factors they say appear to have contributed to school segregation during that period: The lifting of federal court orders requiring districts to integrate their campuses, and the expansion of charter schools in cities across the country. During the 1990s, many districts across the U.S., like Fort Worth ISD, were released from court-ordered desegregation, and Reardon and Owens note that segregation began to rise as those court orders ended.

The researchers also found a strong correlation between charter school growth and re-segregation. In cities where charter schools expanded most quickly, segregation grew most rapidly, and vice versa, according to the study.

Previous research suggests the expansion of charter schools can be a driver of school segregation — but not a big one. In 2019, researchers from the Urban League and the University of Missouri analyzed enrollment data and found that eliminating charter schools would lead to only about a 5% decline in school segregation.

“Our study shows that critics are incorrect when they say that charters are driving a resegregation of American schools,” the authors wrote for the education news website Education Next. “...But it also shows that charter proponents are incorrect to assume that freeing public schools from neighborhood boundaries will necessarily enhance racial integration.”

Advocacy group calls for greater school access, legal protections

In a separate study also released this month, researchers from the national education advocacy group Available To All looked at how public school admission laws create a situation where the highest-quality public schools are often only open to students from wealthier families. The report calls on states and districts to enact policies that offer more opportunities for low-income students and students of color to enroll in the most coveted schools in their districts.

In the report, the authors write that American families across all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., have weak legal protection when it comes to their kids’ educational access. They highlight a number of cases in which parents have come up against roadblocks when trying to get their kids into high-quality schools, including cases in which school districts in several states hired private detectives to find students who lived outside their schools’ attendance zones.

In many cases, students in the same neighborhood can see drastically different educational outcomes, depending on which side of the street they live on, said Tim DeRoche, the organization’s president. For example, in southern Fort Worth, kids who live on one section of South Drive just east of Hulen Mall attend Tanglewood Elementary School. But on the other side of an overpass across Interstate 20, a few hundred yards away, kids on the same street attend Bruce Shulkey Elementary School.

Although the students they serve are separated by a single roadway, Tanglewood and Bruce Shulkey are drastically different campuses, both in terms of student demographics and student achievement. About two-thirds of Tanglewood’s students are white, and only 17% qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. At Bruce Shulkey, 40% of students are Hispanic and 27% are Black, and 78% qualify for free or reduced lunches. At Tanglewood, 81% of third-graders scored on grade level in reading last year. Just 20% of Bruce Shulkey’s third-graders scored on grade level in reading.

Those arbitrary boundaries set up a situation where wealthier families can buy their way into better schools while less affluent families are left with fewer options, DeRoche said, because homes in neighborhoods with the most effective schools usually cost substantially more than similar homes in neighborhoods with lower-achieving schools.

In the report, researchers point out that attendance zone boundaries in many districts align with old redlining maps that were used to enforce segregation in housing. They point to Lakewood Elementary School, a high-performing school in Dallas whose southern boundary lines up almost exactly with the border between neighborhoods designated as “best” and “desirable” on a 1937 redlining map and those labeled as “hazardous” and “declining.” Those less-desirable designations generally went to Black and immigrant neighborhoods, making it more difficult for residents to get housing assistance in those areas.

Racially motivated redlining was outlawed in 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Act. But decades later, researchers say those policies continue to affect residents in those neighborhoods on a range of fronts, including health outcomes and environmental issues. DeRoche said school attendance zone boundaries are one more way that racist policies from nearly a century ago continue to affect people today.

“Because of the history of racial discrimination in housing, because of the history of redlining in this country, when you when you discriminate based on where people live, you are discriminating against people who don’t have as much money and who are more likely people of color and immigrants and the working class folks,” he said.

In the report, the group offers suggestions for loosening strict geographic rules governing which schools students attend while still avoiding major disruptions to the way schools operate. Among others, the authors recommend that districts be required to set aside 15% of seats at every campus for students who live outside the attendance zone. If demand exceeds the number of seats available, districts would be required to hold a lottery to decide which students can enroll.

The authors note that a set-aside requirement would have limited practical impact at many campuses because enrollment declines have already left many seats empty. In Fort Worth ISD, enrollment declined by 17% between 2016 and 2023. District records show some campuses have lost a third or more of their enrollments over the past decade due to a number of factors, including housing patterns, declining birth rates and increased competition from charter schools.

Authors also recommend that states require school districts to offer equal enrollment opportunity to all students who live within a three-mile radius of a campus, arguing that such a rule would “eliminate the power of the district to engage in educational gerrymandering, drawing exclusionary maps and turning away students who live on the wrong side of an arbitrary line.”

School vouchers are expected to be a top issue during next year’s legislative session. School choice advocates in Texas argue that a proposed voucher plan would give more options to families who are zoned into low-performing schools. Opponents counter that in states that have adopted voucher plans in the past, most vouchers have gone to students who were already enrolled in private schools, meaning the voucher essentially became a state-sponsored coupon for tuition those families were already paying.

DeRoche said his organization takes no position on the issue of school vouchers. His main goal is to give families greater legal protection and better access to the top public schools in their communities, he said.

“If you see a public school in your neighborhood or in your community that you think is a good fit for your kid, you should be able to pick that school and you should be able to try to apply to it,” he said.