A Renewed Call to Invest in California School Integration

By Liz Koenig

Despite the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, California remains one of the most racially segregated states in the nation. School segregation has long been implicated in educational inequality, which in turn influences various other forms of inequality. The social and economic disadvantages linked to race (including poverty, less educated parents, limited access to healthcare, inadequate housing, etc.) contribute to low academic performance; when students who face these disadvantages are concentrated in racially and socioeconomically segregated schools that are under-resourced, these negative outcomes are compounded.

There is a solution, though: school desegregation has been shown to reduce educational inequality. Students of color attending integrated schools are more likely to graduate, go to college, and earn a degree than their counterparts at segregated schools. Research also shows they earn more money, are less likely to be incarcerated, and have better health outcomes. Integrated schools don’t just benefit students of color; they encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, self-confidence, and leadership for all students, along with reducing bias and encouraging white students to seek out integrated settings later in life. Integrated schools are a promising and cost-effective way to address inequality in America.

And yet, segregation in California schools is among the worst in the country. By some measures, Black and Latino students in California have fewer white classmates than their counterparts in any other state; only 6.3% of Black students attend majority white schools, and the average Latino student attends a school that is only 15.6% white. This racial segregation is compounded and worsened by socioeconomic and linguistic segregation. While the average white or Asian student attends a school where 40% of students are low-income, the average Black or Latino student attends a school that is 70% low-income. And the average English Language Learner – a growing and vulnerable population of California students – attends a school that is nearly 75% Black and Latino, 75% low-income, and 40% English Language Learners.

Segregation is increasing, not decreasing: From 1993 to 2012, the percentage of California schools that are “intensely segregated” (0-10% white) has doubled, increasing from 15% to 31%. Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district – and also one of its most segregated, see Table 1 – is a powerful example of the degree of segregation in many public school districts today.

Table 1: Los Angeles Schools by Level of Segregation (2016)
# of Schools (out of 1010) Percent of schools
Majority nonwhite (50-100% nonwhite) 958 95%
Intensely segregated (90-100% nonwhite) 785 78%
Apartheid (99-100% nonwhite) 264 26%

             Source: California Department of Education Educational Demographics Unit

School segregation, at its core, is a result of racism, resulting primarily from housing discrimination, and secondarily through resistance to desegregation. Housing discrimination has historically concentrated Black and Latino families into segregated communities. Because schools are primarily assigned through neighborhoods, racist housing policies have resulted in de facto school segregation, even after Brown v. Board.

While housing segregation is at the root of school segregation, the failure of desegregation efforts over the past 60 years is largely a result of political will. As in other parts of the country, public opposition to busing in the 1960s and 1970s was fierce, resulting in the reversal of the state’s strongest efforts to desegregate schools. To counteract this damaging legacy, California should pursue policies that address educational inequity by intentionally increasing the number of integrated schools.

Legal efforts to integrate California schools have been ignored, delayed, half-implemented, or actively reversed.

Mendez v. Westminster: In 1947, seven years before Brown v. Board, the Mendez v. Westminster decision ruled that segregation was unconstitutional for Mexican-American students who lived within the attendance boundaries of the school in question. However, the court did not establish any  ongoing oversight structure. Furthermore, the ruling did not address the segregation that resulted from housing discrimination, or the gerrymandered attendance boundaries that kept predominantly white schools predominantly white.

Bagley Act and Proposition 21: Despite Mendez v. Westminster and Brown v. Board, California was slow to pursue integration efforts. In 1971, the California legislature passed the Bagley Act, which placed the responsibility on school officials to integrate their districts. The Act was met with backlash from white voters. Conservative lawmaker Floyd Wakefield launched a campaign against the Act, stoking fears about forced busing and arguing that the law infringed on “freedom of choice.” Proposition 21, the Wakefield Anti-Busing Initiative, won 63% of the vote, which led to the repeal of the Bagley Act only one year after its passage.

Crawford v. Los Angeles and Proposition 1: Crawford v. Los Angeles, a class action suit brought against the Los Angeles City Board of Education, wound through the courts from 1963 to 1978, eventually resulting in a court-mandated integration plan for LAUSD that included mandatory student reassignment and busing. In response, in 1979, Proposition 1 passed with two thirds of the popular vote, effectively killing mandatory school reassignment and busing.

While mandatory busing never came to fruition in Los Angeles, voluntary levers for integration were included in the integration plan and still exist today. These levers, and others, provide a useful template for successful integration programs that are less politically toxic.

Magnet programs: Magnet programs are voluntary integration programs located at schools in predominantly non-white neighborhoods. Magnets have a special topical focus and corresponding curriculum, which tend to attract white parents who might otherwise send their children to predominantly white schools. Magnets use quotas to ensure racial balance. Christine H. Rossell argues that magnet programs are more effective than forced busing because they offer benefits to both white and minority students. In Los Angeles, magnets have proved widely successful. Magnet programs outperform district averages on standardized tests and are highly sought after by parents; this year, 72,515 students applied for 27,570 open magnet slots in the district. LAUSD is planning to open 35 new magnet programs next year, increasing total magnet enrollment to nearly 80,000 students across 260 programs. Magnets are designed by local authorities. Notably, the state does not provide funding for magnets beyond the normal per-pupil funding. Districts are able to obtain limited additional funding by applying for grants directly from the U.S. Department of Education.

Dual Language / Bilingual Programs: Another potential tool for integration is Dual Language Programs. Depending on the model, these programs require a mix of students who are native speakers of each language represented. Thus, English/Spanish programs present an opportunity, if effectively marketed, to draw both white and Latino students into the same school. LAUSD currently has 58 schools with Spanish/English Dual Language Programs, though many are in predominantly Latino schools.

“Diverse by Design” Charter Schools: As charter schools enroll an increasing percentage of California students, they pose another promising avenue for school integration. While many charter schools are located in segregated communities and enroll a highly segregated student body, a small cadre of charter schools and networks are “diverse by design,” choosing their locations and structuring their recruitment processes to ensure socioeconomic and racial diversity. These schools — several of which are located in California — are in high demand. Larchmont Charter School in Los Angeles has 500 students on its waiting list. As with many charters, securing and paying for facilities is a challenge. Citizens of the World, a sought-after network of racially and socioeconomically diverse charter schools, is currently housed in empty classrooms scattered across multiple LA Unified campuses.

Identifying a Solution

As evidenced in the examples above, promising school models that draw parents and students from all backgrounds already exist. Demand for many of these programs exceeds supply, but there is minimal funding set aside to encourage the launch of additional programs. I propose a state fund specifically designed to support the establishment of new magnet, dual language, and charter schools that are “diverse by design.”

Districts could apply to the state for three-year grants to support the launch of a new school or program, provided that its enrollment policies ensure or encourage racial diversity. While some of this fund could come from the state education budget, the state should also engage philanthropists in building this fund. Given the proven effectiveness of integrated programs as a cost-effective tool for narrowing the achievement gap, philanthropists seeking to maximize their impact-per-dollar may find this solution appealing. In fact, a cost-benefit analysis of socioeconomic integration suggested that such programs produce a return on investment that is 3-5 times their cost — a greater public benefit-cost ratio than reducing class size or increasing teacher salaries.

This fund would alleviate a number of challenges for existing integrated school models.

  1. Magnet schools receive limited funding from the state. A startup grant would help pay for additional human capital (e.g. in the form of additional administrators or counselors) to support the successful launch of a new program.
  2. Dual Language programs have twice the instructional complexity of a normal school, and bilingual programs in their infancy often struggle to develop a coherent pedagogical approach. Extra funding would not only support additional instructional staff and the purchase of specialized curricula, but it could also fund marketing efforts to get the word out to parents in other communities. Additionally, funding could support transportation for students who are traveling from different neighborhoods to attend these programs.
  3. Charter schools face significant startup costs, and often have to rely on philanthropists to purchase facilities. Grant funding would ease the path to launching a diverse charter school by helping cover the legal, real estate, recruiting, and human capital costs associated with launching a new school. These costs typically precede the revenue that comes once students are enrolled, and pose a barrier to new charter schools—particularly those not connected to a larger charter network. As with Dual Language programs, extra funding could also support transportation for students traveling outside their neighborhoods.

Desegregation efforts in California have historically failed because of active resistance from white voters. Conservative lawmakers framed busing as an attack on families’ “freedom of choice.” Additionally, opponents painted busing as a policy that benefited students of color at the expense of white students. Magnets, charters, and dual language programs all offer promising pathways to integration, both because they emphasize family choice and because they frame integrated schools as benefiting both white students and students of color. Supporting these voluntary programs, which are already popular with parents, will be much more politically feasible than attempting to redraw district boundaries or reassign students to new schools.

And the policy change would be well worth any political effort required to achieve it, given the robust evidence for the effectiveness of integrated schools in narrowing the achievement gap.

While a Diverse Schools fund would not integrate all schools in California, it would provide a framework for investing in integration—an approach to reform that has received too little attention from philanthropists and lawmakers in recent years. Supporting the launch of these programs to meet the demand among parents is a politically feasible, cost-effective way to address what decades of failed desegregation efforts in California have failed to achieve.

Liz Koenig is an MBA student at the Haas School of Business. She spent her career in public schools as a teacher, instructional coach, and leader at Teach For America. Next year, she will be a consultant at The Bridgespan Group, where she hopes to work at the intersection of racial equity and education.