Public schools in the nation’s capital remain highly segregated, a new analysis shows, with many D.C. campuses enrolling almost exclusively students of color despite an influx of white families into the city in recent years.
But the report’s authors argued that city officials have not done enough to lure white families into public schools and to diversify the enrollment of individual campuses. They contend that the city’s changing demographics — with no single racial or ethnic group accounting for a majority of its estimated 681,000 residents — make it ripe for new initiatives, such as high-quality magnet programs, to promote racial integration in schools.
“Washington now has possibilities that most cities simply don’t have, and what’s striking about it is that officials have tried everything else [other] than welcoming diversity into schools,” said Gary Orfield, a UCLA professor who co-authored the study with postdoctoral researcher Jongyeon Ee.
Orfield and other experts say racial segregation can hurt minority students because their schools tend to have fewer resources as well as teachers with less experience, and that can lead to lower academic achievement. Often those schools have high concentrations of students from low-income families, leading to what the report’s authors call “double segregation” — by race and by economic class.
D.C. education officials say they value diversity and have put policies in place to expand options for families.
Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, credited Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for supporting a program that allows students free rides on public transportation to and from school. The program allows students from various racial, economic and geographic backgrounds to attend public charter schools throughout the city, Pearson said.
“Experts consider Washington D.C. as one of the best public charter school networks in the nation,” he said. “Parents and students get to decide which school to apply to — no matter where in the city that school is located.”
The charter board conducted its own study of school diversity in 2015. At that time, it classified 35 of its 112 charter schools as diverse, defining that standard as a school where fewer than 80 percent of students are African American.
Michelle Lerner, a spokeswoman for D.C. Public Schools, said the school system is proud to serve all students, regardless of race, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
“We work to make sure that all students have a great teacher at the front of the classroom and are getting the same level of joy and rigor in our classrooms no matter the school or neighborhood,” Lerner said.
The District was once predominantly African American. But the black share of the city population, which stood at roughly 70 percent in 1970, fell below 50 percent a few years ago, while the white share has grown steadily.
From 1980 to 2010, the white share of D.C. residents rose by more than a third, according to the UCLA report. But the white share of student enrollment in public schools rose at a more modest pace: It was 4 percent in 1992-93, and 9 percent in 2013-14.
The report also found that:
●Ninety-three percent of students from poor families who attended charter schools in 2012 had almost no white classmates. For such students in regular public schools, the share was 87 percent.
●Segregation is more intense in charter schools than in regular public schools. Nearly 70 percent of charters in 2012 had no white students or almost none, compared with 50 percent of regular public schools.
●D.C. private schools are growing more white. In 2001-02, white students accounted for 32 percent of the city’s private school enrollment. Ten years later, nearly 60 percent of D.C. private students were white.
● ●One option for increasing student diversity, according to the report, would be for the District to collaborate with other school systems in the metropolitan area to create regional schools. These schools could draw students from urban and suburban communities, a strategy Orfield has long advocated. Citywide magnet programs — specializing in sought-after programming such as music or technology — could also bring students from different neighborhoods together, the report’s authors said.
“You’ve got a lot of highly educated people who would respond positively to opportunities for real diversity,” Orfield said. “They don’t want to put their kids into schools with all the same race and class.”