The schools around Charlotte were once admired nationwide. They offered a model for successful racial integration — proof that a diverse community could raise its children with shared values and shared opportunity.
That dream crumbled in the early 2000s, when a lawsuit from some parents forced the school district to dismantle its busing and integration program. Instead, most children would attend school in the neighborhoods where they lived, neighborhoods that were divided by race and class. Almost overnight, segregation returned to the schools in Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg county. The number of schools that were more than 65 percent black doubled.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district has become a cautionary tale about the consequences when a community allows its school system to separate white from black, affluent from poor.
Resegregation caused the test score gap in Charlotte-Mecklenberg to widen between white kids and black kids, as well as between poor kids and rich kids. Now, an even more troubling lesson has emerged. It turns out that segregated schools can become potent incubators of crime.
A 2014 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics compared children in Charlotte who lived on the border between different school zones. By chance, some were assigned to schools with high concentrations of minorities. These children ended up with lower test scores, lower graduation rates — and higher rates of arrest.
In particular, minority boys who had the bad luck of attending a segregated school were much more likely to run afoul of the law. For instance, a non-white boy who went to school that was 60 percent minority, instead of 40 percent minority, would be about 16 percent more likely to get arrested, according to the data.
The statistics were so stunning that some of the researchers followed up recently with a new study. They wanted to understand why students — particularly minority boys — are becoming more likely to commit crimes in these highly segregated environments. Does it have something to do with the schools they were attending? The teachers? The classmates?
In large part, the economists say, the culprit is segregation itself.
Taking so many at-risk kids from the same neighborhood, and packing them together into the same school, magnifies the bad influences they have on each other.
“It really tends to matter a lot jointly,” says Stephen Billings, an associate professor at UNC Charlotte, and one of the authors on the paper released Monday. “If you live in the same small neighborhood, and you also go to the same school, you end up being much more likely be doing criminal activity together when you’re older.”
In other words, it’s more than just growing up in a bad part of town, or going to a bad school. The combination of both is what becomes highly dangerous.
For this latest study, Billings and his colleagues, David Deming of Harvard and Stephen Ross of the University of Connecticut, again looked at students who lived in the same neighborhood, but on opposite sides of a school attendance boundary. The way that the new school zones in 2002 cut through communities meant that some students were separated from the friends they had grown up near. Others were packed into schools surrounded by their next-door neighbors.
It turns out that if you attended a school where there were a lot of peers from your block, you became a lot more likely to be arrested for a crime.
Often, you would get arrested for committing a crime together.
That’s the story in the striking graph below, which charts the probability of getting into trouble alongside someone in your neighborhood, depending on how far they live from your home.
The chart has two lines. The blue line shows the probability of getting arrested together with someone in your neighborhood who goes to the same school. The red, dotted line shows the probability of getting arrested together with someone in your neighborhood who goes to a different school.
There are two important lessons from this chart. First, it seems that distance matters. You’re much more likely to commit a crime with someone who lives very close to you. But what also matters is whether you attend the same school or not. Even if you live in the same exact apartment building as someone your age, you’re unlikely to be partners in crime unless the two of you are also classmates.
Roughly speaking, if you live within about half a mile of each other, you’re six times more likely to commit a crime with each other if you attend the same school.
This research provides some of the clearest evidence of how schools contribute to the formation of criminal networks. This is a problem not only for communities that are the victims of the crime, but also for the students who are getting arrested. Run-ins with the justice system can derail someone’s academic career, and make it much harder to get a job later in life.
For youth, especially, the effect of a criminal influence is to destroy a lot of opportunity.
What can be done?
Charlotte-Mecklenburg has been one of the best studied examples of the modern trend in school resegregation. In 2011, 34 percent of black children in the South attended schools that were "hypersegregated" — more than 90 percent minority. In 1988, only 24 percent went to hypersegregated schools, according to research from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
Other metropolitan school systems are also struggling with segregated neighborhoods and concentrations of poverty. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of school districts — from Boston to Austin to Miami — were under court orders to racially integrate their students. As the courts began to lift those orders in recent decades, many districts, like Charlotte, slid backward.
Other districts have sought to preserve the progress they had made, but this has become much harder. In 2007, the Supreme Court essentially outlawed race-based desegregation programs in public schools, taking away one of the most potent tools for promoting racial equality.
It remains legal, though, for school districts to mix children by income, not race — an idea that Richard Kahlenberg at the Century Foundation has been advocating for many years. This has become an increasingly popular strategy to raise test scores and increase equality, as a report this week documents.
The alternative is to leave the schools segregated, but spend extra money, put in more teachers, and create special programs to combat the problems. That's what leaders have sought to do in Charlotte. The research from Billings, Deming, and Jonah Rockoff, an associate professor at Columbia, finds that these efforts did help raise test scores in the segregated schools.
But the extra spending seemed to have little impact on the crime rate at these schools.
For some, the larger lesson from Charlotte is that the political will to deal with inequality is often in short supply, despite the evidence showing segregation's harms. Over time, parents have grown accustomed to what has essentially become a two-tiered education system.
"After the [court decision], the school board didn't want to get sued again. So while we could have done more for the students, we didn't," says Roslyn Mickelson, a sociology professor at UNC Charlotte who has studied the school district. "Then every year afterward, it became harder and harder to do something about the segregation."
Recently, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board announced that it wanted to tackle the problem of its unequal schools. But progress has been slow so far. At a hearing on Tuesday night, many parents came to defend the new status quo.
"I understand there are disadvantaged children in our city and I am willing to do my part to help them," one dad testified. He continued, "But when my child will be forced to travel to a community that does not value education to the same extent that I do, I have to draw the line."