August 30, 2007

The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of U.S. Public Schools

I. Overview

The 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in June to strike down school desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville has focused public attention on the degree of racial and ethnic integration in the nation’s 93,845 public schools. A new analysis of public school enrollment data by the Pew Hispanic Center finds that in the dozen years from 1993-94 to 2005-06, white students became less isolated from minority students while, at the same time, black and Hispanic students became slightly more isolated from white students.

These two seemingly contradictory trends stem mainly from the same powerful demographic shift that took place during this period: an increase of more than 55% in the Hispanic slice of the public school population. Latinos in 2005-06 accounted for 19.8% of all public school students, up from 12.7% in 1993-94.1 During this same period, the black share of public school enrollment rose slightly — to 17.2%, from 16.5% — while the white share fell sharply, to 57.1% from 66.1%.

In part because whites now comprise a smaller share of students in the public schools, white students are now more likely to be exposed to minority students. In 1993-94, fully one-third (34%) of all white students attended a nearly all-white school (this report defines a school as “nearly all-white” if fewer than 5% of the students are non-white). By 2005-06, just one in five white students (21%) was attending a nearly all-white school. The number of nearly all-white public schools fell by 35%, from 25,603 in 1993-94 to 16,769 in 2005-06.

But even as the decrease in the white share of the public school population has led to a greater exposure of white students to minority students, it has also led to a diminished exposure of black and Hispanic students to white students. Roughly three-in-ten Hispanic (29%) and black (31%) students attended schools in 2005-06 that were nearly all-minority (by this report’s definition, a “nearly all-minority” school is one in which fewer than 5% of the students are white), and these percentages were both somewhat higher than they had been in 1993-94, when they stood at 25% for Hispanic students and 28% for black students. The number of nearly all-minority public schools almost doubled in this time period, increasing from 5,498 in 1993-94 to 10,135 in 2005-06.

The growing exposure of white students to minority students is largely due to the growth in Hispanic enrollments, which in turn is related to the sharp increase in the Hispanic share of the nation’s population. In 1993-94, 74% of white students attended schools in which fewer than 5% of the students were Hispanic. By 2005-06, just 58% of whites attended schools with that very low Hispanic share of enrollment.

Not only are black and Hispanic students similarly isolated from white students, they also tend to be isolated from one another. In 2005-06, 56% of Hispanic students attended a majority-Latino public school (a school in which at least half of the students are Hispanic). These majority-Latino public schools educated just 7% of the nation’s black students. Similarly, the nation’s majority-black schools, which educate nearly 50% of black students, educate just 4% of the nation’s Hispanic students.

To be sure, levels of racial and ethnic segregation and integration in the public schools are affected by factors other than the demographic changes in the school population at large. In particular, they are affected by the geographic dispersion of racial and ethnic groups; by local residential housing patterns; and by desegregation policies at the school district level. This report does not look at those factors, nor does it attempt to determine which factor has had the greatest impact on the changing patterns of integration and segregation in the public schools since 1993-94. Rather, it simply tracks the changes over a 12-year period in the levels of racial and ethnic isolation and exposure in public schools among black, white, Hispanic and Asian students.

  1. The terms Hispanic and Latino are used interchangeably in this report. The terms “white,” “black” and “Asian” refer to non-Hispanics in those racial categories.