Economic segregation in schools has worsened, widening achievement gaps, study says

L.A. students in white lab coats wait to greet a visiting dignitary.
Students from King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science wait to greet U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy during his December campus visit. The well-regarded school has attracted few white students.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The segregation of young students from low-income families — brought on by climbing Latino enrollments and the departure of white and middle-class families — has worsened across the country over a 15-year period, contributing to widening achievement gaps along economic and racial lines, a new study has concluded.

In 2000, the typical child from a family living below the poverty line attended an elementary school where 45% of those enrolled were children from middle-class families. By 2015, that figure fell to 36% nationwide, according to a UC Berkeley and University of Maryland study. Researchers compared data for elementary-school students at more than 14,000 school districts nationwide over a 15-year period, ending in 2015.

“The growing segregation of the haves and have-nots over the past two decades” is particularly concerning in light of other research indicating that students from low-income families make less academic progress as they “come to dominate district enrollments,” said study director Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.


Other research has offered evidence that learning gaps among students have widened further during the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit harder in low-income, predominately Latino and Black communities, where families had fewer resources to respond and recover.

In Los Angeles, white flight wasn’t a significant factor over the period of the study — it had occurred decades earlier in the nation’s second-largest school system, which has 450,000 students. In 2000, the base year of the study, a Latino child in L.A. Unified was likely to attend school with about 5 white students per every 100. That number was unchanged in 2015, the final year of the study.

Similarly, in 2000, an L.A. student from a low-income family was likely to attend school with 13 middle-class students per every 100. By 2015, the number was 14 middle-class students per every 100.

Among the state’s largest school systems Los Angeles was the most isolated, Fuller said. In the study, isolation referred to the lack of diversity at a school, in terms of race, ethnicity or family income.

In L.A. Unified — 3 in 4 students are Latino and 4 in 5 are from low-income families. Among the state’s largest school systems L.A. had the least economic diversity, according to the study.

The study found patterns of increasing segregation 68 years after the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education unanimously outlawed segregated schools.


School systems moving in the direction of racial or economic isolation during the period of the study include those in Des Moines; Montgomery County, Md.; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; and Akron, Ohio.

In Akron, in 2000, a student from a low-income family was likely to be in a school where 26% of students were middle-class. By 2015, that number had dropped to 10%.

Across the nation, forced integration has faded away in court rulings and in legislatures, as have voluntary integration plans based on race.

L.A. Unified continues to operate under a court-ordered desegregation plan that dates back to court battles in the 1960s — and which launched a wave of white and middle-class departures that has a holdover impact into the present. For decades, the integration has been voluntary, based on attracting students across neighborhood borders by offering special academic or “magnet” programs — and free transportation to them.

The success stories include the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies or LACES in Mid-City. The enrollment is 33% Latino, 27% white and 19% Black in a school system that is 74% Latino, 10% white and 8% Black. At LACES, 53% of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch because of low-family income, compared with 80% districtwide.

Although intended largely to boost white enrollment, magnet schools in L.A. Unified draw mainly from Latino and Black students. At the well-regarded King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in Willowbrook, 1% of students are white.


The school system as it exists in 2022 does not have the means to remedy student isolation on its own, said Ana Ponce, executive director of the local advocacy group Great Public Schools Now.

“This is not a school issue or necessarily an educational issue,” Ponce said. “This is an economic issue. This is a systemic issue around living wages, around affordable housing, around access and opportunity for families to be able to live where they would like to live as opposed to where they have to live because of the economic constraints.”

Growing student isolation is directly a product of conscious public policy decisions, said Gary Orfield, a UCLA professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Public housing and subsidized housing, for example, is “overwhelmingly concentrated in segregated school locations,” said Orfield, the editor of a just-released anthology on civil rights and education policy. “People are living where they’re living because there was a decision made about where to enable the rental of subsidized housing to happen.”

And patterns of segregation — dating from when the government mandated or enabled discrimination — change slowly or not at all absent assertive policy to make change happen, Orfield added.

For its part, L.A. Unified must do better at working with families that are “most vulnerable to racial and economic isolation,” said L.A. school board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin. The district must help them make informed enrollment decisions that take into account all potential public-school opportunities, including magnet schools. She added that L.A. Unified also must take stands on public policies — inside and outside of education — that benefit district families.

Fuller said racial and economic isolation will add one more burden as schools work to help students in the wake of the pandemic.


“As educators and policymakers help families recover from the pandemic, they must confront the impact of this deep-seated shift in American society: the isolation of children who already start out way behind,” Fuller said.

He said he worried that “more tutors and one-off summer school will not narrow widening achievement gaps driven by the worsening segregation of poor children. These are the result of deeper shifts in housing patterns, inaction by educators and the ongoing flight of wealthier families.”

Researchers also found some reason for hope.

“Several metropolitan areas, bucking the national trend, host schools that increasingly integrate children with varying economic means, thanks to shifting housing patterns and pro-active efforts by local educators,” according to the researchers. Moreover, about 800 school districts nationwide have rising Latino enrollments with little evidence of white flight.

Moreover, sometimes the ethnic shift brings in middle-class Latino families — retaining a measure of economic diversity.

Locally, Fuller cited Burbank Unified and Culver City Unified as districts with promising practices.

“Burbank stood out as a place that is working to expand dual-language immersion and arts and music programs to attract a variety of families,” Fuller said. “Culver City reportedly works to sustain and attract a diverse array of families. They do show progress in our data.”

Burbank Supt. Matt Hill said the data reflect that “Burbank has amazing schools and great city services... It is no wonder people want to live and go to school here.”


Incoming L.A. Unified Supt. Alberto Carvalho, set to take over this month, has pledged to make L.A. Unified more attractive to families, although the district already has embraced such programs as dual-language immersion, in which students become fluent in more than one language, starting at an early age.