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PolitiFact VA: Public schools are more segregated now than in the late 1960s

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott speaks into a microphone
U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) proposed legislation to increase grant funding for school improvement projects in high-poverty areas. While speaking in support of his bill, Scott claimed public schools are as segregated as they were in the 1960s. (File photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

Speaker: U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott
Statement: Public schools are now as segregated by race and class as they were in the 1960s.
Date: May 18
Setting: Committee hearing

The United States is backtracking on integrating public schools, according to Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va).

“Yesterday marks the 68th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down the unlawful school segregation,” Scott said during a May 18 meeting of the House Education & Labor Committee. “Yet, we know public schools are now as segregated by race and class as they were in the 1960s.”

Scott represents Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, spanning Norfolk north through Newport News and west through Isle of Wight County. He’s chairman of the education committee and made the claim about segregation in comments supporting a bill he proposed that would authorize $130 billion in federal grants and loans to high-poverty areas for the improvement of school facilities.

Have public schools resegregated to 1960 levels? A fact check shows Scott is mostly right.

It’s important to note that modern school segregation is not the same as the government-ordered social system that the Supreme Court struck down in 1954. Segregation today refers to the level of isolation of nonwhite students or, conversely, the level of exposure students of different races have to one another in school. 

A problem with Scott’s claim is that it doesn’t hold true for the better part of the 1960s. Despite the Brown decision, Jim Crow laws remained in the South until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1960, 0.1% of Black students in the South — 1 in 1,000 — attended a majority-white school, according to a study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. That increased to 14% in 1967.  

Scott’s statement is on strong legs, however, if the measurement begins in 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court — in a case involving New Kent County, Virginia — ruled that school district integration plans must meaningfully reduce segregation.

“School segregation is now more severe than in the late 1960s,” says a 2020 UCLA report, the latest research we found. 

In 1968, 77% of Black students across the nation attended majority nonwhite schools, the UCLA report said. That sank to 63% in the 1980s, but rose to 81% in 2018, the latest year for which data was available.

A pair of 2020 studies found Central Virginia schools are becoming more segregated as well.

A key reason for the backslide is a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended court-ordered desegregation, which often took the form of busing. The court ruled that school desegregation was a temporary remedy, not a permanent obligation.

Another reason, according to UCLA researchers: “The white birthrate has fallen below the reproduction levels of about a half century ago; consequently, the share of the white population and their school enrollment has sharply declined.”

In 1970, 79% of public school students were white. That fell to 47% in 2018. “This is not because of transfer to private schools, which have a declining share of total enrollment and have themselves become somewhat more diverse,” the report stated. “The white decline reflects historically low birth rates and immigration patterns that are overwhelmingly non-white.”

Black students have comprised about 15% of public school students since 1970. But they are no longer the second largest population of students, as they were until the turn of the century. Latinos grew from 5% of the public school population in 1970 to 27% in 2018. Asian Americans have increased from 0.5% to 6% in that same span.

School segregation is intrinsically tied to the racial gaps in housing and income. The end of court-ordered integration in 1991 led to the reemergence of color lines in school districts. 

“Whereas Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be concentrated in high-poverty schools, Asian students, like their white counterparts, are most frequently found in middle-class schools,” researchers from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth wrote in a 2019 report.

Another team of UCLA researchers found that in 2010, half of the public schools that were 90% or more Black and Hispanic also had a student population that was 90% or more from low-income households. At the time, a low-income student was defined as one who qualified for a free or reduced-price school lunch. Since then, changes to the federal lunch program mean that poverty rates at individual schools can no longer be determined.

Our ruling

Scott said, “Public schools are now as segregated by race and class as they were in the 1960s.”

Scott’s claim doesn’t hold up for most of the 1960s, when Jim Crow still breathed and Southern states circumvented the Supreme Court’s 1954 order to integrate public schools.

But he has a point, if we start in 1968, when 77% of Black students in the nation attended majority non-white schools. That dropped to 63% in the 1980s and then rose to 81% in 2019, the last year data is available. The ups and downs followed Supreme Court decisions that first toughened, then ended, integration mandates.

The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which has extensively studied school integration, wrote in 2020, “School segregation is now more severe than in the late 1960s.” 

So, we rate Scott’s statement Mostly True.

Sources

Bobby Scott, Comments to the House Education and Labor Committee, May 18, 2022 (5:57 mark)health
Email from Stephanie Lalle, communications director for the House Education & Labor Committee, May 24, 2022
U.S. Government Accountability Office, “K-12 Education: Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination,” April 21, 2016
UCLA Civil Rights Project, “Black Segregation Matters,” December 2020
UCLA Civil Rights Project, “Brown at 60,” May 15, 2014
Washington Center for Equitable Growth, “U.S. school segregation in the 21st century,” October 2019
Email from Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of  Educational Leadership, May 27, 2022
PolitiFact Virginia, “American schools are 'more segregated than they were in the 1960s,' says Hillary Clinton,” June 25, 2015
congress.gov, H.R.865, accessed May 31, 2022
House Education & Labor Committee, “Committee Advances Bills to Rebuild America’ Schools, Protect Workers’ Wages, and Address the Mental Health Crisis,” May 18. 2022
Oyez, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 1968.
Oyez, Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell, 1991