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Study finds North Carolina public schools are growing more segregated

Photo by Allison Shelley
The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

A new study by N.C. State University researchers has found that North Carolina public schools are becoming more segregated by race, even as the overall student population becomes more racially diverse.

If your child is white, Black or Asian, they are more likely to attend a school where their own race is over-represented compared to the total state population. This trend comes at the same time that students of color now make up the majority of public school students.

“Over the last decade, our schools in North Carolina have become more diverse, but they have also become more segregated, so we're trending in the wrong direction,” said Jenn Ayscue, the study’s lead researcher.

The report examined the demographics of traditional public schools and public charter schools, compared to data for public schools each decade over the past 40 years.

Note: Other race students include Multiracial and American Indian students. Asian students include Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students.
"Can Our Schools Capture the Educational Gains of Diversity? North Carolina School Segregation, Alternatives and Possible Gains." Jennifer B. Ayscue, Victor Cadilla, Mary Kathryn Oyaga, and Cassandra Rubinstein. May, 2024.
National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD). (2021). Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe (Version 1a) [dataset]. U.S. Department of Education.
Note: Other race students include Multiracial and American Indian students. Asian students include Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students.

Rise of schools that are intensely segregated with students of color

The study defines a school as “intensely segregated” if either 90% of the students are white or 90% are non-white. In Fall 2021, there were more intensely segregated schools of color than in any decade since this series of data began in 1989. Intensely segregated schools with a majority of white students declined in that same period.

“The share of intensely segregated schools of color has increased such that one in four Black students, and nearly one in five Hispanic students in North Carolina attend intensely segregated schools,” Ayscue said.

National Context

This follows a national trend of schools becoming less integrated. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s milestone ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional, initiating years of reforms to integrate schools.

A national report using similar methodology found that the proportion of U.S. public schools that were intensely segregated nearly tripled over the last 30 years.

North Carolina has been a leader in promoting desegregation, in many ways, Ayscue said. She points to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Swann versus Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which allowed for the use of transportation to promote desegregation. Wake County Schools was the first metropolitan school district in the nation to have a socioeconomic-based and achievement-based student assignment plan.

“As a whole, our state has really lost the progress that we made decades ago,” Ayscue said.

School Choice Plays a Role

The North Carolina-based study found that school choice is a contributing factor, because charter schools tend to be more segregated than traditional public schools. In North Carolina, charter schools had the largest share of schools where students of color make up at least 99% of the student body. The study could not account for growing enrollment in private schools and home schools, because demographic data on those students is not publicly available.

Why It Matters

Integrated schools have many benefits to students. Ayscue said decades of research show school diversity is associated with lower dropout rates, higher academic achievement, and a reduction in students' prejudices and stereotypes.

What Can Be Done

The report also makes several policy recommendations for school districts and the state. The authors praise local student assignment plans that prioritize desegregation and break up high concentrations of poverty, pointing to Durham Public Schools “Growing Together” plan as a positive example. The report also recommends schoolwide magnet programs as method that leads to more integration, while being voluntary to families.

On a state level, the authors recommend revisions to the North Carolina school report cards to include measures of desegregation, and charter school reforms that promote integration by requiring the schools to provide transportation and free and reduced-price lunch. They also recommend that the state require private schools that receive state-funded vouchers to report the demographics of their students.

“This can be kind of a disheartening story that kind of comes out of this report, right?” said co-author Victor Cadilla. “And yet… we have a really racially and ethnically diverse population of students, and so we have the building blocks of making schools more racially and ethnically diverse.”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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